I’ve been working on a seminar for teachers called “Snow White and the Seven Reading Strategies”, which is an 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.”
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.”
- 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
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, 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.”
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.
- 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.”
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).
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
Coldness/Warmth Hardness/Softness Despair/Hope
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.