The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker

reviewed by Carl Slater

Perhaps you have heard that there are no new stories, there are only the retelling of old stories. Or maybe you have heard it said that there are only a small number of basic stories. Well, Christopher Booker took these statements seriously, and spent a lifetime writing his book about them and published it in 2004. He asserts in the beginning that there are only seven basic plots:

  • Overcoming the Monster as exemplified by Beowulf and Star Wars,
  • Rags to Riches with Joseph in the Bible and David Copperfield being good examples,
  • The Quest typified by The Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark,
  • Voyage and Return with Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe being good examples,
  • Comedy exemplified by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Crocodile Dundee,
  • Tragedy as illustrated by The Oresteia and Anna Karenina, and
  • Rebirth with Sleeping Beauty and Crime and Punishment as good examples.

In the first third of the book as he identifies each of these plots he describes their structures and variations in some detail. For example, with the Voyage and Return plot, besides it fitting literally what the words say, he identifies three main variants on the theme: there may be a true growth and transformation, such as experienced by Robinson Crusoe, there may be a return but no change at all, usually when a relationship with someone of the opposite sex in that other world has been involved, as characterized by Orpheus, or there may be a totally negative outcome, meaning no return at all, and for this he gives the examples of Kafka’s The Trial and Metamorphosis.

What makes his book even more interesting is that he goes on to make two stunning assertions. First he asserts, that these seven basic plots ultimately reduce themselves to one basic story, a universal plot. He links this basic structure to Jung’s theory of the archetypes underlying human behavior, and goes on to state that because they are “imprinted unconsciously in our minds, we cannot conceive of stories in any other way.” (p. 216) The evolving structure these universal stories take is:

  • “(1) This begins with an initial phase when we are shown how the hero or heroine feel in some way constricted. This sets up the tension requiring resolution which leads into the action of the story.
  • (2) This is followed by a phase of opening out, as the hero or heroine sense that they are on the road to some new state or some far-off point of resolution.
  • (3) Eventually this leads to a more severe phase of constriction, where the strength of the dark power and the hero or heroine’s limitations in face of it both become more obvious.
  • (4) We then see a phase where, although the dark power is still dominant, the light elements in the story are preparing for the final confrontation. This eventually works up to the nightmare climax, when opposition between light and dark is at its most extreme and the pressure on everyone involved is at its greatest.
  • (5)This culminates in the moment of reversal and liberation, when the grip of the darkness is finally broken. The story thus ends on the sense of a final opening out into life, with everything at last resolved.”(P. 228)

Having laid out the individual structures of the seven basic plots and the universal structure, he then proceeds in the next third of the book to identify and describe the recurrent but limited set of characters in stories.

Specifically, he proceeds through the Jungian cast of characters: the dark figures, the feminine and masculine values, the archetypal family drama, and the light figures as they structure and illuminate the stories. The dark figures are those who oppose the hero and/or heroine in the struggle toward maturity, and may include any of the following: the dark father, the dark mother, the dark rivals, or the dark other half. The hero, or heroine, must, to achieve his goal, develop and embrace in himself the masculine values of strength and order as well as the feminine values of understanding and feeling.

Ultimately for the story to succeed there must be an interplay, repeated again and again in stories, among the father, the mother, the hero, and the heroine. And in most cases the ultimate resolution will require some guidance provided by the light figures, most often a wise old man or Jung’s anima.

Booker’s second major assertion is that storytelling in the past two centuries, beginning with the onset of the period of Romanticism, has shifted, and some stories have “become detached from their underlying archetypal purpose…that the central goal of any human life is to achieve the state of perfect balance which we recognize as maturity; and how the central enemy in reaching that goal is our capacity to be held back by the deforming and ultimately self-destructive power of egocentricity.” (p. 347-348)

During this time egocentricity was allowed to run rampant while at the same time the imprinted rules of storytelling held the stories true to human nature. He illustrates these points with the stories The Scarlet and The Black by Stendahl and Moby Dick by Melville.

In The Scarlet and The Black, Julien Sorel is driven by blind ambition to succeed at all costs in the social world and does so until he is brought down by his own undoing, and the rules of storytelling. Just when he reaches the social pinnacle he desires, his fortunes are threatened by a revealing letter from a former lover. He rushes to his former home, shoots her while she sits in church, is convicted, and executed by the guillotine.

In Moby Dick, as we all know, Captain Ahab is obsessed with the hunting down and killing of the white whale, Moby Dick, to satisfy his vengeance against the animal who bit off his leg on a previous expedition. In seeking his revenge he sacrifices not only the lives of his sailors, but, in a victory for the rules of storytelling, his own life too.

Booker asserts that the price paid for man’s seeming emancipation from what he calls his “natural frame” brought about by Romanticism was a severing not only of his links to the natural world, meaning that world outside himself, but also from his own deeper nature inside. He spends the next section of the book exploring these deviant story patterns, or what he calls “Missing the Mark.”

In a final chapter, Booker makes the assertion, derived from Jung, that all animals have two sets of instincts, a physical set of instincts which tell them what to do about eating, sleeping, and carrying out the functions that keep them individually alive, and an ordering set of instincts which tell them how to behave in groups of their species, to preserve the species.

Humans, he asserts, do have intact the first set of instincts, the physical ones, but “the fall” means they have lost the innocence of the second set, and in a sense, are left floundering on their own when it comes to the second set, the ordering ones. What happens, then, is that the selfish ego is disconnected from the restraining influences of the unconscious, and all sorts of mischief happens when the ego runs unfettered; it becomes the monster. Stories in human culture become the device that was evolved to reassert the power of order; stories tell us how to behave in relation to other human beings to keep from destroying the species.

Booker’s final assessment is that:“What stories can tell us, however, much more profoundly than we have realized, is how our human nature works, and why we think and behave in this world as we do.” (p. 698)

My Evaluation — After all is said and done, over seven hundred pages of it in The Seven Basic Plots, I find I have some ambivalence about this book. I spent most of my adult life looking for a book like this, and one that would confirm the impressions I had developed from my years of reading stories as well as watching them in movies.

And I, like Booker, am a lumper. By that I refer to a comment made by a colleague of mine who once said, “The world is made up of lumpers and splitters.” Clearly, Booker is a lumper, for not only did he reduce all stories to seven basic plots, but he then proceeded to reduce them further to one universal plot. On all of this I find myself in agreement and feeling enlightened by his thorough going analysis, an impression confirmed by repeated reading.

What troubles me, and what nagged at me throughout the book, enough so that I abandoned the book for several months, however, was Booker’s anchoring of the explanation for what he observed in a Jungian analysis of archetypes, which he talks about as immutable. Throughout the book he makes the point that these archetypes and their relation to storytelling is “imprinted in the unconscious” to the degree that they cannot be escaped, even when the author seems to vary from their scripting. I have trouble with such a deterministic view, although I will confess to lacking any other explanation for the seeming convergence of story plots. Nonetheless, I believe this book to be of greater depth than anything I have read in the last several years. It is in my mind profound and thought provoking.

The Seven Basic Plots Blogspot

These pages contain a summary of Christopher Booker’s seminal work, The Seven Basic Plots, from Continuum Press, 2004. This blog contains an especially good summary of each of the plots.

The Seven Basic Plots (click on each one for a detailed consideration and descriptions of examples)

2 Responses

  1. Teri Hartman
    Teri Hartman August 1, 2015 at 8:54 pm | | Reply

    I haven’t gotten to the Jungian philosophy bit yet, but I can understand why it troubles you. It seems a little too neat and tidy, don’t you think? I find that the examples he provides become exhaustive after awhile. I’m not sure if he’s just trying to prove his point by the amount of examples he provides, but usually after the second one, I skim the rest of the chapter. I’m like, “I get it!”

    Having said that, this book (I’m sure) will be helpful to any fiction writer. If they can distill their book idea to one (or two) of these basic plots, structuring the book would be fairly easy.

    1. Carl Slater
      Carl Slater August 3, 2015 at 6:42 am | | Reply

      Teri,
      Though I find myself quibbling with some of the things Booker asserts in this book, overall I still think it is the most profound book about literature I have ever read. I find myself still going back to it a couple of times a year to refresh my understanding of what he has said.
      I also use his framework to classify in terms of one of his seven plots every book of fiction I read.

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