Basic Plot Patterns in Literature

Basic Plot Patterns in LiteratureSeveral researchers have attempted to categorize basic plot patterns in literature. William Foster-Harris thinks stories can be sorted into three basic patterns. Ronald B. Tabias theorizes 20 Master Plots. Georges Polti writes about The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Kurt Vonnegut  argues that all stories can be outlined into one basic shape. Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories outlines seven plots. 

So just how many basic plots are there? Everyone has a different opinion.


Common Core

What do upper elementary students need to know? Common Core provides nine literature standards for each grade level. Listed below are the ones specific to theme and plotting stories. 

Fourth Grade 

    Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.
    Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).
    Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.

Fifth Grade

    Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
    Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
    Compare and contrast stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories) on their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Sixth Grade

    Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
    Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.
    Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

The Plan

Over the next four months, I am writing a series of blog posts. Posts will be based on the seven basic plots outlined by Christopher Booker. These include:

  • overcoming the monster
  • rags to riches
  • the quest
  • voyage and return
  • comedy
  • tragedy
  • rebirth

The purpose of these posts is not to classify all literature into seven basic plots. Instead, these posts will help students better understand plot structure. Each post will contain an organizer. 

Each organizer will explain one basic plot. Students will outline the plot. Examples will be given. Students will learn to identify some common themes. Terms will be defined. Basic structures for specific genres will also be included. Discussion questions will help students dig deeper. 

Two to three posts will go live each month. Download the handout for dates and links to these posts.  After all seven plots have been explained, the final post in the series will contain two activities to use with students. Look for these posts beginning August 13. The final post in this series will run in November. This should allow time for routine practice throughout the school year.

Handout for this PostFREE Organizers to Teach Basic Plot Structures in LiteratureI hope you have a fantastic year! Enjoy reading.

Gay Miller

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