“The eight plots all movies are based on?” You mean plots aren’t limitless? There’s not an endless supply of plots? No. There are only a small collection of plots in all of plot-dom, and everything else is merely permutations and combinations of them. According to Irish playwright Denis Johnston (1901–1984), there are only eight.
These plots can be presented in endlessly different forms—tragedy, comedy, farce, whodunit, and flipped and inverted—but they remain the building blocks of all story-telling in movies.
Because think about it: How many plots can there really be? There are only so many situations that humans, family, friends, community, can find themselves in. Here are the eight categories, and examples of movies based on these particular plots.
The 8 Plots All Movies Are Based On
1) Unrecognized Virtue at Last Recognized.
This would encompass the fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare,” and the fairy tales of “Cinderella” and “The Ugly Duckling.”
What’s universal is that the good is initially down-trodden and disrespected, but eventually recognized, acknowledged, and ultimately lauded. An excellent example of this, in movies, is “Eddie the Eagle“:
2) The Fatal Flaw
The Fatal Flaw is the foundation for most classical tragedies, although it can be exist as comedy too. Some aspect—physical, emotional, or mental—of a character, leads to their death or downfall.
Achilles’s heel is the classic example. Another classic is Icarus being smart enough to manufacture wings made of wax, but his fatal flaw—hubris—goads him to fly too close to the sun, melting the wax, and plummeting him, fatally, to earth. In comedy, while Daffy Duck’s defining characteristic is selfishness, his fatal flaw is recklessness. In “The Hobbit,” the dragon Smaug has a naked chink in his impenetrable armor of scales:
3) The Debt That Must Be Paid
The fate that catches up with all of us sooner or later. The debt that must be paid. Characters either go on a quest to pay a debt or endure great suffering because they do not pay their debt. This is the basis of all gambling movies. The classic tale is Goethe’s “Faust,” who makes a deal with the devil. Robert Johnson, the well-known legend has it, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, in order to be able to play the blues bewitchingly well. That’s a debt Robert may be paying right now.
In “Sicario,” a cartel boss brutally murders the wife and daughter of the titular Sicario, which means hit-man; a tremendously bad choice of person for an individual to incur debt to.
4) The Love Triangle
The standard triangular plot of two women and one man, or two men and one woman. Most French farce has this set-up. Shakespeare’s got plenty of it.
Here’s the young Robert Downey, Jr., trapped between the lovely Heather Graham, and the very cute Natasha Gregson Wagner (Robert Wagner’s daughter). Being a naughty young player, he’s trying to not just date both of them, but actually be in relationships with them. They’ve not heard of each other. They show up at his Soho apartment at the same time. It’s so effective that the screenwriter just slapped on the incredibly lazy title, “Two Girls and a Guy.”
5) The Spider and the Fly
This story archetype is from the predatory sorceress Circe, from “The Odyssey.” Basically, a trap is laid, and the unwitting fly falls in. In “Othello,” Iago lays a jealousy trap for Othello, causing the Moorish general to kill his wife Desdemona in a fit of jealous rage.
Here’s the greatest stage actor of all time, Laurence Olivier, as “Othello,” with young Maggie Smith as Desdemona. She’s currently the venerable Dame Maggie Smith, who played Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, as well as Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey:
6) Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Either Gets, or Doesn’t Get, Girl
Four are movies where boy gets girl: “The Graduate”: Dustin Hoffman’s character, by ruining her wedding. “Spiderman“: Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker, by not being himself. “Twilight”: Robert Pattinson’s character, by being sparkly. “Say Anything “: John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler, by holding a radio over his head for a long time.
If you’ve ever done yoga or qigong, you know how challenging it is to hold your arms over your head this long, even without an ’80s boombox. But if you want to get the girl, you must do a great thing in her presence. Here’s the classic example:
7) The Gift Taken Away
In the German fairy tale that has become the foundation of the modern international mytho-poetic men’s movement, “Iron John,” the prince loses his gift, a golden ball and has to get it back out of the cage of the giant hairy Wildman (who represents powerful, mature masculinity). How? By stealing the cage-key from under his mother’s pillow (mothers will subconsciously always withhold this key from their little boys).
This is a metaphor for how to get our original, perfect selves back, by facing our fears. Also a metaphor for accessing the inner wildman by rebelling against being mommy’s good little boy, and thus becoming a man with the wherewithal to reclaim one’s gold. It’s the quintessential Hero’s Journey.
The prime movie example of getting something precious taken away is so powerful, that again, the screenwriter got lazy and just wrote “Taken”—as the title of a story about a former CIA black ops agent whose daughter gets taken by human traffickers.
8) The Hero Who Cannot Be Kept Down
Top Gun. The lead character’s partner gets killed. He feels responsible. His self-confidence spirals down from high-flying F-14 Tomcat fighter-jet glory, into the depths of the deep, dark ocean. His girlfriend tells him he’s a quitter. Here, he has the elder-talk that sets the hero back on the path to victory.
It is said that a goldfish’s memory is so short, that by the time it swims once around it’s fishbowl, by the time it passes the little plastic castle in the sand again—it believes it’s seeing it for the first time. Like Ellen Degeneres’s intensely forgetful fish character Dory in “Finding Nemo.”
Human memories are thankfully longer. But although history repeats itself because humans forget, forgetfulness is not why we listen to stories based on the same plots repeatedly. Human existence is limited and finite, but paradoxically, within the limited can be found the infinite. And this infinite variation is why we go watch the same plots in movies over and over again and feel we’re experiencing something new. Like shifting kaleidoscope images. Always different. But it’s all the same pieces of colored glass. 8 plots. That’s it.