The definitive and authoritative guide to the six basic plot lines

I made a comment in my Avatar post that accusations of plot plagiarism are hollow when there are only a limited number of plots to choose from. I set that limit at six. I was called out on that limit and asked to define them. So. Here goes.

  1. Star crossed lovers – an unlikely pair meet from different tribes, nations, species etc but their love is not meant to be and ultimately leads to some sort of sacrifice. Think Romeo and Juliette, Avatar, Samson and Delilah, or any Rom-Com where a loser somehow scores his dream girl from the other side of the social tracks.
  2. Buddy movie – two friends go on a merry adventure – think Milo and Otis, any Jackie Chan comedy, Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3…
  3. The unlikely hero thrust into an equally unlikely situation or sporting event – think The Lord of the Rings, any sporting movie, any movie about superhero (genetic mutations, spider bites etc). Basically the hero has to come to grips with their powers and then choose to say the day. This has been popular since Jesus.
  4. The “betrayal twist” – take the unlikely hero, or the buddy adventure and have the hero be betrayed, or the buddy be betrayed by a buddy – think the Matrix, Mighty Ducks, any story about Julius Caesar, Jesus and Judas etc.
  5. The tragedy – simple recipe – develop characters, get people to like the characters and then unjustly kill the character people like the most with a disease or act of unwarranted evil. Think just about any chick flick that is not a Rom Com. Think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, just about any war movie (unless it’s a buddy movie), or anything written by Shakespeare that wasn’t a comedy. There’s a slight variation where you think there’s going to be a tragedy but the protagonist escapes through a lucky turn of events – like Apollo 13.
  6. The “alien” invasion – where the alien can be any kind of foreign species or a freak act of nature but is often an alien. Chances are an unlikely hero will need to emerge to fight off the aliens. But add something big and ground shaking to the mix and watch everybody deal with the consequences. Think Men in Black, Transformers, Alien, Predator, Alien v Predator, Independence Day, The Perfect Storm, etc…

Just about all of these can be applied to the story of Jesus. Jesus is an alien who comes to earth to be tragically killed following a betrayal by one of his buddies. His ministry involves him using his awesome powers while walking around with his band of merry disciples. He does this all because he loves the world and wants to save it – which is ultimately his downfall. Only it’s actually an untragedy because he comes back to life.

Can you think of any stories not covered by these options? I can’t. Not any that I’d want to watch anyway.

For a different set of “plot types” check out this article that features a few different ways of breaking plots down.


Mika says:


Nathan says:

Would you be categorising Memento based on the order in which it was presented or the actual chronological order of the narrative?


Amnesia/psychosis/memory is almost a plot type in itself – you might remember it from such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Beautiful Mind, 50 First Dates, etc

simone r says:

Love it. I think #6 movies are normally a subset of the #3. Also reckon #3 would be better defined as 'hero movies' . The hero isn't always unlikely – superman, US president… Still the same though – (s)he has to come to grips with his/her powers and save the day.

Andrew says:

or perhaps and anti-hero who suffers a downfall, e.g. Don Giovanni (Don Juan)

Nathan says:

Yeah, although the case could be made that Superman is a version of the Alien Invasion. An extra-terrestrial stranger sent to save us. Just like the Transformers.

Mika says:

Memento: I don't like any of the characters at any point in time. That excludes it from being a tragedy. The details of the story get more fractured, regardless of the order presented. Memento, for me, fits more into the mystery/noir category. The problem for audiences to solve is what's going on; all answers are undercut by the narrative. I have doubts about it being the betrayal twist as well, because it's not clear what's actually going on.

A Beautiful Mind = Unlikely hero, on a personal scale. What he saves is his world, with his wife and son.
Eternal Sunshine = rom com
50 First Dates = rom com

Rom coms, because what's keeping them apart is the amnesia.

queenstuss says:

Amnesia would be a plot device, rather than a plot type.

How about a murder mystery?

I quite like the idea that there is only one basic plot type: set the scene and introduce characters, build to a climax, climax, resolution (a nice happy ending). Most stories (except for a few odd ones that are deemed 'progressive') fit this pattern. It's just the setting, characters and climax that change really. Ha, no wonder I watch so few movies – I think they are all predictably the same.

Nathan Campbell says:

Yes – but “protaganist discovers long lost secrets about themself during a fulfilling journey” would be a description of the kind of plot that takes advantage of that device.

Ben McLaughlin says:

Good list bro. #3 get's worked to death. Something highbrow yet excruciatingly lame like 'As It Is In Heaven' is really just The Mighty Ducks Join The Choir.

Leah says:

#5 is not a plotline. It's a genre. You could have several different plotlines within the context of 'tragedy'.

Also, these are 'types' of plots. Not specific plots. Avatar and Pocahontas, it seems, have pretty much the same plotline. Not just the same type. It's not like they're both merely alien invasions, but the way it is carried out and the roles of specific characters are doubled up between the two movies.

Nathan says:

Your response is a correction not a comment. All your comments fall into that category. They're pretty much the same – you can just substitute a few relevant words from each post. They're all carried out the same way. They're not merely criticisms, they're criticisms on the same hair splitting pedantry.