Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Seven Basic Plots: a world of possibility!

One of the reasons I've been busy lately is because I finally got my hands on a copy of Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories by Christopher Booker. I don't really have time to be reading a 700+ page tome of literary analysis, but it's so readable and fascinating, I really can't stop. Plus, it's been a tremendous boon in my own writing, sparking a lot of thoughts and feverish outlining.

Here's the blurb from Goodreads: "This book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of 'basic stories' in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales, via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling." But this is only the prelude to an investigation into how and why we are 'programmed' to imagine stories in these ways, and how they relate to the inmost patterns of human psychology. Drawing on a vast array of examples, from Proust to detective stories, from the Marquis de Sade to E.T., Christopher Booker then leads us through the extraordinary changes in the nature of storytelling over the past 200 years, and why so many stories have 'lost the plot' by losing touch with their underlying archetypal purpose."

Seven Basic Plots begins by working systematically through Bookers' seven different plot categories (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth), offering classic and modern examples of each, and showing the different stages occurring in each plot. While I don't consider myself a plot novice, the wealth of information Booker shares, and his logical overview, has been incredibly useful in helping me determine Project Demo's plot structure, and dissecting other books I've been reading.

It's also fascinating realizing how much character and society can determine plot. For example, a good-intentioned character in a Rags to Riches story will come to a happy end. However, a character with dark intentions might find riches, but not contentment. Booker points out that most plots have this "dark version." He analyzes several of Shakespeare's Tragedies and shows how their endings differ based on their main characters. Richard III is a villain, and the play ends on a trumphant note with him being overthrown. King Lear also acts poorly, but he's not a villain. He travels a nightmare journey, and is helped to repent by the actions of his faithful friends, servants, and daughter, Cordelia. So, while there is goodness in Lear's world, at the end it's not enough to save him (or Cordelia). Whereas Romeo and Juliet are clearly not villains, but they live in a warring society that won't accept their love. They also die at the end, but the ending is hopeful as the two feuding families come together to mourn.

It makes me realize how many different ways a story can be told, given a slightly darker character, a slightly kinder family, a love interest... everything can change. It's exciting. I'm seeing dozens of new possible stories opening before me.

Plus, it made me think of this hysterical trailer for Mary Poppins as a horror movie. Enjoy!


  1. that video is too too funny!

    It really demonstrates the power and importance of editing to creating the experience we want the reader to have.

    The book you are reading sounds fascinating (although it's length is daunting!). I have a couple of books that also touch on the universal stories but I tend to read them in sections - they've never been so compelling that I couldn't put them down! LOL


  2. Yes, exactly! It really is surprising how almost any story can be told any number of ways.

    I think I've revealed my English major nerd status by calling it compelling. But it is! =) Partly, however, it's a library book, so I'm conscious that I need to read and absorb as much as possible before returning it. If I knew I was going to be living here for the next few years, I'd probably buy myself a reference copy.

  3. Scary Mary. I love it. It really does expose the importance of context, doesn't it?

    The book sounds fascinating. But, please tell me you have more than two weeks to absorb such a tome?

  4. Glad you enjoyed Scary Mary! Actually, if you go to the You Tube page you can see recommendations for several other movies made into horror films, including the Lion King.

    I think I've got three weeks... but not ashamed to renew it if need be! =)

  5. I've seen that video before, but I enjoyed watching it again. It shows just how easily we can manipulate a setting or characters to give them evil, mysterious intent.

    Lately, I've been making a list of all the writing books I need, and I think I'll have to add that one. It's so interesting, why we need to tell (and hear) stories and how deeply satisfying good ones are.

  6. I think it's a very good reference, Mary. Perfect for those moments where you're trying to figure out what should happen next in your plot, or what direction to take a new story idea. Also, as you say, really interesting to think about stories, and how important and predictable they are to us, consciously and subconsciously.


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