Dennis O’Neil: Mark Twain and The Seven Basic Plots
So, instead of trying to be original (and good luck with that, mi amigo) we’re going to delve into the innards of the computer and see what we can haul out.
Ah, what have we here? “Seven Basic Plots.” Okay, that’ll do, but first… a small and probably totally unnecessary spoiler alert: If you’re a person who feels that looking at things like plot lists, taking writing classes, reading how-to-write books will compromise your vision or creativity or wreak some other harm… maybe you should cut out now and return, if you like, next week, when the topic will be completely different, unless it isn’t.
And one more quick caveat: there may be other versions of what follows somewhere and and it’s okay by me if there are. And just one more itsy-tiny observation: what follows the rules are my examples of stories that employed the rule, and you may disagree with my choices and if you do, you have my blessing
Where were we? Oh yeah, the basic plots:
THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS
A. Overcoming Monster
B. Rags to Riches
My Fair Lady
C. The Quest
Lord of the Rings
Raiders of the Lost Ark
D. Voyage and Return
Alice in Wonderland
Wizard of Oz
One of more characters trapped in a dark state. Change of heart/exposure/punishment.
Hero commits some grave offense. Is drawn down and pays the price.
Hero falls under shadow of some dark power, has a miraculous redemption.
If exposure to the foregoing utterly destroyed your magnificent prose masterpiece, I’m sorry. But I did warn you.
And here comes another list, one complied by the great Mark Twain that, I think, originally appeared in an essay on James Fenimore Cooper.
Twain’s Rules of Writing
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.
8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
The author should:
Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
Use the right word, not its second cousin.
Not omit necessary details.
Avoid slovenliness of form.
Use good grammar.
Employ a simple, straightforward style.