The 7 Types of Plots: Rags to Riches

by Liz Bureman | 19 comments

This post is part of our series exploring Christopher Booker’s theory of plot types in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write StoriesSee type 12345, and 6, and 7.

Everyone loves a success story, especially when it results from years of hard work and the protagonist has struggled from the depths of despair. This story type is so beloved, that it is Charles Booker's second plot type of seven: Rags to Riches.

Rags to Riches

Photo by Andrew Magill

Want to learn more about plot types? Check out my new book, The Write Structure, and learn the hidden principles behind bestselling stories. Click to check out the book.

Rags to Riches is essentially what the American Dream can be condensed to. A child grows up with oppressive living conditions or authority figures, usually in poverty, and overcomes them to end the story with wealth, status, a companion, and usually a kingdom of some kind. Key to the story is a point where the protagonist seems to have achieved success, but it's too early, and he or she isn't ready for it, and everything comes crashing down around them.

A Rags to Riches story, like the Overcoming the Monster story, also has five stages.

Initial Wretchedness at Home and the Call

The introduction to the physical, mental, and/or emotional squalor that is the protagonist's early life. This more than anything else defines our hero from the beginning, since this plot type hinges on the hero's personal growth and maturation. We see the terrible conditions that the protagonist lives through until he/she receives the call to leave, and sets out (or is forced out) into the world.

Out Into the World, Initial Success

Some minor struggles hit our hero, but it looks like everything is coming up roses. Our hero may have already met their prince/princess, and have experienced some victories that foreshadow their future success and glory, but overall, the hero hasn't fully matured yet, so these victories will be short-lived.

The Central Crisis

The “oh crap” moment hits. Some dark figure from the hero's past might return, or the hero might lose their prince/princess, either through physical separation, or from a mental or emotional standpoint. The small victories are stripped away, and the protagonist is at their lowest point in the story.

Independence and the Final Ordeal

No more genies or fairy godmothers; the protagonist has only their wits and strength to pull himself or herself back up. And by golly, it's done with style, with the hero realizing his/her independence and proving to all the haters that he/she is capable and worthy of reaching the final goal. There's a final confrontation with whatever is standing between the hero and the end goal, but we all know how that ends.

Final Union, Completion, and Fulfillment

The hero wins! For real this time, not like the fake-out in stage two. As a reward, the protagonist claims the treasure, kingdom, and local royal stud of the preferred gender.

Disney is especially fond of this plot type, bringing CinderellaAladdin, and The Princess and the Frog to life on the big screen. The early books of the Harry Potter series contain elements of this story type as well. As a reminder, just because a plot type is pervasive does not mean it is bad. We all love fairy tales, and they've been around for ages, and they are clearly not going away anytime soon as long as the Magic Kingdom is still in Orlando. Tweak character goals, or play with different definitions of initial wretchedness; there's room for experimentation in these types.

What are your favorite rags to riches stories?

The Write StructureNeed more plot help? After you practice this plot type in the exercise below, check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. Low price for a limited time!

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Just like we did with Overcoming the Monster, pick one of the five stages of the Rags to Riches plot type and write a scene from that stage for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments and don't forget to comment on the work of your fellow writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.


  1. Karoline Kingley

    For me, “The Count of Monte Cristo” is the ultimate rags to riches story.

    • epbure

      I LOVE The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s one of my top five books of all time, and a great rags to riches story with a good redemption character arc too.

  2. Annette Skarin

    I will say that Pinocchio is my favorite. I grew up reading the original, and I never liked the syrupy Disney version. I liked him because it was about becoming a flesh and blood person, not about getting wealthy, or even popular. The real story was written by Carlo Collodi. The final union when Pinocchio finally realized he was a real boy, he asked, “Where’s my father?” After being reunited with his father, who had created him out of wood, he asked his father to satisfy his curiosity, by asking, “…what’s the cause of all this change? That’s when Pinocchio realized the change came from within himself.

  3. Paul Owen

    Can’t go wrong with Rags to Riches! Well, maybe I could, but I enjoyed the practice anyway:

    I woke up mid-morning, pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, and stepped over debris to my bedroom door. Unlocking it, I stepped out and pulled the door shut. I could hear noises from my mother’s bedroom. Didn’t want to think about that, so I took the stairs down two at a time. The living room was a wreck, again. Beer cans tossed wherever, cigarette butts that almost made it to the ashtray, and were those remnants of a joint or two? What were they doing down here last night? I didn’t want to think about that, either.

    I shut off the blaring TV and tripped over shoes into the kitchen. The sink was full of dishes, smelling ripe by now. I’d deal with those later, maybe. The pantry door was swung open, showing its lack of wares. A partial jar of peanut butter was the only thing worth considering in there. I checked the fridge, and saw about two fingers worth of orange juice in a jug. Wasn’t trusting my stomach with anything in those storage containers.

    Grabbing the jug, the peanut butter, and a spoon, I took the stairs by twos back up to my room. Couldn’t shut the door fast enough to avoid hearing more gleeful noises from down the hall. Sheesh. I locked the deadbolt, which was coming in handy these days considering Mom’s latest boyfriend, Pete, thought anything of value in the house should go straight to the pawn shop or his favorite fence. With a spoonful of peanut butter in my mouth, I reached under the bed for the case. I’d managed to hang onto this guitar for a few months, thanks mainly to the deadbolt.

    I had just finished warming up with some scales and chords, when my cell phone started ringing. I fished it out of my pocket. The screen was cracked, but the part of the number I could read didn’t look familiar anyway. I flipped it open. “Hello?”

    “Is this James?”


    “Hey, James, this is Carl Stegler, from last night. Got a minute to talk?”

    No way! Carl was the manager of a band I’d auditioned for. They were gearing up for a tour, and needed a guitarist quick. Bad timing for the other guy to start rehab.

    “Sure. What’s up?”

    “Gotta talk to you ASAP, man. The other guys liked you and your playing. We want to talk details about hitting the road in a couple of weeks. Are you up for that?”

    “Hell, yeah! When can we get together?”

    And that’s how it started. My chance to get out of this hole and show some people what I could do.

    • Karl Tobar

      Your character certainly is in rags at this point! For the other guitarist, let’s hope it wasn’t his band mates that drove him to the point of needing rehab!

    • Paul Owen

      Haha, yup, it’s going to be an interesting tour

    • Karl Tobar

      By the way, I did like that line about the dishes–“I’d deal with those later, maybe.” I really liked how you added “maybe.” To me that word alone added some depth to his home life.

    • Paul Owen

      Thanks, Karl. It’s funny, because I thought the same thing about adding “maybe”. It seemed to capture the “what’s the point” vibe in that house, in a single word.

  4. Madison

    He put his glass down on the bar and quickly flagged the bartender for another. Who knows how long he had been there? He was almost positive, though, that he saw the same man come through the door twice since he got there. Her voice was ringing, ringing. Murderer. And he was a murderer, indeed, but he did it for love. How could she care so much for someone who cared so little about her? He invested in her. He loved her. She threw him out like it was nothing–like he was nothing.

    He stood in our way, Anna. I thought you would understand.

    Understand what? You killed the only thing that was left of me.

    But what about me?

    What about you? I don’t know you! I don’t know this. The John I know is dead. You’re dead to me.

    Life is like the perfect blueprint. It won’t succeed without every detail. Every event. Every place and journey. Every person. Anna was his life. She didn’t want him. She didn’t know him. He could sell his soul. He could rip every heart out. Nothing mattered to him because he didn’t matter to her. He was living. He was breathing. He was feeling. He was nothing. He wondered what life is when you’re nothing living. Was is possible to be just… there.

    • James Hall

      Is the man contemplating murder? That would bring him into the rags phase. I feel a little lost in the last paragraph, maybe I missed something.

  5. Karl Tobar

    Ah, Liz I was having so much fun with this that when my timer went off, I wrote for five more minutes, but I wasn’t done. But I didn’t want to post too much so I’ll just post what I had so far. 🙂

    “It was during this unjust imprisonment I befriended the night guard. Impressed with my story he agreed to help me. For ten years I suffered in the most inhumane of conditions—a span which I endured torture and near starvation. When this new guard Victor took the overnight I quickly won him over with the great injustice I had been served.

    “I started at the beginning—Chad’s murder of our own father to claim the throne to himself. Fueled by jealousy and the angst of a younger sibling, Chad couldn’t bear to watch me take the throne, nor watch me take ownership of the Palace.
    In all his rage upon learning the inevitable future of Grisham Palace, Chad killed our father and placed the blame on me. Ten years this scandalous deed simmered inside me, in juxtaposition with all the rage and hatred one accrues under the circumstances I have described.

    “This new guard, Victor vowed to me he would help in any way he could. Seeing my malnutrition via my skeletal appearance, he sneaked to me food from “the outside” as it was known to us prisoners. With this food I gained strength
    the likes of which otherwise unattainable through the meager rations a prisoner
    was supplied.

    “Inevitably I asked of Victor, ‘If you so desire to help me, why not simply unlock my cage?’ His reply was thus, ‘Malkiore, from your stories I can assume you are a man of honor. Thus, you can believe that I am, too, and my duty is to the prison. I cannot see you escape under my watch. However, if I were to accidentally mention to you the guard whom you stand the best chance of escape, would that be enough?’ And it was. This guard he spoke of had little discipline and the attention span of a worm. Stood too close to my cage I put to
    use the strength acquired from the “outside” food. I broke his neck, and from his body outside the iron bars I could reach his keys and let myself out. So began my march through the mountainous desert toward the Palace.

    “Swollen feet and blistered from the desert tempest, I ascended the Plattan crest which, at its Apex, would overlook Grisham. Even at night, from the top of the crest, the Palace emanated an aura of life among lifelessness, hope among hopelessness in this wasteland. The structure, gargantuan even from the
    distance of the crest, filled me with a rejuvenating motivation. All I had to do was sneak inside and claim the life of Chad. In his dying breaths I
    would command of him, ‘Sleep now in the bed you have made for yourself.’”

    • R.w. Foster

      Pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind reading more. Is this the start of a story, or is this only going to be your practice?

    • Karl Tobar

      I made up the story for the practice. At this point in the story it’s close to the end, I just need to write the central event of Malkiore sneaking into the Palace and killing his brother. It was kind of supposed to be a story within a story where at the end you find out who he was talking to and what might happen next. I’d just have to finish it.

    • R.w. Foster

      Go for it. You have a least one reader.

    • Paul Owen

      Nice work, Karl. My main comment is, more! Want to read more!

    • James Hall

      I thought it was great. The “throne” in the second paragraph came as a bombshell. Woo, different time frame. Was think a normal modern time frame, not medieval/fantasy.The killing of the guard seems a little random, not enough information for me to feel it was anything but murder.

      It kept my attention. Good Job.

  6. Patrick Marchand

    The bright screen of the computer was shining in the crowded room, Robert turned to his partner, Joseph, and said “So, are you ready?”

    Joseph, with a wink, said “I’m ready when you’re ready!”

    Robert was ready, his whole life had been geared towards this moment, just one click and everything would be different. Crowdfunding was a great way to finally get his independence, but what if it failed? Then he would have to go work for that ashole Emmet again.

    That. Could. Not. Happen.

    So, taking a deep breath, Robert clicked on the link, thus launching his budding company into a whole new world. He turned to the team and said “Get to your posts gang, we are live!”

    It had been two hours and there had not been one single pledge. Robert threw a quick glance around the room, hoping that nobody would catch his worried glance. He could see that everybody was hard at work at their posts, working on his brainchild, some of them would wipe beads of sweat of their foreheads from time to time, was it that hot? He could not tell. Nervously, he thought about Emmet and how the deceitful publisher would react if he had to come crawling back.

    And then there was a pledge.

  7. James Hall

    Another broken dish, another night full of shouting, she could handle it. He would come around. Sometime. The drinking would stop and he would, again, be the man she had married. The man she loved.

    So she told herself as the front door slammed open and her husband entered with a near-empty bottle of whiskey in his hand. A cold breeze blew in, one that chilled her to the bone. It seemed like minutes before the door shut again. He stumbled into the room and gazed at her. Those empty wandering eyes, void of happiness and void of love. He polished off the last of his whiskey before he spoke.

    “What’s for dinner?”

    “I cooked a couple of steaks and whipped up some taters.”

    “Mmmm, sounds good,” he spattered, reeling into the kitchen. First, he went to the cabinets, digging around.

    “What are you looking for?”

    “Some Bourbon around here somewheres.”

    “You drank it last night.”

    “Can’t enjoy a steak without a little Bourbon. Run down to the liquor store and pick me up some,” his tone demanding.

    “A little? It’s past midnight, I’m not going out for-” She stopped herself.

    “If you got something to say why don’t you say it?” He moved towards her, his tone threatening.

    She held her chin up. She had to know who would win, the liquor or her. “I think you’ve had enough to drink.”

    He slapped her and she fell to the floor. She tried to get away from him, but he had her pinned to the ground before she could move. Hitting her and hitting her.

    She lay crying on the floor for an hour after he left. The cuts and bruises on her face painful to the touch. She knew she had reached her limit. She knew he would fall asleep, but this time, she wouldn’t be there when he woke up.

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