The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker

11 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.



  1. This reviewer unfortunately gets the title wrong, and this may be a significant error. The first word of the second part is ‘Why’, not ‘How’. And ‘Why we tell stories’ is also the title of the fourth section of the book. Christopher Booker rejects the the usual explanations for our love of fiction, and contends that stories that are in tune with the archetypes reflect the mechanisms necessary for psychic wholeness, this being the true purpose of fiction.

    I don’t think it is fair to speak of Booker as ‘clinging to Jung’; his book is fundamentally based on Tradition, and the stories he disapproves of are those that depart from story-telling traditions. The Jungian aspect merely develops this.

    That said, I admire the positve attitude and fair-mindedness of the reviewer. But I would urge a bit of re-reading and re-thinking.

    • Thank you so much for this synopsis – I am moving into the arena of fact/fict ion and this considerably assists my journey. How about a follow up piece and a little more discussion of examples? :-)

  2. Many thanks for pointing out my typographical error in the title — I hope the correction will prevent any further confusion!

    I do agree that Booker’s primary focus is on tradition and its role in shaping the way that we have told stories throughout the history of human existence. In that sense, stories that deviate from the story-telling traditions he outlines in his plot classifications are breaking with that tradition in one form or another, and do indeed leave the audience with a lack of psychic fulfilment. My main concern is that I could have done with a little less in the way of the amateur psychoanalysis, best illustrated in the passage in which Booker describes Marcel Proust (around p. 433 in my edition) as ‘imprisoned in the shadow of the “Dark Mother”, abnormally stunted on both the masculine and feminine sides of his personality‘. If Proust’s psychological problems appear to have contributed to the flawed archetypes of his stories, does that therefore mean that anyone who writes a story that follows the Seven Basic Plots to the letter is likely to be a perfectly psychologically sound individual? I may be confusing correlation and causation here, but that concern was the driving force of my discomfort with certain passages of an often excellent book.

    Thank you for commenting nonetheless, and prompting me to go back to the source to re-evaluate the reasoning behind my original opinions!

  3. Fair point! I admit that, much as I admire the book, I find his psycho-analysing of authors is a bit excessive and also an unnecessary digression. But I think the important question is whether or not Booker is right to encourage the telling of stories that are in harmony with the archetypes. You acknowledge that when they don’t,the audience is left with ‘a lack of psychic fulfilment’. I know that many people would say that that purpose of fiction is to ‘reflect life’, but I feel that if it is merely that, it is a rather redundant purpose, since life is going on around us all the time – and one can comment on life without fiction. There IS something curious about our desire for stories(and the Arts in general), and for me Booker probes the mystery more than anyone else has done.

  4. I enjoyed this book immensely even while leaping about rather than reading from front to back. One positive feature of the book the reviewer did not mention: Since Booker is concerned with stories we tell, he describes and comments on contemporary films such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (nobody changes, nobody grows up, the aliens are like walking fetuses) and “Star Wars” (at the end victorious heroes Han Solo and Luke Skywalker appear before Princess Laia to the appreciative applause of their friends and fellow citizens, an oddly unique way Americans, so heavily absorbed with the maverick individual, end their stories. The traditional story has Luke ending up in the arms of the princess, except in later prequel films we discover she is his sister, so that won’t do!)

    And Booker is right on the pathology of Marcel Proust, a weird example of arrested development, mother fixation and total self-absorption.

  5. […] veel overeenkomsten zijn, maar Noël maakt er een heel ander verhaal van. Daarbij zijn er volgens Booker toch maar zeven basisverhaallijnen, dus ik neem het Noel niet kwalijk. In het bovennatuurlijke […]

  6. […] veel overeenkomsten zijn, maar Noël maakt er een heel ander verhaal van. Daarbij zijn er volgens Booker maar zeven basisverhaallijnen, dus ik neem het Noël niet kwalijk. Ze heeft de serie eigen gemaakt. […]

  7. I’m a clinical psychologist in England – my last post I put Scrooge on the couch even then Jungian archetypes appeared, mainly from his Ghosts (Therapists of Christmas Present, Past Future!) http://mrtaurus.wordpress.com/

    The id ego and superego are more triads of personality, and the self and archetypes, patterns within these. The Sleep paralysis probably inspired these visions!

    I’m writing a book on it – it’s facinating!

    Really interesting read. You should read An Interpretation Of Murder (It’s based on Freuds visit to america and has Jung as a charachter too!)

    • You can’t even spell character right… Why would I waste my time reading your book? lol

      • You might do so because you know that his spelling is in no way related to the accuracy of his text.

  8. […] (And in true stealing form, those plots are from here :p) […]

  9. […] 7 basic plots: The Seven Basic Plots. […]

  10. […] 7. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker from a Book Review by tobedwithatrollope […]

  11. […] 7 basic plots […]

  12. […] With this combination of characters – how could a show ever get boring? There is also, of course, the notion that in all of human history – only 7 stories have ever been told. SOURCE. […]

  13. […] Booker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Continuum, London, 2004,  sostiene che le trame possibili possono essere ricondotte a sette […]

  14. […] Archetypal Plots/Types of Stories (here and here) […]

  15. […] 7 basic plots […]

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