Almost two years ago, I wrote an article on the most common character story arcs, as stemming from a lecture by the great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut. This week, I will offer some continuity to that by detailing a few popular stories in their overall thematic, rather than the micromanagement of the main character’s role in them. Naturally, these seven are not 100% inclusive, but an overwhelming majority of films should fall under one of them. Christopher Booker also detailed seven basic plots, divided by their analysis in Jungian psychological meaning terms, but the ones presented here are a bit different.
This can be interpreted both ways – the success may characterise much of the story, or it may only capture the essence of the finale as the main takeaway. Much of the happenings in The Godfather incur great loss and misery for the Corelone family, but in the end, Michael orchestrates a successful takeover of New York. Other films, like The Social Network, develop on an ever-ascending path of success. Other notable examples might be Nightcrawler, Forrest Gump and Rocky.
Another category of movies may have mixed development lines, but ultimatelly, the quest of the main heroe(s), or the quest involving them, ends in failure. Again, it’s debatable whether or not we take the overwhelming majority of the film’s plot (Steve Jobs revolves around three botched Apple product launches, but in the end and much later, success is achieved), or the ending – in which case, Braveheart, The Ghost Writer and Buried are good candidates. Others are completely grim all the way through, such as Requiem for a Dream. And then, we have the mixed ones – in Philomena, the main characters find what they are looking for, but not exactly in the result they wanted.
Revenge flicks are quite popular – the main character usually has a strong motive to engage in such behaviour, once he or she is persuaded or persuades himself/herself to follow a certain path. Gladiator, Oldboy, Kill Bill, Django Unchained, Cape Fear, Gangs of New York and Leon: The Professional are good examples. Most of them are action-packed, which makes them entertaining, if a little bit cheesy.
4. Love and/or loss
Of course, we can include every love story ever written in this category. If we also place the perspective of loss, and how such emotions complicate affectionate feelings, we are left with a narrower but perhaps more complex bunch of results. Philadelphia, The Descendants, Message in a Bottle, August Osage County, The Notebook, Mystic River are all good examples, and The Fountain perhaps encompasses everything regarding this subject.
5. A search for something and/or someone
Many films involve a search for people (Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode IV, the missing boy in Prisoners) or objects (various artifacts in the Indiana Jones franchise). However, in others, the search may be defined in more abstract terms: purpose (Boyhood), meaning (Fight Club, American Beauty), place (Donnie Darko) or sexual identity (Moonlight). As long as a search is involved, whether or not it is direct, we can classify the film in this category.
6. Mistaken identity
These usually make for great mystery and thrillers projects, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Shutter Island and Total Recall, but can also be hilarious comedies, such as Galaxy Quest, The Big Lebowski, and, perhaps one of my great favourites of all time, Life of Brian. The case of mistaken identity can be either readily apparent from the start, or can be subsequently deduced via a plot twist or similar mechanism.
7. Voyage and return
The classic story of Odysseus, adapted into many different tales of voyage – the ever-changing circumstances and variety of places and people that the main characters come across, combined with a multitude of different situations to tackle, change them along the way and make them ‘grow’ and become someone else upon their return. This often makes viewing the starting point with very different eyes, in spite of its constance. Good examples might be Into The Wild, A Straight Story, Tracks, The Darjeeling Limited, or Master and Commander.