By David E. Sharp
Storytelling follows predictable patterns. Most plots fit into a handful of archetypal structures. This phenomenon has inspired readers to speculate how many stories actually exist. Aristotle boiled it down to two. Georges Polti placed the number as high as thirty-six. A digital tool known as the Hedonometer analyzes the emotional shape of stories and supports Kurt Vonnegut’s assertion there are six basic plots. However, the number that appears most often is Christopher Booker’s idea of seven stories making up nearly all storydom.
Here to help me demonstrate these seven basic plots are that famous trio of celebrity swine, the three little pigs!
Plot #1. Overcoming the Monster
A horrifying individual threatens the land as a literal or figurative monster in this plot. A hero rises against it. Let’s watch as the story unfolds.
Brickshaw, the eldest and wisest of the pig brothers, receives word that his brothers Stickfield and Strawkowski are dead, their houses destroyed by gale-force winds. Could rumors of a horrible wolf with better-than-average lung capacity be true? Brickshaw has little time to ponder before Big Bad himself appears at the door. Despite some impressive huffing and puffing, the wolf cannot blow down the brick house. At a stalemate with his prey, the monster retreats to his lair.
The townspigs cheer, but their enthusiasm is darkened by the knowledge that they will never be safe while the wolf still lives. King Swineberg declares Brickshaw must hunt down the monster and destroy him. Brickshaw hesitantly agrees. He builds a suit of brick armor and arms himself with a brick sword and shield. King Swineberg holds a feast for him before sending him off. His wise mother approaches him, who tells him he is taking the brick thing way too far. She tells him to stop slouching, complains that the king’s food is bland, and packs a pepper shaker in his sack lunch.
It takes Brickshaw a while to travel to the wolf’s lair because he’s wearing bricks. The wolf is waiting. Equipped with a sledgehammer, Big Bad prepares to do some proper demo. The ensuing battle is epic. Fragments of brick are flying everywhere. Sounds of huffing and puffing rise into the night. Finally, his armor broken, Brickshaw remembers his mother’s wisdom. He produces the shaker and flings pepper into the air. Big Bad huffs it straight into his expansive lungs and launches into a coughing fit so violent he explodes with gratuitous Hollywood pyrotechnic effects.
Brickshaw returns, a hero. King Swineberg grants Brickshaw plenty of land, money, and power. He meets a lovely sow who is super into masonry. Her name is Adobe. More on her later.
Plot #2. Rags to Riches
These stories feature ordinary people of humble origins rising to success and financial security. Typically, they are worthy of having those things more than corrupt rulers, wicked step-siblings, or children who misbehave while touring chocolate factories.
The only thing Strawkowski enjoys more than subpar construction efforts is food. How he rues his porcine existence because he will never be allowed to taste bacon. In some ways, he cannot blame the wolves for their attempts to eat him. But he pinches his pennies and finally purchases a slab of bacon substitute in hopes of tasting the forbidden delight without becoming a cannibal.
Alas, the smell of that sizzling bacon draws the Big Bad Wolf to Strawkowski’s door. The ensuing huff, puff, and blow scatter straw everywhere and leave a pungent scent of halitosis in the air. The wolf mistakes the slab of faux-pork for a dead pig, devours it, and hurries on to find his next victim. Strawkowski lives!
Strawkowski purchases more vegan pork substitutes and fashions them into a pig-shaped decoy. He patents his culinary invention and makes a fortune selling them to the swine community. Of course, the Big Bad Wolf meets his end in Plot #1, but Stawkowski’s decoy pigs lead all the little bad wolves away from the land. Strawkowski becomes so wealthy that he builds a glamorous mansion entirely out of straw. His brother, Brickshaw, visits, shocked to find him still alive and doing quite well. Strawkowski lives happily ever after until the next blustery day.
Plot #3. The Quest
These tales involve adventures to acquire (or, in Frodo Baggins’s case, dispose of) something of great value. Most of the time, the villains want it too, which is a tried-and-true drama recipe.
When he knocks over Stickfield’s house, the wolf is so hungry that he swallows Stickfield whole. Stickfield befriends a lovely girl in a red cloak, also in the wolf’s stomach. In the bleakness of the wolf’s digestive tract, Stickfield has a great vision. In a distant land, upon a crystal pedestal, enclosed in a dark forest, there sits a MacGuffin that will protect the land forever.
A huntsman frees Stickfield and Little Red from the wolf’s stomach. Big Bad escapes, only to meet his explosive fate in Plot #1. Liberated from his stinky prison, Stickfield knows he must seek the MacGuffin. He sets off, his staff in hand, and wonders what a MacGuffin is. He soon comes across some wild boars, wearing black cloaks, wielding razor-sharp tusks, and they’re probably undead too. They also want the MacGuffin.
Stickfield battles monsters, nazis, and tax auditors. He gains and loses allies along the way. (Okay, he claims the gingerbread man had an “accident,” but we’re pretty sure Stickfield just ate him.) Finally, he arrives in the dark clearing. There he discovers the huntsman was following him all along. He followed Stickfield to steal the MacGuffin! It was he who trained the undead boar wraiths. An epic struggle ensues, ax versus stick. Stickfield’s staff is destroyed, but he clubs the huntsman over the head with his newfound confidence. Realizing evil forces will never stop searching for the MacGuffin, Stickfield leaves it in the safekeeping of Little Red and her Grandmother.
Plot #4 Voyage and Return
These tales involve characters visiting a strange and magical place that offers new insights into their own lives.
Strawkowski stuffs himself on faux bacon one night and falls into a fever dream. In the dream, he discovers a land of tiny wolves. They are terrified at the appearance of a giant pig. Once he convinces them he does not eat wolves, they embrace him into their society and tell him of the terrible pig bandits. The latter steals their food and ransacks their houses. When Strawkowski witnesses these same raids, he realizes that pigs can be just as big and bad as wolves. He aids his new friends to chase off the raiders. In return, a tiny wolf cub pinches him to rouse him from his dream and return him to his world.
Strawkowski awakes from his dream with a newfound appreciation for all creatures. He discusses the matter with his brothers, drawing up terms of peace with the wolf community. A golden age dawns where wolf and pig may walk side-by-side, eating substitute bacon on a stick.
Plot #5 Comedy
These stories are not defined by humor but by a structure in which characters eventually overcome misconceptions, excessive behaviors, or personal shortcomings to achieve a happy ending. Still better if they’re funny, though.
Stickfield returns. Believed dead and bearing a striking resemblance to his brothers, he is soon mistaken for Brickshaw. His experiences have given him effortless charm. He has a flirtatious encounter with Adobe, with whom his brother is enamored but too awkward to woo. Later, Adobe runs into the real Brickshaw and seems way more into him than usual. Brickshaw has no idea what he has done right but manages to land a date.
His nerves get the better of him, and the date goes south. He spills wine on Adobe’s dress. He stumbles while trying to order in French, never mind they were eating at an Italian restaurant. And he can’t think of anything better to talk about than cinder blocks.
The next day Stickfield stops by. Brickshaw, overcome with joy that his brother is alive, figures out the confusion with Adobe. Brickshaw convinces Stickfield to take Adobe on a second date, posing as Brickfield, to set the relationship back on track. Stickfield agrees, and Brickshaw attends the date vicariously using a hidden microphone and an earpiece. Hilarity ensues. There is a whole scene involving fake mustaches and a running gag about a snail who is all hopped up on caffeine. Anyway, Adobe figures it out and walks out on the date, furious about the deception.
Brickshaw’s only course of action is to boar up and go talk to her. He speaks from his heart, and Adobe likes him for who he really is. Turns out, she’s got this whole thing for cinder blocks, and she spills wine on her clothes all the time anyway, so she’s used to it. The wedding is beautiful despite the awkward incident at the reception where some random gingerbread guy accuses Stickfield of murdering his brother.
Plot #6 Tragedy
Tragedy is defined by a hero’s undoing. While the hero may still accomplish a goal, an inner flaw has the final say.
King Swineberg has no heir. He is so pleased with Brickshaw’s work he bequeaths the honor to him. Brickshaw and Adobe are elated. However, the king has an unfortunate gift for longevity. On top of that, he is an inept ruler. His every decision calls for massive damage control that falls heavily on the shoulders of Brickshaw and Adobe.
A trio of pig witches appears, speaking in thick Scottish brogues. They suggest Brickshaw could speed up the process. Within a week, Swineberg is found dead in the garden where a brick has fallen on his head. Brickshaw and Adobe prove influential rulers despite the guilt that haunts them. They are so effective. In fact, they believe they should rule the neighboring wolf kingdom as well.
They declare war.
Strawkowski is distraught. He marvels at the change that has overcome his brother. He and Stickfield investigate the murder of King Swineberg. Brickshaw discovers them snooping and imprisons Stickfield. Strawkowski flees to the wolf kingdom.
Brickshaw discovers Adobe desperately trying to scrub the red wine stains from her dresses, shouting, “Out damned spot,” because the blood-like colors ignite her conscience. Have they become the villains in this story? They have one last chance to come to their senses and call the whole thing off, but this would not be a tragedy if they did that. Their lust for power propels them.
Strawkowski tells the wolves about a secret entrance into the city. They invade, free Stickfield, and Strawkowski has a final confrontation with his brother. Strawkowski prevails. Brickshaw and Adobe are banished to an island where the only building materials are sticks and straw to live out their days.
Plot #7 Rebirth.
These are the stories of people in a fallen state who discover their own flaws and change for the better. Think of this as the Scrooge effect.
Brickshaw is old and embittered. The grass huts of the tiny island pigs disgust him, reminders of his brother’s shoddy architecture. They are so fragile he can blow them down after a single huff-and-puff. Blowing down the grass huts becomes his favorite pastime. His lung capacity grows every day.
Adobe shuns him. He is no longer the pig she loved. She has taken to building sandcastles and watching solemnly as the tide devours them. She resents that he torments the island pigs. Having had enough, she heads to the cave that has become their domicile and digs through the single suitcase of belongings they were allowed from the old kingdom. Nostalgia for better days overwhelms her.
Brickshaw returns to the cave to find Adobe waiting for him. Without a word, she places the old pepper shaker in his hand. Memories of his confrontation with the Big Bad Wolf send chills through his bones. Has he become the very monster he once vanquished. His huffs and puffs have become so strong they rival anything he had experienced at the hands of his old foe.
Disgusted with himself, he determines to put the pepper shaker to use one more time. He climbs a cliff overlooking the sea. There, he unscrews the cap and prepares to inhale the entire pepper contents in one huff. Just before he takes his fateful breath, he notices stormclouds on the horizon. An oncoming monsoon will destroy the island village and drown its inhabitants. Dusting off his compassion, Brickshaw drops the pepper shaker and runs for the town.
He arrives to find the island pigs staring at the brewing storm with trepidation. He plants his feet on the beach and steels his nerves. He huffs and puffs like he had never huffed or puffed before. Then he blows the storm away with such a blast of breath even the ghost of Big Bad is impressed.
The village is saved. Brickshaw is a hero once again. Adobe throws her arms around him and says, “That’ll do, Brickshaw. That’ll do.” They live out the rest of their days with a newfound appreciation for life and thatched-roof huts.