I've been to cons where readers will ask me where I get my stories. My inner Sarcastic Asshole always wants to say, "Why, The Plot Store, of course. Isn't that where all writers go for stories?" I don't say that, ever. I just think it.
The truth is, maybe Shakespeare told original stories, but that was long ago, and people have told millions of stories since then. We're just retelling our version of the same story over and over again.
I've read articles that suggest there are 7 basic plots. Some say there are 36. My feeling, for what that's worth, is that there are 3. In no particular order:
1. The monster: a guy walks into town, kills a bunch of people, then everyone freaks out, but then they rally together, fight the monster (the guy), kill it, and then all is well again. This is basically the plot of every monster movie ever made.
2. The journey. Our [hero, heroine] might be looking for revenge, or treasure, or just a good time. No matter the reason, [he, she] gets into [his, her] [car, horse, spaceship, time travel machine] and races off to get what [he's, she's] looking for. [He, she] usually runs into a lot of trouble along the way and it nearly costs [him, her] [his, her] life. That's the black moment in the story where it seems like all is lost. But then [he, she] figures out how to save the [day, girl, guy, treasure, his honor], does it, and all is well again. Only sometimes it's not. Sometimes [he, she] returns battered and broken, and that's good enough for now.
3. The romance. Guy meets [guy, girl, alien, android]. They get to know each other, make mistakes, cry, break up, get back together, and then all is well. Sometimes.
There is a Wikipedia entry by Christopher Booker that says there are 7 plots. See the article here.
According to Booker, the plots are as follows:
1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
My feeling is that several of these plots can be boiled down further. A rags-to-riches story could be a quest or a voyage-and-return. For the record, I think quest and voyage-and-return are pretty much the same. A comedy or tragedy could be a romance, and rebirth could be part of a quest or a voyage-and-return. But I say that by themselves, comedies or tragedies are not plots, but genres. Your quest or voyage-and-return could be either a comedy or a tragedy.
However many plots you decide there actually are, it should be reasonably clear that there aren't any new ones. All you can do is put your own spin on a story that's already been out there for decades. This makes your job as a writer a little bit easier. You don't need to go to The Plot Store, just pick a story you like and figure out how to make it yours.
This article is also published at Sassy Girls.