Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories by Christopher Booker

Michael - Thursday

This title intrigued me, and I downloaded a copy and started reading. It’s a challenging book from various points of view. Booker’s thesis is that all stories—throughout time—fall into only seven rather well defined categories. He argues cogently and at length—the book runs to some 750 pages—that not only is there a reason for this apparent lack of imagination, but also any attempt to depart from one of these seven basic plot structures leads to an unsatisfactory ending for the reader. Further, he postulates why these plots are so essential, speculating on a type of psychological genetic coding that we need to develop our psyches, just as we have a physical genetic coding to develop our physical attributes.

I have to admit that I've only read about half the book so far. Frankly, it could do with some heavy editing. Many of the arguments are repeated in different chapters with a multitude of detailed examples given where one or two would do, and often the same aspects of the examples are discussed again in later chapters. I also felt that the arguments against the stories that don’t comfortably fit into the seven patterns were weak—for example, mysteries are dispensed with in an unusually brief chapter as mere mental puzzles with no depth, mainly because the protagonist is two dimensional, and merely watches the action from a distance and makes deductions. I don’t think I need to argue against that on Murder Is Everywhere! To be fair, it’s the Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie style of mysteries he rejects. He is positive about more psychological ‘mysteries’ like Oedipus Rex and Citizen Kane, which he fits into one of the big seven with no difficulty. Also, he is not blind to anything but ‘serious literature’. Box office hit movies and comic book superheroes make the cut. This doesn’t go down well in the literary establishment. The book was panned by Adam Mars-Jones, who also objected to Booker's seven-sizes-must-fit-all-if-they're-any-good approach and rejected the prescriptive application of these plot structures: "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, ET and Terminator 2." 

I actually think that’s harsh and rather misses the point. I don’t think 'art' is as much the issue for Booker as the Jungian approach to the psychological importance and relevance of stories. The question of what we would call the quality of the writing, isn't really central. (Unless that’s in the next 250 pages!)

Certainly Booker is not averse to controversy. He has ‘alternative views’ on a variety of issues, including global warming, passive smoking, and the European Union.

So here are the plots:

Overcoming the Monster

In Overcoming the Monster, the hero needs to slay the monster which is attacking the community. For the hero’s development this needs to be done selflessly, often to rescue a beloved female character. The happy ending is when the hero kills the monster, gets the girl, and usually obtains high status in the community. Booker uses the examples of Beowulf taking on Grendel and the Hollywood blockbuster Jaws. The two stories are strikingly similar although more than a thousand years apart. Both involve a fearsome water monster that stealthily takes as prey members of the community (and eats them), both involve an underwater battle, both involve the eventual triumph of the hero against all odds. 
But, of course, the monster can be human, and may even be the dark side of the hero.

                                         Rags to Riches

In Rags to Riches, the plot is a poor boy or girl who use their own courage and character development to climb to being successful adults, usually marrying the prince or princess as the case may be. Aladdin is the obvious example and discussed in detail, but many, many, stories fall into this category. (At one point I thought Booker was going to discuss them all.)

            The Quest

The Quest is about the hero needing to undertake a journey or project to achieve a particular goal for the good of the community. The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are perfect examples. Watership Down and Raiders of the Lost Ark are others from different genres.

                                                                                Voyage and Return

Voyage and Return is rather like The Quest except that there may be no immediate goal for the voyage. The story may be more about the hero’s own struggle to find himself and return to his home. Booker discusses among others Robinson Crusoe and Peter Rabbit.5.  

Comedy is rather more complicated. It usually involves the confusion of a community—including the hero and heroine—and ends when the confusion has been resolved, the hero and heroine have developed, and all ends well. It doesn’t need to be funny, but usually is. Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream.      

Tragedy is when the hero or heroine is tempted and falls, and their dark side takes over. They struggle, but they have fallen too far. Eventually the path they have chosen leads to disaster and death. Dr. Faust and Anna Karenina are good examples.

This is basically Tragedy where the hero or heroine is able to redeem themselves or to be redeemed by an outside sympathetic person. Booker gives The Snow Queen, Fidelio, and The Secret Garden among his examples.

Booker’s thesis is that, in a sense, there is really only one plot and that is the development of the hero and heroine in different contexts until they ‘see whole’ or eventually do not (in Tragedy). Personally, I’m suspending judgment on it for the moment. Admittedly, it is striking how many stories ranging across time and cultures do fit into the seven molds quite neatly. On the other hand, the reasons for this seem more obscure. I’ll let you know in 250 pages time...


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, launched June 6.


Wednesday, June 28 at 18:00 Athens time
Book Presentation at 
Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum
Kalisperi 12, Acropolis


  1. I did??? Hmmm... must have been a LONG time ago in another story. :-)

    Reading your post, I was reminded of Heinlein's "basic plots," but couldn't remember the details and, in looking for the details, happened upon this page which has some interesting stuff on the subject from a lot of sources:

    I finally found Heinlein's concept, which was "three basic plots":

    1) Boy Meets Girl / Girl Meets Boy / Boy Meets Boy / Multiform Meets Girl / etc.
    A Romance: meets, loses, seeks, finds but has to work for it, finds love or doesn't.

    2) The Clever Tailor.
    Based on the fairy tale: an individual triumphs over enormous odds through cleverness. Similar: "Rags to Riches."

    3) The Person Who Learned Better.
    Includes coming-of-age and personal growth stories; based on epiphany, seeing through the veil into that which was previously hidden. Often centered around an over-arching metaphor that reveals the "whatness of things."

    The human mind is great at organizing and classifying shi... er... uh... stuff. It's hard-wired and is one of the reasons why we've succeeded so well and so long. But that doesn't mean it's always right. It's why people see Jesus on a piece of toast.

    Thanks, Michael, always a fascinating subject!

    1. Sorry, Everett. Maybe it was another EK. I wouldn't have bought the book if I hadn't got that wrong! But it is interesting if turgid.

  2. Michael, thanks for the warning. And the précis of the useful part of Booker's (!!) material. Your post lets me off the hook, at least when it come to this particular volume.

    I am actually afraid of books like this one. I think I should read all the how-to books about storytelling, especially novel writing. It makes me feel guilty and cowardly that I can't bring myself to read them. But whenever I try, I start to feel as if I could never do what they author is advising. And then I get all self-conscious that I am not doing it the right way. For me darkness lies in that direction. There is a whole row of fiction writing advice books behind the screen I am facing at this moment. I'm safe here, as long as they stay back there.

    1. This really isn't a "how to" book. It is interesting but I don't think it will help write a book, and it doesn't claim to do that.
      I'd keep those books well behind the screen. You're doing just fine without them!

  3. I thank you for the cliff notes version. I've seen similar analyses before, all trying to alter the parameters of the works they discuss to meet their formulae. In this case, I must say his aversion to crime novels doesn't alter the fact that at least three of his common themes run to the very essence of crime novels: Tragedy (noir), comedy (normal), and, most obviously, Overcoming the Monster--the seminal purpose of crime writing: restoring order to a fractured society.

  4. He does see that. His thesis is that - because of the psychological impact - it's the hero who needs to change as a result of the Tragedy/Comedy/Overcoming the Monster. Of course, that's the bit I don't get!

    1. At the risk of digressing further into a debate over the number of angels dancing on the head of a mystery writer's pen, I also don't agree with the premise that "it's the hero who needs to change as a result" of the Comedy, OTM, and Tragedy themes, except possibly with "Tragedy."

      I doubt many would say Jack Reacher, or virtually any other hero in a comedy or OTM themed plot, changes in any significant manner, for it is society that changes in the process. However, because in Tragedy order is NOT restored to society, it can be the hero who experiences change--through the restoration of personal order--be it even in the darkest of ways.

      I think it's time for me to get out of the sun and into the sea.

    2. Don't go, Bro. This discussion is great. Perhaps because I write tragedies, or perhaps because I was taught in creative writing 101 that the main character has to change in any literary endeavor, my characters are changing. Especially in the Africa series. I have known from the beginning how they would change over time as the books go by. I wish I could write comedy. But I can't be funny on the page. Hallinan and I have discussed this often. He tells me what I need to do, but I just can't do it. So I am stuck with my tragedies-- the only choice since I can't seem to write anything but what happens when a colonial power takes over, is in power, or has left behind a mess that causes all kinds of havoc. That pretty much describes every novel I've written. I know a whole lot more about what I'm doing, than I did when this discussion began.

    3. Okay, sis. Then instead I'll go to a bar--a scene that has inspired many a writer to experience true life tragedy. :)

    4. By the way, in setting "Comedy" as a theme, I think Booker is using it in the Shakespearian sense that "they don't all die in the end," rather than a Hallinanian sense of Bendering your funny bone.

    5. Now there's a word I love: Hallinanian. It takes focus to type, but kind of trips off the tongue, and brings to mind an image of Tim dressed like the devil and taking care of little children.

      On the tragedy/comedy front, I often find the most touching books to be the ones that perfectly blend comedy and tragedy, leaving you with a somber feel good glow, like being in a dark room lit by a single lava lamp.

      Or something like that...

    6. Annamaria, I think your Kenya books (as a series) fit well into Booker's mold and they are not tragedies. He would see it from the point of view of the lead characters - Vera and Justin - and indeed they do develop as a result of the challenges they face. I'm not guessing the outcome of the series, but I would guess Rags to Riches rather than Tragedy.

    7. Rags to riches? Really, Michael? In stories where murders are committed and the wrong person is executed? Or the crime is solved but the murder were gets away with it? I don't get how that's rags to riches. Nobody starts out poor. Nobody ends up rich. I feel like a round peg in a square hole.

    8. L'AmA, that's better than being a square peg in a round hole. Nobody likes being around someone with lots sharp edges...

  5. And Jeff is right (as usual), Comedy doesn't need to funny. It is driven by confusion which is resolved in the "seeing whole" way. So not only doesn't everyone die, but everyone lives happily ever after.