At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another, they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images that we call a story.
A terrifying, all-powerful, life-threatening monster whom the hero must confront in a fight to the death. An example of this plot is seen in Beowulf, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dracula.
Rags to riches: Someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is shown to have been hiding a second, more exceptional self within. Think the ugly duckling, Jane Eyre and Clark Kent.
The quest: From the moment the hero learns of the priceless goal, he sets out on a hazardous journey to reach it. Examples are seen in The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Voyage and return: The hero or heroine and a few companions travel out of the familiar surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first. While it is at first marvellous, a shadow intrudes and there is a sense of increasing peril. After a dramatic escape, they return to the familiar world where they began. Alice in Wonderland, The Time Machine, and Avatar are obvious examples; Brideshead Revisited and Gone with the Wind less so.
Comedy: Following a general chaos of misunderstanding, the characters tie themselves and each other into a knot that seems almost unbearable; however, to universal relief, everyone and everything gets sorted out, bringing about the happy ending. Shakespeare’s comedies come to mind, as do Jane Austen’s perfect novels.
Tragedy: A character through some flaw or lack of self-understanding is increasingly drawn into a fatal course of action that leads inexorably to disaster. King Lear, Madame Bovary, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bonnie and Clyde—all flagrantly tragic.
Rebirth: There is a mounting sense of threat as a dark force approaches the hero until it emerges completely, freezing the hero in its deadly grip. Only after a time, when it seems that the dark force has triumphed, does the reversal take place, redeeming the hero, usually through the life-giving power of love. Many fairy tales take this shape; also, works like Silas Marner and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Why all this is interesting to writers
Although it may seem reductive to restrict all narrative to these seven basic plots, it is actually quite instructive. Not only can you use them as building blocks, combining different plotlines in various ways, but you can keep better artistic control of your work by using similar classic stories as a guide. Knowing what’s come before and why such stories remain compelling will only help you produce more broadly appealing stories and perhaps keep you from going astray.
Today, we are bombarded with stories in all kinds of forms—not just the books we chose the read and the films we pay to watch, but in the news, on TV shows, radio, YouTube, and those ubiquitous blogs. It is even becoming commonplace for business to look for the ‘story’ they want to tell when writing reports and tenders!
Of course, there are extensive areas of overlap between one type of plot and another. Indeed, there are many stories that are shaped by more than one basic plot at a time, and others that are shaped by only part of such a plot. It’s Booker’s theory that some stories fail to fully meet the parameters of a particular plot, which leaves the reader with a sense of dissatisfaction that something has somewhere gone adrift. Looking closely at these imperfect stories can help writers know which stories work and why.
In this way, subscribing to Booker’s seven basic plots should be seen as something liberating: identifying what the story is lets you get on with how you’re going to tell it. Just as syntax offers building blocks for creating interesting passages, these basic plots provide the language for creating fascinating narratives.
Yet, Booker’s point goes deeper. It is his belief that by becoming more familiar with the nature of the “shaping forms and forces” that lie beneath the surface of stories, by pushing them into patterns and directions beyond the storyteller’s conscious control, we find ourselves entering a realm to which recognition of the plots themselves proves only to have been a gateway. Booker asserts that we are in fact uncovering nothing less than a kind of hidden, universal language: we arrive at the heart of what stories are about and why we tell them.
According to the British journalist and author Christopher Booker, our passion for stories and storytelling begins from a faculty that is so much part of our lives we fail to see it as extraordinary: our ability to imagine. To bring up to our conscious perception the image of things that are not actually in front of our eyes is a thrilling talent, something so ingrained in the human psyche that it may be used to define what humans are. And if this ability to conjure stories is ingrained, then, for Booker, so is the very shape those stories take.
It’s no surprise that Booker claims there are only seven ‘story-lines’ in the world. In his book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories—a work that took over forty years to write—Booker surveys world literature, outlining commonalities and shows that, although there are a multitude of tales and endless variety in the telling, all narratives are really variations of the basic seven.
Booker’s work is long—over 700 pages—detailed, and quite interesting, but his message is simple. Whether they represent deep psychological structures of human experience or whether they are merely constructs of tradition, no matter what the story, you’ll find one or more of these basic plotlines:
Adair Jones is a writer from New York now living in Brisbane. Her articles, reviews and short stories have been published widely. For more information, see: www.adairjones.com.
The Australian Literature Review