The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This massive, in-depth work presents a unified theory of the art of storytelling based on Jungian psychology.
As I recall, this was another work that came to my attention via the Goodreads recommendation engine. When I checked out its contents on Amazon, I knew I had to get it. Here was a large, serious work on the basic plots of storytelling—a subject that I have been trying to come to grips with myself over the years. When the book arrived, I plunged in with great interest.
And in the main, the book, all 700-odd dense pages of it, sustained that interest, even as it became apparent that its scope ranged far beyond the 7 basic plots identified by the author. He mostly finishes discussing those by page 214; from then on he looks in more depth at what role storytelling plays in the human psychic economy, and finishes with a detailed look at how storytelling has, in the West anyway, undergone a convulsive change in the last 200 years, and speculates as to the causes of this convulsion. I loved the aim of this book, its seriousness, its ambition, and its depth. I loved too that the author thinks outside the box and doesn’t pull his punches in taking a dissident stand with respect to many classic and popular works of storytelling. In some of his assessments I found myself agreeing with him (Gone with the Wind); in other cases not (The Wizard of Oz, Ulysses). But throughout he is principled and consistent in his judgments, and backs them up with his comprehensive theory.
Other things I was less pleased with. For one thing, the book is chock full of spoilers. The author, in the course of his exposition, outlines many plots, old and new, in full, and if you were hoping to read or view the stories in question, they will be spoiled. Maybe that’s inevitable in a book of this type, but I think that the author could and should have made some gesture toward preventing the worst of it, perhaps by discussing a reading strategy in his introduction, or providing simple spoiler alerts in the text. For my part, when I saw that the author was about to discuss a work that I had not yet read but knew I wanted to, I would do my best to skip that summary and move on to the next. The author, Christopher Booker, has read a heckuva lot of books (in his “personal note” at the end of the book he expresses special gratitude to the Penguin Classics for providing such a large, accessible library of the world’s stories). Like many readers, I have read only a subset of that number, and I would have appreciated a sympathetic effort on the author’s part to get me through his text with minimal spoilage of the world’s literature.
Another issue for me was the author’s prose style, which, although it was competent and got the job done, I thought had some defects and lacked discipline. In a book of this great length, a serious effort should be made to tighten the text by every means possible. This wasn’t done here, and the text remains larded with adjectives, adverbs, and whole sentences that aren’t pulling their weight. A further issue was the author’s reliance on figurative language, specifically the many references to “dark” and “light” characters, using these words in just this way, in quotation marks. Aristotle warns against using metaphors in an argument, for there is the danger that the underlying literal sense will not be communicated or understood. Ordinarily, I would take dark to mean either “evil” or “vicious”, or perhaps both (if they are not the same thing), and that is in effect what the author means here, but a major part of his argument is that evil or vicious behavior arises specifically from egocentrism or selfishness, in contrast to good or virtuous behavior, which is selfless. The connection between evil, vice, and selfishness on the one hand, and between good, virtue, and selflessness on the other, is interesting and important, but it’s also controversial, and I think it was the author’s duty to sort this out for the purpose of his argument and to define his terms, that is, to say plainly and literally what he meant, and not leave it to me, the reader, to grapple with the question. Throughout the book the words “dark,” “light,” “heart,” “soul,” and “seeing whole” are used thus, in quotation marks, and are never formally defined, and this reader regarded that fact as a weakness.
But the theory that the author expounds, the actual argument of his book, is exciting and thought-provoking. In a project that began in 1969, he examined stories of the Western world to discover what their basic plots are. This project, interestingly, has seldom been undertaken seriously before. In the author’s survey of the existing literature, the earliest reference to the notion that “similar stories and situations may be found throughout literature appears in the late eighteenth-century, in James Boswell’s biography of Dr Samuel Johnson.” But Johnson left no list or even hint of what these might be. A writer named Gozzi found that there were 36 “dramatic situations,” but as the 19th century arrived, the interest in storytelling shifted to the realm of folk tales. But the finding and cataloguing of these, while it exercised scholarly minds, never amounted to a classification system into distinct story types. As far as Christopher Booker was concerned, a serious scholarly effort in this direction still needed to be done.
So he watched plays, movies, and operas, and read books—lots of them. And eventually he discerned seven basic plots or story types. And it’s no spoiler to say what they are, since they’re listed right on the cover of the book:
Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return
In the first 228 pages the author sketches the outlines of these plots, giving examples from vastly different times and literary genres. Along the way there are a number of striking revelations. I was astonished when the author described a list of typical events in an Overcoming the Monster plot, and showed how the list applied equally well to the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh’s journey to combat the monster Humbaba and to Ian Fleming’s 1958 James Bond novel, Dr. No. This by itself was a convincer for me that he was on to something.
Giving many and diverse examples, the author shows how almost every story can be reduced to one or more of these 7 plots—for many stories combine them. The author asserts, for example, that The Lord of the Rings combines all 7 of them. Some of the identifications are surprising and thought provoking. For example, he finds that War and Peace, in terms of the 7 plots, is essentially a Comedy! That is, its main plot conforms with the characteristics of Comedy as he defines it: a story about young couples overcoming the obstacles to realizing that they are meant to be together.
Why 7 basic plots? Where did they come from? Here we come to the heart of the author’s theory about storytelling. Stories exist in order to help us all mature and live fulfilling lives. They do this by giving symbolic representation to factors at work in our unconscious minds and showing how they must be worked with if we are to become complete, adult human beings. In particular, the author avails himself of the concepts of Jungian psychology to say that storytelling provides us all with a kind of map for how to grow from a condition of narrow egocentrism to one of wise, balanced wholeness. The hero or heroine of any story represents the ego, the archetype of our conscious self, as it confronts the difficult challenges to becoming more adequate to life. The villain of a story represents the ego’s shadow, the archetype of the wicked personality that carries the negative traits of egohood, which boil down to selfishness. Often a story will have a love interest for the hero; this character represents what Jung called the anima (or animus in the case of a heroine), the personification of his own unconscious, who fascinates and excites him, and whom he must win if he is to achieve fulfillment and wholeness.
The deepest and most powerful archetype of them all is called the Self, which is identical with the total person and not to be confused with the ego, which stands only for the center of conscious experience. Jung referred to the Self as the “god-image in man”; in its most positive aspect it represents the end of all aspiration and all striving, the complete actualization of a human being, beyond the petty and selfish aims of the ego. Like all the archetypes, though, the Self is unconscious and cannot be made conscious; its existence can only be inferred from the images and symbols that arise and point to it as their source. In storytelling, the Self manifests as the state of the hero when he has overcome all opposition and won through to a happy ending. The true and complete happy ending, according to this author, is one in which the hero has vanquished the villain, married the “princess”—the woman he loves—and has succeeded, with her, to a “kingdom” of some kind, which they will rule together. This fairy-tale ending remains the most emotionally satisfying for an audience, because it most accurately represents, in symbolic form, the psychological aims of human life. The fairy-tale ending shows the ego fully realized, in harmonious, complete relationship with the Self. That is exactly what makes the ending a happy one, giving a sense of fulfillment with nothing further to be done.
The great task of human life is to realize this relationship with the Self. It is primarily an inner work, which requires courage and determination—the qualities of a hero. The great danger is that we will be seduced by false gods along the way, that we will not be able to look past our ego and will consume our lives in inflating it and gratifying it. When we do this we become vicious—we become villains. And if we take villainy to its furthest extreme, we become monsters. And Overcoming the Monster, the first of the 7 basic plots, is exactly, according to the author, about the challenge of overcoming an ego that has metastasized to its ugliest state. For the monsters of stories are not the same as the “monsters” of nature—the crocodiles and sharks. The monsters of stories add the qualities of malice and cunning: human qualities, which show them to be not natural creatures, but hideously deformed humans. That is what makes them so frightening.
And it turns out that the order of plots in the list is not random, but rather presents a rough progression of story types, each showing the educational journey of the ego-hero in a different light. Along the way are many fascinating insights. I found especially interesting the discussion of the evolution of Comedy, the only one of the plot types that has actually changed over time. The author shows how Comedy began as the Old Comedy of ancient Athens, most famously exemplified in the plays of Aristophanes. These were social comedies that pitted the individual against society or group against group. Old Comedy gave way to the New Comedy of Menander and the Roman comedians, which was now romantic comedy, in which a young pair of lovers are blocked from fulfilling their desire for marriage by the powers that be—usually their parents. Later, Comedy morphed again, so that by the time of Shakespeare it is no longer external authorities who are keeping the lovers apart, but now, sometimes, qualities within the characters themselves, such as in All’s Well That Ends Well or The Taming of the Shrew. The author thinks that Comedy is continuing to evolve, so that in some contemporary comedies the obstacle to the union of the lovers is no longer any particular vice in them, but simply in the whirl of circumstance in which they find themselves, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
The author goes on to discuss the causes and symptoms of what he regards as the degeneration of storytelling in the last 250 years. According to him, writers moved away from stories that celebrated the virtues representing the Self (strength, intelligence, compassion, wisdom), and wrote stories instead that glorified the ego, stories in which vice triumphs over virtue. A work such as Justine by the Marquis de Sade, in which a virtuous young woman is tortured by a cruel sexual deviant, a monster, who goes unpunished, would have been unthinkable to ancient writers. The trend continued on into the 20th century, with the appearance of stories that merely presented enigmatic, unresolved situations, such as Waiting for Godot. All this represents the triumph of ego regarding itself as the supreme principle in the world. The author believes that such stories are based on fantasy, as opposed to imagination. And while he discusses this distinction a little, I would have liked him to go into much more detail, for it is a fascinating idea.
There are many fascinating ideas in this book, and many striking and original insights. I loved his discussions of Hamlet and of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. I found his analyses of the psychologies of individual authors absorbing, even as I have hesitations about interpreting writers’ works based on facts of their biographies, never mind their presumed character flaws. I loved his ability to draw parallels, surprisingly close ones, between such disparate works as the Book of Job and Nineteen Eighty-Four. All this was great.
I suppose I would sum up by saying that The Seven Basic Plots is a great idea for a book, and well and thoroughly thought out. The author presents his ideas, many of which dissent from scholarly and critical consensus, confidently, which I like. The actual prose I found to be a bit flabby and uninspired, and the material could well have been put into three separate books. The problem of spoilers is a serious practical issue for the reader who is still looking forward to enjoying many of the works he discusses.
But if you’re interested in stories and their structure, I think you’ve got to read this.