Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fiction reduced to 7

Surfing the Internet this week, I stumbled upon an article listing what it claimed were the seven original plots. All works, according to several online sites, have plots that fall somewhere on this list:

1. man vs. nature
2. man vs. man
3. man vs. the environment/society
4. man vs. machines/technology
5. man vs. the supernatural
6. man vs. self
7. man vs. God/religion

I remember being told as an undergraduate that there were 29 original plots. I didn’t think much of it then (and don’t think much about it now), but when I hit the list above I was perplexed. Do all works fit the list?

The classic Greek tragedies are said to feature man in conflict with self, the gods, and/or society. Themes in most novels deemed “crime fiction” run to man vs. man and man vs. self; even justice vs. the legal system, individual and societal greed and corruption.

The more I thought about the list over the past week, the more I have to agree with it. I ran through a bunch of personal favorites, THE BIG SLEEP, THE DANCE HALL OF THE DEAD, even HAMLET, which fits numbers 2, 6, and 7.

So what does it all mean?

If anything, being able to say all fiction is based on the same seven-point scale should only tears down the use of genre tags to separate works. I’m rereading THE GREAT GATSBY right now and must piggyback on the late Robert B. Parker, who often claimed there to be no such thing as genre fiction, just good books and bad ones. If there were such a thing as genre distinctions, he said, then GATSBY is a great crime novel. I’ve always interpreted this quote as a verbal shot at those who belittle books like the ones Parker wrote (and so many of us cherish), books that stress so well numbers 1-7.


peter_may said...

I guess that the trouble with this list, John, is that none of them are actually plots. My dictionary defines "plot" as "the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence". The simplistic bullet points on this list you happened upon on the internet are, at the very best, themes... but pretty vague ones. Imagine presenting your idea to a publisher's editor, or movie producer, and coming up with: It's a really great plot... Man versus nature! I can hear the silence that would follow. Then the slamming of the door behind me. I think you are quite right not to think about the 29 original plots, or even these seven. The writer's gift is to devise and present an interrelated sequence of events that engage the emotions. The rest is all smoke and mirrors - the analyses of academics who wouldn't know what a plot was if it jumped up and bit them in the ass.

Austin said...

Although not so many of us live by it any more, Man Vs. Nature would seem to be at the core of it all.

At least that's what the rest of us Mainers would like the world to believe ;)