The Stories We Tell: Seven Basic Plots

Posted by on Jun 15, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Though writing with a little teaching and preaching has been the main focus of my Sabbatical time at Spurgeon’s College, I have also taken the opportunity to broaden my reading, and in doing so, came across Christopher Booker’s classic The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. Now truth to tell, I did not read it all (as in 728 pages – which took Booker 37 years to research and write) but read some and skimmed other parts to get a reasonable sense of the key ideas, which I thought worth discussing.

Early on in the book Booker makes the not too remarkable observation that most stories follow a meta-narrative pattern of five predicatable stages, which usually follow in sequence. Put differently, your average book/movie/TV show walks you through an opening stage of anticipation (where a hero is introduced, and some challenge accepted), followed by a dream stage (things go well, and we are sure that our hero is invincible), frustration (the first major setback, the clear introduction of the villian, and the awareness that even heros are vulnerable), nightmare (where things go from bad to worse) and resolution (where everything is sorted, be it for good [a happy story] or ill [a tragedy or disturbing story]). Postmodern stories sometimes delight in reordering this sequence, but in essence, it is present in most stories. Good writers know this, and plan and balance their plot lines accordingly.

More interestingly (from my perspective) Booker suggests that all stories ultimately break down into one of seven kinds. He describes these as

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

A quick comment on each, and then a reflection. With each of the seven types it is worth asking why they have such enduring appeal – and Booker argues that you find all seven in all cultures at every period of human history. Somehow relating to and understanding our lives in the light of these seven basic stories is fundamental to what it means to be human – which is why I find Bookers work interesting, and of theological significance – though to be clear, Booker certainly has no intention to write as a theologian.

Overcoming the monster stories are very common, and usually involve a threat to either the hero or the heros homeland, by a villain (often human, but sometimes a monster) who is almost always seen as profoundly evil. War movies, James Bond stories, even Star Wars are examples of the “overcoming the monster” genre. It is good versus evil, and tells of a clear and present danger which must be overcome.

Rags to riches stories are heartening. Be it Cinderella, Great Expectations or Alladin (Rosemary and I saw the musical in London last week -not that I’m bragging), we delight in the rise of a worthy poor person to fame, fortune and love. Naturally interest must be created, so the sequence of anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare, resolution is followed, but in the end, rags to riches stories usually have a happy resolution, and something inside of us feels better. Perhaps this will one day be our story…

The quest sees the hero (usually with some companions, one or two of whom will prove disloyal) set off on some noble task to find a lost location or missing treasure or to achieve an important goal. Many temptations, dangers and obstacles are faced along the way (where else would the interest come from?) but some form of resolution is ultimately achieved. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Pilgrim’s Progress are good examples.

Voyage and return stories picks up on a fundamental human theme, that of moving into unfamiliar territory, the adventures that result and the lessons that are learnt, followed by the return – with the hero usually changed in some fundamental way, most often for the better. In this genre think of the Chronicles of Narnia, Back to the Future – even Finding Nemo.

Comedy usually arises in tales (very often about love) where one misunderstanding leads to another with confusion mounting relentlessly, but eventually finding a happy resolution. We probably enjoy the reassurance provided by such stories, hoping that our own conflicts might be little more than humerous misunderstandings which will ultimately be resolved. There are so many examples of this… Bridget Jones Diary being my favourite (am I allowed to confess that…)

Tragedy usually tells of the story of an essentially good character, but with one fatal flaw, which eventually leads to their downfall. The classic example is Hamlet, but there are many others – The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bonnie and Clyde and Julius Ceasar being a few examples. These are often salutatory tales warning of pitfalls that could so easily be ours – for like the tragic hero, we are good in so many ways, but often face an inner shadow which could be our undoing.

Rebirth stories usually tell of a greatly flawed character who as a result of a major event or challenge has to face their inner demons, and in doing so, finds redemption. In this genre you can place A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me, and Beauty and the Beast. Rebirth stories are often conversion stories, and the Bible is full of them, though you find instances of all seven of the genres within scripture.

Naturally the book has its critics, the most common (and predictible) being of oversimplification – and of course there are major generalizations. But as I often say, while good generalizations are not always true, they generally are. So long as you leave some room for the exceptions, all is well. I think this applies here. Think through a novel you’ve recently read or a movie you’ve seen, and ask if it fits into one of these classifications. I strongly suspect that most (though not all) will. If not, you might have unusual taste – and nothing wrong with that.

More importantly, I see these seven themes as seven major life refrains – basic concerns which impact us all. It can be useful to ask if you are living some of these themes right now. Christians are often inspired by a worthy quest from God – and many long to find one. Daily life can feel like overcoming the monster, be it the boss at work, difficult relatives or an impossible neighbour. Voyage and return is a story close to many – with “finding home again” a longing deep within our heart. Christian faith centres around the possibility of rebirth – and reminds us that the “villian” inside of us is usually greater than we imagined, but is capable of conversion. And we know all too well that tragedy will ultimately befall us if we refuse to face our inner demon/s. Oh, and where would Lotto be if somewhere inside of us we didn’t hope to be the rags to riches hero.

These are our stories – and identifying where we are in the plot can help us to understand our present position, and give direction to our prayers. We all have to live our story, but if we have some understanding of its direction and drivers, perhaps we will draw closer to a rewarding resolution.

As always, nice chatting…

 

 

 

 

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