The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Review by Garry Craig Powell
Subtitled Why we tell stories, this book, which took the author 34 years to write, is not only Booker’s magnum opus, but one the great works of contemporary criticism. Building on Jungian archetypal psychology (and who isn’t a Jungian?) Booker’s thesis is that we read stories because we need to, in order to make sense of our lives, and more specifically because stories provide us with a blueprint for what Jung called individuation. For this reason, he contends, stories from all over the world, whether folktales or highly refined literary forms such as epic poetry or the modernist novel, or for that matter lowbrow entertainments like the James Bond movies, all tend to follow one of seven basic plots. (He accepts that there are stories that do not, particularly in the present age, but demonstrates—correctly in my view—that the works that eschew the deep archetypal underpinning fail. For this reason he condemns Ulysses, for example—again, in my view, correctly—as well as Proust and the later Thomas Hardy.)
For centuries writers have wondered if the number of possible plots is finite. Anyone who spends his or her time trying to come up with stories has considered this possibility. Although the permutations are infinite, clearly, there do indeed seem to be a limited number of basic structures, as this 700 page tome demonstrates convincingly. I believe it is to the advantage of the storyteller to be aware of what they are, not only so that he or she can make conscious choices about whether and when to deviate from established patterns (rule-breaking may be a good thing) but also in order to evaluate whether the story is indeed a “story” or just a string of anecdotes and vignettes. So what are the basic plots? I cannot do them justice in a review of this length, but if you will forgive a fleeting glance, I shall try to give you an idea.
The first he calls “Overcoming the Monster”. Gilgamesh and Beowulf are traditional examples, where a human hero battles and beats a mythical monster; more modern versions are Jaws, where the monster is a ‘real’ fish, and the James Bond films, in which the monster is usually a single human, a master-crook. Of course the story can be subtler: the monster might be a collective, such as the Nazis or ISIS, or it might be something more abstract still, such as capitalism or poverty. But in any case the entity that embodies evil is vastly powerful and merciless and threatens the hero (and often his community, or all of mankind) with destruction and death, usually in the crudest physical sense. The popularity not only of the James Bond movies, but also of the super-heroes, can surely be explained by this archetypal resonance. When the reader identifies with the hero, he or she becomes a person of unlimited courage who, in the face of near-certain extinction, not only fights valiantly, but ends up saving not only him or herself, but often, all of humankind.
The second plot is “Rags to Riches”. Dickens is one of the great exponents of this: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations all tell the stories of poor orphans who end up as successful and happy men. So does Kidnapped, and a great many folk tales, such as Dick Whittington or Cinderella. Hollywood has countless stories of this type too, for instance A Star is Born or That’ll Be the Day, which are both about ordinary people becoming famous singers. Pretty Woman is of course an update on the Cinderella story. The message of this kind of story is to believe in yourself and work undaunted, whatever obstacles you may face, and you will one day succeed—a message which endorses capitalist values, which may be why it is so popular.
The third plot is the “Voyage and Return”, in which the hero either undertakes a literal journey, often to exotic lands, which force him or her to re-evaluate everything he or she had supposed to be true about a former existence—consider The Odyssey, Gulliver’s Travels, or Robinson Crusoe. In all of these the hero does not choose the adventure deliberately, but has it thrust upon him or her, and learns something of great value because of the trials faced. Other examples are The Third Man or The Quiet American (in fact, most of Greene’s novels). A more subtle form of the plot involves not a physical journey but a metaphorical one, into a different social or spiritual milieu: for instance, Waugh’s novels Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited. Further examples might be Dead Poets’ Society or Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which involves both kind of journey.
On the face of it, the fourth plot, “The Quest” is similar: it involves a journey and the transformation of the hero who undertakes it. However, Booker points out that it is quite different in that this is a journey deliberately chosen for a specific purpose. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo knows what he must do from the outset, and what is at stake. In the Arthurian legends, the knights are consciously seeking The Holy Grail. In Siddhartha, Hesse’s Buddha abandons his kingdom in order to find enlightenment; in Watership Down the rabbits are looking for a safe new home.
The fifth and the sixth plots are Comedy and Tragedy. We think we know what those mean, but do we? Is an Adam Sandler comedy really a comedy, for instance? Is Friends, or Sex in the City? Booker would claim that they are not. For a comedy is not merely a story that makes us laugh, but essentially a love story (cf. Shakespeare’s) in which two people who are destined to be together meet and yet fail to recognize that they should be together, usually because of the egotism of one or both parties. But finally the scales fall from the fool’s eyes and the two are happily joined, typically in marriage. The happy ending is important: the function of comedy, Booker assures us, from Aristophanes onwards, is to reconcile conflicts and reassure us that life will go on: and of course there is no more potent reassurance than marriage, with its implied promise of the birth of children to come. Once again Hollywood has successfully employed this formula in any number of ‘romantic comedies’—the adjective is superfluous—such as When Harry Met Sally, or Groundhog Day, or yet again, Pretty Woman. (I see no reason why a story shouldn’t be both a Rags to Riches as well as a Comedy, for instance.) This is not to say that a novel like Martin Amis’ Money is not funny—it is—but that in essence it is not a comedy. (It is a Journey and Return.) Of course comedies can be funny! But many puerile ‘comedies’ would not qualify. (Even some that I personally find very amusing, like Jack Black’s School of Rock and Nacho Libre.)
We all know, or should, from the Greeks, that a tragedy is not merely a sad event (which is why the adjective ‘tragic’ is so grossly misused) but the downfall of a hero who takes the wrong—that is, egotistical and/or blind—decisions. Shakespeare understood this very well. Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar are all men who end up not only dead, but having caused immense suffering around them, because of a flaw in their character—pride, vengefulness, ambition, etc. They begin as successful men, and are not wholly bad—even Macbeth resists the temptations of power at first—but are corrupted and ruined by their selfish and foolish decisions. For this reason, not all sad or catastrophic events are tragic. Selma, for example, is not a tragedy, although its climax is an event that was catastrophic not only for the protagonist, but for his country, because Martin Luther King did not die because he made immature or selfish choices, but rather because he had the courage to live in the only way he knew how. So although he is a hero, he is not a tragic hero. He dies for a noble cause, which indeed his death helps create the conditions for—so in fact this is an Overcoming the Monster story, in which King fights and overcomes racism. Nor are Holocaust stories like Schindler’s List tragic, because again the victims do not incur their horrific fate through any fault of their own. (Once again, this is an Overcoming the Monster plot.)
The last plot is that of “Rebirth”. Examples from folktales are Sleeping Beauty and Snow-White, in both of which the heroine ‘falls asleep’ to signify that her life has come to a stop, is frozen, or paralyzed—and she can be ‘awoken’ or brought to life only by love, in the traditional tales by a man (a prince, which merely signifies that he is young and rich and ‘the best’) if the heroine is female, or a woman if the frozen or enchanted person is a male (as in Beauty and the Beast or The Frog Prince.) The recent Disney movie Frozen attempts to put a modern, feminist spin on this archetypal plot by having the saviour be not a hapless man, but another woman. As usual, Disney bungles badly. There is nothing wrong with having the saviour be someone of the same sex, arguably, but it needs to be more than friendship that saves the person whose life is threatened. A much better solution would have been to have had the two female characters be lesbian lovers—but naturally Disney, fearful of its Christian fan base, did not have the courage to go that far. In ‘serious’ literature, some novels that exemplify the Rebirth theme are Crime and Punishment, Silas Marner and A Christmas Carol.
In fact Booker goes a step further and claims that all seven plots are variants of the same over-plot, which might be called ‘The Journey of the Hero’ after Joseph Campbell (who is, naturally, an influence.) In other words, whatever form the story takes, it always deals with the hero’s (genderless) journey, inner or outer, facing great and often seemingly insuperable obstacles along the way, to find a ‘treasure’—whether gold (which represents inner riches), a magical object or animal, or person (the bride or bridegroom.) Whatever the hero is seeking, be it fame, power, love or knowledge, the real goal is self-fulfilment, the full realization of his or her own powers. This journey may or may not be successful—if it’s a tragedy, it will not be—but the same basic stages are usually featured. This may sound reductive, but in part that is because I am over-simplifying, for lack of space. Booker gives a galaxy of examples (indeed some of the examples I have given are my own) and makes a very convincing case for his argument.
The Seven Basic Plots is not a book whose argument everyone will agree with—in particular those people who are ardent fans of Proust, Joyce and others who come in for his brutal criticism—but it is a book that has been praised lavishly by writers, including Margaret Atwood, Beryl Bainbridge, Fay Weldon and Ronald Harwood. I agree with Professor Duncan Wu of Oxford University, who regards it as “essential for anyone studying literature at degree level” and, perhaps even more tellingly, “for anyone with the slightest interest in the world around them.” For ultimately, if you don’t understand how stories work, you don’t understand human culture; nor, probably, do you understand yourself. It is a book that no fiction writer, in my view, can afford to ignore.