Sticking to the Plot

I’ve been working on a seminar for teachers called “Snow White and the Seven Reading Strategies”, which is Plotsan exploration of the processes we automatically engage in as sophisticated readers, but which are not always made explicit to developing readers. It’s my contention that if they were, and if they were rehearsed often enough, they would provide young readers with an understanding of why reading is so important and how it relates to their development in the world. Central to this view is the notion that “reading” applies to all forms of text – written, audio, visual or digital – and that in order to understand how we read, we need first to come to an understanding of why we read, and why we tell stories. Which, as it happens, is the sub-title of Christopher Booker’s amazing study of books and reading, The Seven Basic Plots.

It is a hugely ambitious task, and some would argue that it fails in its ultimate goal, which is to convince us that every successful story ever told or written or filmed can be categorised under one of only seven basic plot structures: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy and Rebirth. However, whether you end up agreeing with Booker or not, it is a fascinating 700-page journey through the history of story-telling.

If you want to know what the key elements of each of the plots are, but don’t particularly want to read the book, here is a summary:

One –  Overcoming the Monster

“The realm of storytelling contains nothing stranger or more spectacular than this terrifying, life-threatening, seemingly all-powerful monster whom the hero must confront in a fight to the death.”

Genres: War, Hollywood Western, Thriller, Science Fiction

Plot Structure:

  • Anticipation stage (newspaper report etc)
  • Dream stage (still a remote threat)
  • Frustration stage (enormity of task)
  • Nightmare stage (all seems doomed)
  • Miraculous Escape (and death of the monster)

Examples: Greek myths (Perseus/Medusa, Theseus and the Minotaur etc); Frankenstein; Dracula; The Magnificent Seven; Jurassic Park; Jaws; The Three Musketeers; The Bond stories; Star Wars; War of the Worlds; Quatermass and the Pit; The Towering Inferno; Fairy Tales inc Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk.

Two – Rags to Riches

“Again and again in the storytelling of the world we come across a certain image which seems to hold a peculiar fascination for us. We see an ordinary, insignificant person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps to the centre of the stage, revealed to be someone quite exceptional.”

Common features:

  • we meet the hero or heroine when they are still very young – the story is about “growing up”
  • they are at the bottom of the heap – often the youngest child
  • they are usually overshadowed by a “dark figure” or dominant character (wicked stepmother, jealous rival etc) who fails to see the true qualities of the main character because of their own egocentricity

Plot Structure:-

The story tends to fall into two distinct stages, separated by a central crisis, where in Part One there is an initial rise in the hero’s fortunes, showing a glimpse of what might be possible, when a crisis occurs which seems to snatch away all hope of a happy ending, before,Jane in Part Two, the hero is unwittingly prepared for their final reversal of fortune, emergence into the light and glorious state of completeness.

Familiar Stages of Plot:

  •  Initial wretchedness and the “call”
  •  Out into the world – initial success
  •  The central crisis
  •  Independence and final ordeal
  •  Final union, completion and fulfilment

Examples: The Ugly Duckling; My Fair Lady; Dick Whittington, Superman; David Copperfield; Cinderella; The Gold Rush; Jane Eyre.

Three – The Quest

“No type of story is more instantly recognizable to us than a Quest. Far away, we learn, there is some priceless goal, worth any effort to achieve: a treasure; a promised land; something of infinite value. From the moment the hero learns of this prize, the need to set out on a long, hazardous journey to reach it becomes the most important thing to him in the world.”

Common Features:

Unlike other kinds of stories, the hero is usually accompanied by one or more friends who may be –

  • a large number of anonymous helpers ( or army)
  • an alter-ego or close friend (Hamlet/Horatio)
  • a foil or opposite of the hero
  • a group whose various characteristics complement each other and add up to “the whole”

In addition to all the negative figures the hero and his companions meet on the journey, they also meet (and are helped by) others, usually in the form of “an old man” and “a young woman”.

NB. One of the most surprising things about the Quest plot is that the journey only makes up half the story. The entire second half of The Odyssey for example describes what follows when Odysseus arrives incognito back on his island to find his kingdom in near total disarray.lord_of_the_rings_2

 Plot Structure:

  • The Call – the hero receives a sign that he must make a long and difficult journey to save a community/country/planet etc
  • The Journey – the hero and his companions set out across hostile terrain and face a series of life-threatening ordeals (these usually fall into one of four categories – monsters, temptations, the “deadly opposites” or journey to the underworld)
  • Arrival and Frustration – the hero arrives within sight of his goal but a new set of obstacles presents itself
  • The Final Ordeals – the hero has to undergo a final series of tests (often 3) to prove he is worthy of the prize
  • The Goal – after a last “thrilling escape from death” the treasure, or the princess, or the goal is won

As with’ Overcoming the Monster’ and’ Rags to Riches’, the hero of ‘The Quest’ begins with a sense of constriction, experiences a sense of enlargement as he moves out into the world, faces a final, more serious sense of constriction in the final ordeal, before becoming liberated and overthrowing the dark forces and reaching a state of light or fulfilment.

Examples: Homer’s Odyssey; Pilgrim’s Progress; Treasure Island; Lord of the Rings; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Watership Down; Around the World in Eighty Days

Four – Voyage and Return

 “The essence of the Voyage and Return story is that its hero or heroine (or the central group of characters) travel out of their familiar, everyday, “normal” surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first, where everything seems disconcertingly abnormal. At first the strangeness of this new world, with its freaks and marvels, may seem diverting, even exhilarating, if also highly perplexing. But gradually a shadow intrudes. The hero or heroine feels increasingly threatened, even trapped, until eventually (usually by way of a “thrilling escape”) they are released from the abnormal world and can return to the safety of the familiar world where they began.”

Common Features:

Voyage and Return stories tend to fall into two categories; stories which describe a journey to a distant land beyond the known world, and those which describe a journey to a magical or imaginary world closer to home (often children’s stories).

NB. A variation of the above is the “social Voyage and Return” where the journey takes the hero or heroine into a different social milieu (eg Waugh’s Decline and Fall or Brideshead Revisited; Greene’s The Third Man; L P Hartley’s The Go-Between).

Plot Structure:back_to_the_future

  • Anticipation stage – the “fall” into other world (through sleepiness, boredom, recklessness etc)
  • Initial Fascination or Dream stage – hero is initially curious
  • Frustration stage – mood of adventure changes to one of frustration, difficulty and oppression
  • Nightmare stage – serious threat to hero’s survival
  • Thrilling Escape and Return – how have they learned from the experience?

Examples: Alice in Wonderland; Goldilocks and the Three Bears; The Time Machine; Gone with the Wind; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Wizard of Oz; Lord of the Flies; Robinson Crusoe; Journey to the Centre of the Earth; Gulliver’s Travels.

Five – Comedy

“Comedy is a very special kind of story. It isn’t simply any kind of story which is funny. Some very funny stories have quite different kinds of plots….but what it is that shapes the plot of Comedy, that provides the common bond between say, a Marx Brothers film and a play by Shakespeare, an American musical and a novel by Jane Austen, a Mozart opera and a story by P G Wodehouse, requires a little unraveling…”

“What we are looking at when confronted by a fully developed Comedy is not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. By the time a jigsaw is complete, it seems obvious that there is only one way it could have ended up, with each piece in its proper place and fitting perfectly together with all the others. In Comedy, the key to bringing this to light is the process of ‘recognition’…”

“The essence of Comedy is always that some redeeming truth has to be brought out of the shadows into the light.”

Plot Structure:marx

  • We see a world where people have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, and are shut off from one another
  • The confusion gets worse until the pressure of darkness is at its most acute
  • Finally, with the coming to light of things not previously recognised, perceptions are dramatically changed. The shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously transformed and the little world is brought together in a state of joyful union.

Examples: Shakespeare’s Comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Twelfth Night; The Merchant of Venice etc); The Marriage of Figero; Pride and Prejudice; Sense and Sensibility; War and Peace; The Importance of Being Earnest; Marx Brothers; Some Like it Hot; Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Six – Tragedy

“Sooner or later, in any attempt to explore the deeper patterns which shape story-telling, we are brought up against one central, overwhelming fact. This is the way in which, through all the millions of stories thrown up by the human imagination, just two endings have far outweighed all others. Either it ends with a man and a woman united in love. Or it ends in a death.”

Plot Structure:romeo-and-juliet

  • Anticipation stage – the hero is in some way incomplete or infulfilled
  • Dream stage – for a while things seem to go improbably well
  • Frustration stage – almost imperceptibly things start to go wrong
  • Nightmare stage – things are slipping seriously out of the hero’s control. He has a mounting sense of threat and despair
  • Destruction and Death Wish stage – the hero is destroyed, either by forces he has aroused against him or by some final act of violence

Examples: Greek myth of Icarus; Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde; Lolita; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Bonnie and Clyde; Shakespeare’s Tragedies (Romeo and Juliet; Macbeth; King Lear etc)

Seven – Rebirth

“A hero or heroine falls under a dark spell, which eventually traps them in some wintry state, akin to a living death: physical or spiritual imprisonment, sleep, sickness or some other form of enchantment. For a long time they languish in this frozen condition. Then a miraculous act of redemption takes place, focused on a particular figure who helps to liberate the hero or heroine from imprisonment. From the depths of darkness they are brought up into glorious light.”

Plot Structure:

  • A young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of the dark power
  • For a while everything seems to go reasonably well; the threat may even seem to have receded
  • Eventually it returns again in full force, until the hero or heroine is seen imprisoned in the state of living death
  • This continues for a long time, when it seems that the dark power has completely triumphed
  • Finally comes the miraculous redemption either, where the imprisoned figure is a heroine, by the hero, or where it is the hero, by a young woman or a child

The power of the Rebirth story is in the contrast between the condition of the hero or heroine in their frozen or imprisoned state and the moment when the liberation begins.

 Common/Contrasting Imagerychristmas-carol1

Coldness/Warmth      Hardness/Softness          Despair/Hope

Immobility/Movement      Constriction/Liberation

Sleep/Awakening     Darkness/Light      Sickness/ Health    Decay/Growth

Isolation/Conjoining      Torment/ Happiness      Lack of love/Love

Examples: Sleeping Beauty; Snow White; The Frog Prince; Beauty and the Beast; The Snow Queen; A Christmas Carol; Crime and Punishment; The Secret Garden

So there you have it. Can you think of any stories which don’t come in to one or more of these categories? Incidentally, the reason we tell stories is covered in the second half of the book and is a whole new blog post. I’m sure I’ll get round to it.

27 thoughts on “Sticking to the Plot

  1. Hi Bill
    As a team of literacy consultants we have found Christopher Booker’s book of the 7 plots incredibly supportive and are using it to structure a course around reading and writing fiction. We have converted the 7 plots (blueprints)into child speak – please see the medium term plans folder on our site http://www.deseducation.org/literacy and have also started to categorise some children’s literature that we call texts that teach according to their plot blueprint.
    We did find that children’s picture books don’t always fit the blueprints – one of the reasons being that many are fictional recounts. We thought that we wouldn’t find many that would come under the comedy and tragedy blueprints but were wrong again!
    Embedding language patterns has a very high profile in teaching literacy at present and sharing these is another way of allowing children to see some of the underlying structures of our world.

  2. Hi Steven. Thanks for responding. I’m quite sure that many attempts have been made to categorise and simplify the number and types of narrative structures since Aristotle in The Poetics. From what I can see Propp suggested a typology of narrative structures which could be applied specifically to the Russian fairy tale, but also proposed that there were seven – interestingly enough – character types which could define the characters found in all stories.

    Bill

  3. Joy,
    Thanks for the contribution. I will certainly check out the work you are doing with the children’s literature. I like what you are saying about embedding language patterns as significant in the development of literacy. The work I do is mainly focused on the 10-14 age group and the development of “fluent-comprehending” readers rather than on early years, but of the reading strategies I have identified and promoted, “Looking for Patterns” is one of them – whether it be patterns of word choice, sentence structures, imagery, symbols or themes – and I think it also relates to the recognition and understanding of genre.

    Bill

  4. As a writer, I think about plot structure as a writing tool and am always looking for the basic plot structure when I’m reading; however, I had not considered plot structure as a method of helping new readers understand how and why they read. I am the mother of two children with highly divergent reading abilities and preferences and I had not considered talking to them about finding the purpose in what they were reading. I can promise you I now will!

    • I think one should always consider the purpose of a book s/he reads, i.e. what an author was trying to communicate to us and why it was written on the first place… Reading just for the sake of reading itself is just a wasted time, I think. While reading we learn how others perceive the reality and discover their ideas, taking a view form another angle. That enriches us … like in your example, Cindi, you have enriched yourself by reading this article, as you state, and now will pass it on to your children. It will definitely help them think while reading not just follow the lines. That I call a proactive approach🙂

      • “Reading just for the sake of reading is just wasted time”? What utter nonsense. I pity you if you do not know the pleasure of reading for its own sake. Reading offers the perfect escape from a world which insists too much upon us and expects us to be performing at 100 per cent efficiency all the time. It’s an entertainment. Don;’t suppose you think much of being entertained for its own sake either, then? Proactive my foot. Life is life is life. Attend to the things that must be attended to and let the rest of your time be given over to things which are blissfully ‘wasteful’ I say.

      • Well, I completely agree that reading is fun! But even fairy tales have wisdom between the lines. They do teach children what is considered to be right or wrong behavior, e.g. like ridiculing greed and praising generosity. Reading shouldn’t be like watching a lousy TV show which you forget as soon as you switch off your TV. In your philosophy you remind me of “Peer Gynt” who lives in the world of senses, and is a slave to his own desires and moods. Such lifestyle is based on a simple criteria: whether it’s fun or boring to do something. Danish philosopher Kierkegaard calls it aesthetic stage of human personal growth and many end their life at it. There’s nothing wrong with it but one doesn’t really use fully his/her intellectual potential.
        On your place I would do the same as Bill did (see his post below) and get yourself a book on “How to read literature” … just for your personal development.

  5. Hi Cindi,
    Interesting comment from the writer’s perspective. The danger of course is that if you over-analyse you run the risk of putting them off reading altogether. That’s the problem that teachers face all the time of course – think of the number of school-leavers over the years who would never read poetry again after we managed to ruin it for them!

    Bill

  6. Hi!
    Very interesting article! Thank you very much! Amazing indeed that ALL literature could be put under only 7 categories. Where would you put a plot of the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – under Tragedy?

  7. No, thank Christopher Bloomer. All I did was reduce a 700-page book to a few hundred words. It is quite a fascinating read though, and you will find yourself scratching your head at some of ther things he claims. As for Benjamin Button, I haven’t read it or seen the film, but I would guess from the synopsis that it is indeed a tragedy.

    Bill

  8. I found this really interesting. I’m a writer and it’s interesting to see types of stories broken down into these points. I would be interested in seeing more of your “Snow White and the Seven Reading Strategies” eventually (:

    I’ll be back, I need all the writing tips and hints I can get.

    Also, I was wondering if you ever reviewed writing.

  9. Bill, I will definitely read it, thanks for the great summary again. Re. “Benjamin Button” I found the idea quite fascinating and to me it’s one of a few screen plays which is really worth seeing. It is about a phenomenon of life, therefore, I am not quite sure that we should squeeze it in order to be able to put it under tragedy category …. I would suggest to come up with an additional group for that, even though it will destroy the title (or it could be a Snow White)🙂

  10. Thanks for a fascinating post. The danger however, is that this interesting description may become a blueprint for the reader or writer with readers judging the ‘quality’ of a plot by how well it adheres to the ‘outline,’ and writers pondering how to ensure they’ve ticked all the boxes. The true art of reading and writing is to push the rules to the breaking point and beyond.

  11. First of all, this book looks really interesting, so it’s going on the Christmas List. Secondly, I have a reading suggestion for you: How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, by Thomas C. Foster. It’s a really good read and could help students new to critical/close reading understand some major recurring symbols and themes. There is also a “sequel” (How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form), but I haven’t had time to read it yet.

  12. Boomerang, thanks for the patronising advice and the sneering comparisons to Peer Gynt. However I really don;t need your ‘self-improvement books’ or your opinions – I have a PhD in English Literature thanks all the same and yet still find your slavish attitude that reading must be practical to be sterile and lacking in imagination. Good luck with that.

  13. That is an interesting concept. I don’t think that every story can be categorized into 7 categories but I can see the benefits this may have for students learning the importance of reading. I’m not an English teacher but am always looking to understand better ways to teach. I think it’s great that people are still looking for ways to do this! Thanks for posting this. Good stuff!

  14. I view the Reading Styles you identify as Comedy and Tragedy a bit differently — not as a standalone reading strategy, but as a subset of a Morality Play, or Morality Tale.

    Take Comedy, for instance. You write: “We see a world where people have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, and are shut off from one another.” We often find that this shadow of confusion comes from a challenge to one’s (or society’s) moral sense. Your Tragedy stages tend to avoid the fact that Anticipation, Dream, etc., are all examinations of what happens when one takes the road not endorsed by moral society.

    In a Comedy, the moral dilemma is resolved happily.
    In a Tragedy, the moral dilemma is resolved unhappily.

    • Hi Paul,
      The categories identified are described as plot structures rather then strategies – I think I used the word strategies in relation to a seminar I am preparing. However, I would like to stress that the seven plots named are not mine but belong to the author Christopher Booker. I am not necessarily agreeing with the categorisation but simply summarising them to give readers a flavour of the book.

      Bill

  15. A really useful summary, Bill. Many thanks.
    I admit I lost the will to live (or at least to read on) about 2/3 of the way through Booker’s work so I am mighty grateful to you for this.
    There is a balance to be struck between sheer enjoyment of reading and meta-awareness of structure, plot, etc. These higher order reading skills are essential but we fail if learners end up rejecting text (of whatever type) because of over-analysis.

    • Hi Hilery,
      Absolutely agree with you. I know we have had the discussion before but I suppose what I was trying to discover was why narratives have such a significance to us as human beings and whether there is a finite number of patterns. It is a bit ironic that the book itself probably would not stand up to too much scrutiny in terms of its structure!

      Rgds
      Bill

  16. Pingback: Writer’s Mail « Tuesdays with Story

  17. Pingback: Plotting and structure « Eagle Creek Writers Group

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