The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker11 December 2007
This book has been defying my attempts to write a review it for the better part of a month and a half — but I think I’ve managed to emerge victorious at last.
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
It’s a longstanding cliché that there are only really a handful of basic plots in the entire canon of Western literature. The cliché is so cliché that it’s somehow gone past cliché and come right out the other side in the form of a 700-plus-page analytical study by former Spectator columnist and Private Eye founder Christopher Booker. Booker suggests that storytelling serves to pass along moral lessons and models from the older generation to their children and successors, and as a result the basic lessons have coalesced over time into seven basic symbolic ‘plots’ 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.
Within these basic plots are smaller ‘metaplots’ that outline the general structure of these stories. Booker further identifies ‘dark’ versions of these basic plots, ones in which the happy ending is never achieved even though the characters go through all of the stages in the underlying metaplot. There are also a handful of other, smaller plots that are often incorporated into these larger overarching plots, such as the ‘Rebellion’ plot or the ‘Mystery’ plot. Booker looks at both plots and characters, identifying heroes and heroines and the figures who both help them (e.g., the Wise Old Man, the Good Mother, the Companion) and hinder them (e.g., the Dark Rival or Alter-Ego, the Temptress, the Tyrant). If many of these character figures sound like basic story archetypes…well, Booker says, that’s because they are. And he’s dedicated the entire book to determining and explaining how these combinations of plots and characters come together to create some of most well-known (and dare I say, archetypical) stories in the literary canon.
I’ve read quite a few reviews of The Seven Basic Plots, and most of them seem to say some variation on the same theme: The first 300 pages or so are great, but the book goes rapidly downhill from there. These negative reviews touch on the primary trouble with the The Seven Basic Plots. When a particular story does not seem to fit into the established patterns of Booker’s Jungian worldview, his seven basic plots, he immediately declares that the story is irrevocably flawed, defective, or otherwise a perversion of how stories ought to be. As a result, a significant portion of the literature written since about 1800 falls into this flawed or defective category — including stories such as Moby-Dick (because we don’t know whether the real Monster to be overcome in the story is the white whale or Captain Ahab) and Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (because he regards the main character, Julien Sorel, as little more than a portrait of egotistical cruelty and selfish ambition for fame and glory). Not even The Lord of the Rings, one of the stories that Booker points to as the ultimate example of his basic plot archetypes, is free from imperfections: Frodo remains an incomplete character because he never finds the feminine half that he needs to become a whole character. In cruder terms, he doesn’t ‘get the girl’, and therefore can never be complete, so he has to sail away as an incomplete and unresolved main character. Booker also has a disturbing prediliction to blame the author’s background for the flaws of his (or, on very rare occasions, her) stories — usually, in true Jungian fashion, by hinting at unresolved mother issues or sexual identity woes. Very rarely does he attempt to look at the story itself or attempt to understand why the author chose to break away from these archetypes. Without them, the author is flawed and the story is flawed, and as a result there is little room for debate.
It’s really a shame that Booker’s methodology falls apart through his sheer insistence on clinging to Jung. It would’ve been a far more fascinating study to explore why certain stories rebel against or subvert these archetypes, and how this deliberate rebellion or subversion makes these stories all the more powerful for the reader as a result. His writing style is an absolute model of clarity and careful word choice, making The Seven Basic Plots seem far less unwieldy for the general reader than its physical bulk might suggest. In the end, Booker’s magnum opus is certainly worth exploring by those who take an interest in the history of storytelling and in the underlying themes that define so many of our best-loved tales. I’m glad that I read it, in the end.