Recently members of a writers' group to which I belong were discussing a 37-point typology of story plots that was apparently developed in the early 1800s by Georges Polti. Without going into detail regarding Polti's scheme, it seemed to me to be repetitive. For example, I didn't see any great difference between "a story about hating someone you should like" and "stories about hurting someone who turned out to be important to you." It seemed to me that, in discussing the typology of plots, something less complicated and more basic might be more helpful. Interestingly, I am currently reading Leland Ryken's The Literature of the Bible (Zondervan, 1974), in which the author begins by discussing plots that have typified literature from ancient times.
Ryken refers to the composite narrative, or monomyth, that in one phase or another incorporates all plots. The monomyth corresponds to familiar cycles of human experience, such as dawn – zenith – sunset – darkness or birth – triumph – death – dissolution. The monomyth comprises a continuum or cycle of romance – tragedy – anti-romance – comedy. (In these examples Ryken is following an article by Northrop Frye.)
To quote Ryken (page 23): "Romance is literature that describes an idealized picture of human experience. It satisfies our desire for wish fulfillment. Its opposite, anti-romance, presents a world of complete bondage and the absence of anything ideal. A story in which the action descends from romance to catastrophe is a tragedy, and an upward movement from bondage to freedom is comedy. These are the four possible kinds of literary plots, and together they form the circular monomyth that unifies all of literature."
Ryken further lists, on the same page, a number of archetypal motifs that tie into this typology: the journey, the quest, death-rebirth, initiation, and the scapegoat. Obviously a story can easily combine aspects of these motifs, e.g. the hero has to make an arduous journey (literally or, perhaps, figuratively) during which he experiences "initiation," i.e. he passes to a new level of understanding or maturity. Or the hero is a "scapegoat" but experiences "rebirth," i.e. he is vindicated or (as with Jesus) also literally raised from the dead (tragedy to comedy, or anti-romance to romance). But the monomyth and the archetypal motifs it uses seem to be constants in human experience and in literature that reflects it.
As a further thought, in working on my doctoral dissertation (completed 1972) I was asking, "What makes the Bible the Bible?" That is, what about the literature of the Bible made it recognizable as canonical Scripture, even from its first appearance? (I dealt only with the Old Testament.) I found several "theories of the canon." One theory was that Israelite literature was held to be canon because it evidenced a motif of "struggle and victory," i.e. the victory of the Lord and his people over obstacles such as enemies or sin. But on reflection I realized that this theory offered no great insight, since the actual course of historical events often displays this same motif or pattern. If we just write about life we are bound to develop some aspect or theme of the monomyth.