The 7 Archetypal Plots That All Movies Are Based On

March 1, 2016 Updated: March 12, 2016
British actors Lily James (L) and Richard Madden (R) pose for photographers on the red carpet ahead of the UK premiere of the film 'Cinderella' in central London on March 19, 2015. (Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)
British actors Lily James (L) and Richard Madden (R) pose for photographers on the red carpet ahead of the UK premiere of the film ‘Cinderella’ in central London on March 19, 2015. (Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)

Stories are limitless, right? There’s an endless supply of plots? Wrong. There are only seven plots in all of plot-dom, and everything else is based on them. No way! Yes way. Only seven? Well, according to Irish playwright Denis Johnston (1901–1984) there are, in fact, 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.

The prime movie example of getting something precious—taken away—is so powerful that the screenwriter got lazy and just wrote: “Taken.”

Because think about it: how many stories can there be? There are only so many situations that humans, family, friends, community, can experience, along with the permutations and combinations thereof.

Here are the eight categories, and examples of movies that tell these particular tales.

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. The latest 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’ heel is the classic example. Another classic was Icarus being smart enough to manufacture wings made of wax, but his fatal flaw—hubris—goaded 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. The basis of all gambling movies of course. 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 ol’ 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 bad young player man, 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 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 stupid 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 the beautiful young Maggie Smith as Desdemona—she’s currently the rather-a-bit-older-now, Dame Maggie Smith, who plays Professor Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter, as well as Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey:

6) Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Either Gets, or Doesn’t Get, Girl

Four movies where boy gets girl: “The Graduate:” Dustin Hoffman, by ruining her wedding. “Spiderman:” Toby Maguire, by not being himself. “Twilight:” Robert Pattinson, by being sparkly. “Say Anything:” John Cusack, by holding a radio over his head for a long time.

If you’ve ever done Qi-Gong, 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 boy loses his gift, the golden ball, and has to get it back out of the cage of the big hairy Wildman by stealing the cage-key from under his mother’s pillow.

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 a good boy (like mommy taught us) and thus becoming a man with the wherewithal to reclaim one’s gold. 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 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.