The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker
This information is based on the 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker. The Seven Basic Plots provides a Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning. Booker worked on the book for 34 years. It’s 736 pages in length.
The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to the adventure to come. This is followed by a dream stage, in which the adventure begins, the hero has some success, and has an illusion of invincibility. However, this is then followed by a frustration stage, in which the hero has his first confrontation with the enemy, and the illusion of invincibility is lost. This worsens in the nightmare stage, which is the climax of the plot, where hope is apparently lost. Finally, in the resolution, the hero overcomes his burden against the odds.
The key thesis of the book: “However many characters may appear in a story, its real concern is with just one: its hero or heroine. It is he with whose fate we identify, as we see him gradually developing towards that state of self-realization which marks the end of the story. Ultimately it is in relation to this central figure that all other characters in a story take on their significance. What each of the other characters represents is really only some aspect of the inner state of the hero or heroine themselves.”
The Seven Basic Plots are the basics of plot-writing.
Overcoming the Monster
The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.
Examples: Perseus, Theseus, Beowulf, Dracula, War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Guns of Navarone, Seven Samurai and its Western-style remake The Magnificent Seven, the James Bond franchise , Star Wars: A New Hope, Halloween, The Hunger Games and Shrek.
Rags to Riches
The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person.
Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, The Prince and the Pauper.
The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way.
Examples: Iliad, The Pilgrim’s Progress, King Solomon’s Mines, Watership Down. The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Land Before Time, One Piece, Indiana Jones, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle”
Voyage and Return
The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with nothing but experience.
Examples: Odyssey, Ramayana, Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Orpheus, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, The Hobbit, Brideshead Revisited, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man, Chronicles of Narnia, Apollo 13, Labyrinth, Finding Nemo, Gulliver’s Travels, Spirited Away
Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.
Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Bridget Jones Diary, Music and Lyrics, Sliding Doors, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mr Bean
The protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and whose death is a happy ending (or s/he gets away with their deeds as with “Cask of Amontillado”).
Examples: Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Carmen, Bonnie and Clyde, Jules et Jim, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, John Dillinger, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Death Note, Breaking Bad, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person.
Examples: The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Peer Gynt, Life Is a Dream, Despicable Me, Machine Gun Preacher, Megamind,
Precursors to The Seven Basic Plots
- Arthur Quiller-Couch possibly originally formulated seven basic plots as a series of conflicts: Human vs. Human, Human vs. Nature, Human against God, Human vs. Society, Human in the Middle, Woman & Man, Human vs. Himself.
- William Foster-Harris’ The Basic Patterns of Plot sets out a theory of three basic patterns of plot.
- Ronald B. Tobias set out a twenty-plot theory in his 20 Master Plots.
- Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.
The book was dismissed by a number of journalistic reviewers, such as Adam Mars-Jones, who objected to Booker employing his generalizations about conventional plot structures prescriptively: “He sets up criteria for art, and ends up condemning Rigoletto, The Cherry Orchard, Wagner, Proust, Joyce, Kafka and Lawrence – the list goes on – while praising Crocodile Dundee, E.T. and Terminator 2”. Similarly, Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times writes, “Mr. Booker evaluates works of art on the basis of how closely they adhere to the archetypes he has so laboriously described; the ones that deviate from those classic patterns are dismissed as flawed or perverse – symptoms of what has gone wrong with modern art and the modern world.”
However, it was lauded by a number of novelists, playwrights, and academics, including Fay Weldon, who wrote the following (which is quoted on the front cover of the book): “This is the most extraordinary, exhilarating book. It always seemed to me that ‘the story’ was God’s way of giving meaning to crude creation. Booker now interprets the mind of God, and analyses not just the novel – which will never to me be quite the same again – but puts the narrative of contemporary human affairs into a new perspective. If it took its author a lifetime to write, one can only feel gratitude that he did it.” Beryl Bainbridge, Richard Adams, Ronald Harwood, and John Bayley also spoke positively of the work, while philosopher Roger Scruton described it as a “brilliant summary of story-telling”.