This is the question answered by Christopher Booker in his book ‘The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories’. Booker’s theory is that all stories, whether it’s Cinderella or Lord of the Rings can essentially be boiled down to seven basic elements:
1. Overcoming the monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
Some stories are simple. 'The Queen's Knickers' for example (see left sidebar) is a story about a quest (with a sprinkling of comedy). But plots can overlap, says Booker, and more complex stories can often incorporate multiple elements. Lord of the Rings, for example, probably includes all seven.
For fans of the minimalist, some argue that all stories stem from a very few basic plots or that they all essentially stem from conflict. Foster-Harris (The Basic Patterns of Plot) posited three basic plots: ‘Happy ending’, ‘unhappy ending’ and what they called ‘The Literary plot’, one that hinges on fate rather than decision and may start with the critical event, and then unwind in an inevitable, often tragic way.
Seven is also a number that the Internet Public Library has come up with. Following the conflict theory, they are:
1. [wo]man vs. nature
2. [wo]man vs. man
3. [wo]man vs. the environment
4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
6. [wo]man vs. self
7. [wo]man vs. god/religion
According to Ronald Tobias, 20 seems about right. (‘Twenty basic plots and how to build them’). In fairness, he doesn’t suggest that these are the only twenty, but his list is somewhat generic nonetheless: quest, adventure, pursuit, rescue, escape, revenge, riddle, rivalry, underdog, temptation, metamorphosis, transformation, maturation, love, forbidden love, sacrifice, discovery, wretched excess, ascension, and decision.
And there’s even one theory which has 36 as it’s number (George Polti, The Thrity Six Drammatic Situations). I'm not going to list all 36 here, but it seems inevitable that with so many potential story types, the degree of overlap perhaps lessens the meaning of differentiating them in the first place. An 'Ask Yahoo' question I saw touches on this subject:
'"Rocky" is a story of the "underdog," who goes through a "transformation" and falls in "love" while on a "quest." We're not sure, but we think "Dude, Where's My Car?" touches on at least 16.'
So are there really a limited number of stories? My preference is for the economy of Booker’s list, but I can't help feeling that this is trying to classify the unclassifiable. If all life can be captured in seven basic stories, where’s the magic in that?