Story Telling review: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
There is a cliché in story telling that there can be only a handful of basic plots in the entire canon of Western literature. Former Spectator columnist and “Private eye” founder Christopher Booker has written a 700-plus-page analytical study on these plots using age old stories and Jungian focused archetypes.
Booker makes the most phenomenal and logical connections between seemingly disparate stories that span different ages and language. Can you imagine that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws copied the storyline of Beowolf, or that Doctor No is basically a James Bond retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh? What does the Rime of the Ancient Mariner have in common with the parable of the Prodigal Son? What does Pilgrim’s Progress have in common with Watership Down? Antony and Cleopatra with Star Wars?
Booker also suggests that storytelling serves to pass along life lessons and models from ancestors to their successors. As a result the basic lessons have coalesced over time into seven basic plot frameworks that have formed the primary model for storytelling into the present day.
These seven plots are as follows:
(1) Overcoming the Monster — Stories like Beowulf, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, Jaws, and many of the James Bond films, where a hero must defeat a monster and restore order to a world that has been threatened by the monster’s presence.
(2) Rags to Riches — These stories feature modest, generally virtuous but downtrodden characters, who achieve a happy ending when their special talents or true beauty is revealed to the world at large. Includes any number of classics such as ‘Cinderella’, David Copperfield, and the Horatio Alger novels.
(3) The Quest — A hero, often accompanied by sidekicks, travels in search of a priceless treasure and fights against evil and overpowering odds, and ends when he gets both the treasure and the girl. The Odyssey is a classic example of this kind of story.
(4) Voyage and Return — Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, other stories of normal protagonists who are suddenly thrust into strange and alien worlds and must make their way back to normal life once more.
(5) Comedy — Not always synonymous with humour. Instead, the plot of a comedy involves some kind of confusion that must be resolved before the hero and heroine can be united in love. Think of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Marriage of Figaro, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan, and even War and Peace.
(6) Tragedy — As a rule, the terrible consequences of human overreaching and egotism. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Julius Caesar, Anna Karenina…this category is usually self-evident.
(7) Rebirth — The stories of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mary Lennox would fall into this basic plot type, which focuses on a threatening shadow that seems nearly victorious until a sequence of fortuitous (or even miraculous) events lead to redemption and rebirth, and the restoration of a happier world.