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The Seven Basic Plots

I recently finished chunking through Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (subtitled, ‘Why we tell stories’). It would be not entirely accurate to say I read the whole thing, all 705 large pages, each with very small print - I skimmed over large sections of it, which is easy to do as it contains hundreds of descriptions of the plots of stories and it is possible to get at Booker’s ideas without reading all of them. For anyone wishing to attempt to read this book, I recommend only reading plot summaries of stories you already know. It saves a lot of time.

This book has received a lot of negative reviews, largely because Booker bases his entire treatise on Jungian psychology without noticing that the world at large no longer holds Jung in very high esteem. (Some would say Jung has been ‘discredited’, which is the modern version of declaring something to be ‘heresy’ - reflecting the different forces at work in the modern zeitgeist).

However, once you accept that this is where Booker is writing from, his ideas are reasonable and potentially useful. In terms of advancing the boundaries of modern knowledge, I feel he doesn’t really take us any further than Joseph Campbell - but his models are perfectly workable. A model, after all, is just a model, and not truth. In my opinion, you can't have too many models for looking at the world.

Booker’s prose style is very readable, and his plot summaries are wonderfully written if occasionally trivially inaccurate - but sadly he doesn’t seem to know how to get a point across concisely. For my own benefit, I wanted to catalogue Booker’s basic plot patterns, and so I’m providing them here in case they are of interest to anyone else. These aren’t my ideas, so don’t shoot the messenger!

For reference, Booker believes we tell stories as a mechanism of passing a model for life from generation to generation; that in essence, all stories are archetypal family dramas, and that their core message is that we must resist selfish evil (Booker doesn’t use this term, preferring ‘ego-centred’, according to his Jungian framework). I find this a lovely belief system, although it will likely be quite unpalatable to those who idolise testability.

What follows are the skeletons of his ‘seven basic plots’. The word ‘plot’ as used by Booker may give people pause, as he does not use it to mean the literal events of the story, but rather the symbolic events of the story, and note that not every story follows the template perfectly. In this regard, I prefer the term ‘meta-plot’ - indicating a degree of abstraction between how we usually use plot, and how it is employed in the book. Also, I am purposefully providing only the minimum amount of detail - I am recording it here for reference, I do not expect these notes to be wholly sufficient to understand Booker’s models. If you want any more information, please check the book rather than asking me.

My thanks to Ben for loaning me the book in the first place.

The Basic Meta-plot

Most of the meta-plots are variations on the following pattern:

  1. Anticipation Stage
    The call to adventure, and the promise of what is to come.
  2. Dream Stage
    The heroine or hero experiences some initial success - everything seems to be going well, sometimes with a dreamlike sense of invincibility.
  3. Frustration Stage
    First confrontation with the real enemy. Things begin to go wrong.
  4. Nightmare Stage
    At the point of maximum dramatic tension, disaster has erupted and it seems all hope is lost.
  5. Resolution
    The hero or heroine is eventually victorious, and may also be united or reunited with their ‘other half’ (a romantic partner).

There are some parallels with Campbell’s Heroic Monomyth, but his pattern is more applicable to mythology than to stories in general.

Overcoming the Monster (and the Thrilling Escape from Death)

Examples: Perseus, Theseus, Beowulf, Dracula, War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Guns of Navarone, Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, James Bond, Star Wars: A New Hope.

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (The Call)
  2. Dream Stage (Initial Success)                   
  3. Frustration Stage (Confrontation)
  4. Nightmare Stage (Final Ordeal)
  5. Miraculous Escape (Death of the Monster)

Rags to Riches

Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, David Copperfield 
Dark Version: Le Rouge et Le Noir (1831), What Makes Sammy Run? (1940)

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Initial Wretchedness at Home (The Call)
  2. Out into the World (Initial Success)
  3. The Central Crisis
  4. Independence (Final Ordeal)
  5. Final Union, Completion and Fulfilment

The Quest

Examples: The Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress, King Solomon’s Mines, Watership Down

Meta-plot structure:

  1. The Call (Oppressed in the City of Destruction)
  2. The Journey (Ordeals of the Hero/Heroine & Companions)
    May include some or all of the following:
    a. Monsters
    b. Temptations
    c. The Deadly Opposites
    d. The Journey to the Underworld
  3. Arrival and Frustration
  4. The Final Ordeals
  5. The Goal (Kingdom, Other Half or Elixir won)

Voyage & Return

Examples: Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Orpheus, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man (1948)

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (‘Fall’ into the Other World)
  2. Initial Fascination (Dream Stage)
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Thrilling Escape and Return

Comedy

Comedy is dealt with by a less rigid structure. In essence, the comedy meta-plot is about building an absurdly complex set of problems which then miraculously resolve at the climax. There is much discussion of how the comedy plot has developed over time:

    Stage one: Aristophanes
    Stage two: ‘The New Comedy’ (comedy becomes a love story)
    Stage three: Shakespeare (plot fully developed)
    Comedy as real life: Jane Austen
    The plot disguised: Middlemarch, War and Peace
    The plot burlesqued: Gilbert & Sullivan, Oscar Wilde

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Under the Shadow
    A little world in which people are under the shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration and are shut up from one another.
  2. Tightening the Knot
    The confusion gets worse until the pressure of darkness is at its most acute and everyone is in a nightmarish tangle.
  3. Resolution
    With the coming to light of things not previously recognised, perceptions are dramatically changed. Shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously transformed and the little world is brought together in a state of joyful union.

Tragedy

Examples: Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Carmen, Bonnie & Clyde, Jules et Jim, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Julius Caesar

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (Greed or Selfishness)
  2. Dream Stage
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Destruction or Death Wish Stage

Rebirth

Examples: Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Peer Gynt

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Under the Shadow
    A young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of a dark power
  2. The Threat Recedes
    Everything seems to go well for a while - the threat appears to have receded.
  3. The Threat Returns
    Eventually the threat approaches again in full force, until the hero or heroine is seen imprisoned in a state of living death.
  4. The Dark Power Triumphant
    The state of living death continues for a long time when it seems the dark power has completely triumphed.
  5. Miraculous Redemption
    If the imprisoned person is a heroine, redeemed by the hero; if a hero, by a young woman or child.

Dark Versions

All of the above plots have dark versions, in which the ‘complete happy ending’ is never achieved because of some problem. The only exception is Tragedy, which is already the ‘dark’ version.

New Plots

Two additional plots are presented which are outside of the basic seven listed above. Note that the existence of general patterns of plot is not intended to mean that no other plots are possible.

Rebellion Against ‘The One’
A solitary hero/heroine finds themselves being drawn into a state of resentful, mystified opposition to some immense power, which exercises total sway over the world of the hero. Initially they feel they are right and the mysterious power is at fault, but suddenly the hero/heroine is confronted by the power in its awesome omnipotence. The rebellious hero/heroine is crushed and forced to recognise that their view had been based only on a very limited subjective perception of reality. They accept the power’s rightful claim to rule.

Example: The Book of Job
Dark version: Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Mystery
Begins by posing a riddle, usually through the revelation that some baffling crime has been committed. Central figure unravels the riddle.

Examples: Bel and the Dragon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie

 

Archetypes

In addition to patterns of plots, there is a pattern of characters provided according to Jungian principles. These archetypal characters are as follows:

Negative (centred on Jungian Ego i.e. "evil"):

    Dark Father, Tyrant or Dark Magician
    Dark Mother, Dark Queen or Hag
    Dark Rival or Dark Alter-Ego
    Dark Other Half or Temptress

Positive (centred on Jungian Self i.e. "good"):

    Light Father, Good King or Wise Old Man
    Light Mother, Good Queen or Wise Old Woman
    Light Alter-Ego or Friend and Companion
    Light Other Half (light anima/animus)

Note: Booker uses ‘witch’ where I use ‘hag’, for reasons that will be apparent to most readers.

Three other archetypes are referenced:       

    The Child
    The Animal Helper
    The Trickster

 

Additional Concepts

The Complete Happy Ending
In the regular versions of the meta-plots, if all that is ego-centred becomes centred instead on the Self (i.e. if all characters are redeemed), the result is a 'complete happy ending'. In the dark versions of the story, the ending is generally tragic and disasterous - both are considered to be following the same meta-plot. It is also possible for stories to contain elements of both approaches.

The Unrealised Value
The chief dark figure signals to us the shadowy, negative version of precisely what the hero or heroine will eventually have to make fully positive in themselves if they are to emerge victorious and attain 'the complete happy ending'. Therefore, the villain metaphorically represents what the hero or heroine will conquor both within themselves, and in the world of the story.

Above and Below the Line
In general, (and especially in comedy) there is a dividing line in effect. Above the line is the established social order, and below the line are the servants,  ‘inferior’ or shadow elements. The problem originates ‘above the line’ (e.g. with tyranny) but the road to liberation always lies ‘below the line’ in the ‘inferior’ level.

Below the line can also be represented as a ‘shadow realm’, containing the potential for wholeness. In the conclusion of the story, elements may ‘emerge from the shadows’ to provide resolution.

The Seven Basic Plots is published by Continuum, ISBN-0-8264-5209-4.

Comments

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Thank you very much for finally writing an unbiased, thoughtful perceptive book report on Booker's Seven Plots. I just checked out many web reviews by so-called magazine reviewers, all of whom just did not read carefully or thoughtfully Booker's work. Their reviews showed their narrowed blinkered media-bedazzled minds, nothing more. I really appreciate your ability to read, absorb and report without opinionated judgements. Again, thanks. I found the book a useful and fascinating way to stretch my thinking about literature and life.

Thanks for stopping by, Vanessa! I was quite suprised at how vitriolic many of the reviews of this book were. As I allude to above, there has been a shift in the centre of gravity of modern thinking, and anyone whose perspective is framed differently risks excessive and sometimes unwarranted criticism. Take care!

I just finished reading this book, and I thought it was one of the most amazing books I've ever read. The Seven Basic Plots not only gave me a better understanding of stories in general, it gave me a better understanding of my life and the characters and issues which have affected me. It seems to me that many of the critical reviews are just sour grapes from lesser thinkers who have not had the persistence and intellectual insight to write such a book.

The book is one of the gems of our time.

Thanks for the comment, Bill! I certainly think that the critics in general did not give this book a fair treatment.

If you enjoyed this, I strongly recommend you check out Joseph Campbell's work as well (if you haven't already). 'The Power of Myth' is a good place to start. Best wishes!

Romance? Could that be the 8th plot point? I was going to say 'mystery' aswell but it seems that Booker added 2 new plot points including that one (as just read in the summary above... thanks for it btw)

so wouldnt it be the 10 plot points rather than seven?

Booker is keen to point out that "seven basic plots" of his title is simply a device he uses to frame the book, but that it is entirely arbitrary. One could lay down a different grid and get a different result. Of course, his core idea (stories are variations on family drama themes) is independent of this framing mechanism.

Regarding Romance, most romance stories have one of the plots, above. Comedy is perhaps the most common. Romance, like Sci Fi, can be seen as a genre rather than a plot, per se; the framework within which the plot is developed.

As ever, it's a question of perspective.

Thanks for the comment!

Jung has been discredited? By whom? Psychology has evolved but has he been debunked?

Havelock: this was a flippant comment by me. It would be fairer to say that Jung has fallen out of favour. That said, if you dug around I suspect you could find someone who would be willing to claim that Jung has been "debunked". Consider the piece on Jung in the Skeptics Dictionary as an example.

Thanks for commenting!

I don't expect you to have read any of The Gap Cycle by Stephen Donaldson; IMHO they weren't nearly as good as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. However, the first novel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Real_Story) ends with an author's note where Donaldson hypothesizes that drama consists of three characters (victim, persecutor, rescuer) who over the course of a story exchange roles (and if they don't, then it's melodrama). That gives you five different dramatic devices to layer onto these basic plots.

My own observation is that those roles can be assigned to different genders in eight different ways. "War" stories would feature all male characters, while other permutations would allow for various forms of romance. I'm not sure what to call the all-female versions, but I'm sure that Jane Austen's books would be fine examples.

Samwyse: Although I know the Stephen Donaldson books, I haven't actually read any for various reasons not worth going into here.

The idea that drama comes from characters exchanging roles is not a new one, and although this certainly is a source of drama I feel it's an oversimplification to suggest that all drama can be reduced to the exchange of victim, persecutor and rescuer roles. In fact, I'm having trouble fitting that to all manner of stories... Hamlet, for instance, doesn't come close to this, but is held to be a paragon of drama (and certainly not melodrama). The exchange of roles does generate drama, but it is far from the only route to this goal.

Regarding the Austen novels, it would be a mistake to assume these are based on an all female cast - the drama in Austen always involves characters of both genders (they could not function as romances otherwise, although reducing Austen to romance is also a simplification).

In fact, there are very few stories which support an all female cast - with the possible exception of the relationship melodrama (Steel Magnolias, say). I think this perhaps is the inverse of the war movie - although even the war movie can feature female roles (c.f. Guns of Navarone or Full Metal Jacket).

It is the nature of stories that they support so many different attempts at analysing their structural composition. While all such attempts can be fascinating, I suppose I draw the line at believing that any such model has universal application.

Thanks for your interesting comment!

Just stumbled across this and found it interesting and thought-provoking.

By the way, Jung developed ideas which eventually gave birth to Alcoholics Anonymous and all of the other numerous 12-step programs. His contributions to modern psychology have had a big part in saving the lives of millions. Among other concepts, he was the first to recognize the need for complete psychic and spiritual change in the alcoholic/addict if recovery was to be at all possible.

So whatever else Jung might have accomplished that has now been debunked or criticized, this single endowment is enough to merit his inclusion in the list of the greatest altruistic contributors to society in the modern age.

Michael: thanks for commenting! My line in this piece about Jung is a dig at the way some scientists treat the body of work as if it was simply a matter of sorting into "true" and "false". I find this a grossly simplistic approach. Jung's contributions to scientific fields are numerous, and go far beyond his psychological models (which are still in use today in the form of models like Temperament Theory). And, as you say, he made social contributions as well.

Best wishes!

Very interesting review and comments. Where does a story like The Stone Diaries fit in? This is the recounting of a life by an elderly woman as she lays dying. Author is Carol Shields.

Bronwen: I haven't read The Stone Diaries, so it's hard to be sure... The form of the deathbed autobiography (of which my favourite is probably The Brothel in Rossenstrasse, one of Mike Moorcock's literary novels) isn't a plot in the sense that Booker means, but a narrative device to frame the story. The actual events of the book would confirm its place in Booker's system, but I imagine it's either Tragedy or Rebirth - just a guess on my part, though. :)

Hi Chris. Thank you so much for your reply. Yes, of course, I see now that the deathbed autobiog is a frame and the story can take any number of plot shapes. In the case of The Stone Diaries, the plot goes from chapter to chapter, titled Birth (the woman gives a whole story of her parents and her own birth, though she wasn't there); Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, Death. It stretches from 1905 to 1985-ish, and is, I suppose a little episodish (and quirky). Though you haven't read it, does this suggest a type of plot to you? I'm very interested in your view because you are very knowledgeable and I'm on a steep learning curve, looking for a (near-enough-ish) example of a plot for something I am writing, which is, yes, you guessed it, a woman recounting her life. Thanks so much.

Bronwen: from what I can tell, The Stone Diaries is a tale of a woman's failure to find purpose and contentment... as such, I suspect it would fit under Tragedy in Booker's system.

However, if you are looking to create a plot for your own work, I wouldn't necessarily start by reverse engineering Booker's system. Booker is attempting to examine the commonalities in narrative, not proposing *how* to construct plots.

I guess you are starting out experimenting with fiction? If so, joining a writing circle near where you live can be a good way to learn the craft. As with any field, we learn from our mistakes, but in order to do so it is often helpful to have other people to give us perspective.

You should also probably begin with short stories, rather than novels. Short form writing will allow you to practice the basics before tackling anything too long.

Of course, I may have misread the situation. :)

Hope this is helpful!

Thank you very much for your excellent abstract!!

Like you I found the book interesting although such is the size of it on first viewing I wondered if he'd simply chosen to collate every story ever written rather than write about them..!

However, having used it as a reference book for the last few months this is an excellent overview and time saver..! I am much indebted! :)

mysteryboxes.wordpress.com

No problem, box-maker! :)

Thanks so much for posting this! I recently discovered Booker's book, but haven't been able to get my hands on a copy yet, and I am eager to integrate some of his ideas into my classroom (I teach ninth grade English).

I read one review that connected Booker's "Tragedy" category with the Greek tradition, which necessitates a tragic hero with a tragic flaw. You do not mention this in your synopsis. Does Booker reference it? Maybe this question is one that I should direct at the book itself...if so, don't trouble yourself with a response. I should get my copy in a few days.

Thanks again; I have posted a link to your article on the web site for my department, so that my colleagues can use it as well. It's a great resource!

Hi Carla! Glad you found this useful! I'm afraid it has been so long I can't remember whether or not the Greek tragic hero is mentioned in Booker's account, but you should be able to check easily enough when you get your own copy of the tome. You should be able to integrate some of Booker's ideas into an English class, although it will take you quite a while to read the book as it is a monster!

Thanks for sharing!

I strongly suggest you put name in the header, or on the side column, or somewhere at the top making it obvious. Links to this blog do not necessary come from some related home page.

This is a new link on the same theme. The title is "6 Story Arcs Define Western Literature." It is a completely different way of story analysis.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/07/06/the-6-story-arcs-that-define-western-literature/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=News0_DSC_160707_000000_Final&utm_content=&spMailingID=25930432&spUserID=MTE2MDc3MDM5NzE2S0&spJobID=841012599&spReportId=ODQxMDEyNTk5S0#.V4DgMDXQXkU

You will have to copy and paste the link. It is TIME SENSITIVE, I suspect. Read it now.
I got to this page looking at the references in the Wikipedia link.

Hi Robert,
Thanks for your comments, and the interesting additional link. Can you please clarify your proposal? You say:

"I strongly suggest you put name in the header, or on the side column, or somewhere at the top making it obvious. Links to this blog do not necessary come from some related home page."

Which name do you mean? My name? The book's name? My blog's name? And where is it you want it to appear, and what is it that is to be made obvious? I'm prepared to make a change, but I don't understand the nature of the problem yet, which makes it hard for me to act appropriately!

Also, bear in mind that this is a post that is more than a decade old. It is, however, one of my most enduring pieces for some reason!

Thanks again for commenting,

Chris.

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