The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, is a 2004 book by Christopher Booker containing a Jung-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning. Booker worked on the book for thirty-four years.
In Climaxing the Midpoint, we dipped our left big toe just a shy into the waters of Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots with the following summation:
1. Overcoming the Monster: The (good) protagonist sets out to defeat the (evil) antagonist force which threatens the protagonist and/or their homeland.
2. Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing into a changed and wiser person as a result.
3. The Quest: The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location while facing temptations and other obstacles along the way.
4. Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to them, they return with experience.
5. Comedy: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Though comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. The majority of romance films fall into this category.
6. Tragedy: The protagonist’s character flaw or great mistake which is their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.
7. Rebirth: An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better person.
Booker’s Seven Basic Plots are further simplified as follows:
1. Overcoming the Monster = hero and the bad guy.
2. Rags to Riches = success and crisis.
3. The Quest = seeking and finding.
4. Voyage and Return = boldly exploring.
5. Comedy = from confusion to enlightenment.
6. Tragedy = the price of fatal flaws.
7. Rebirth = finding the personal light.
*as well across these basic seven plots there is also Booker’s meta-plot, which is a five-stage plot structure of common elements.
But in actuality we left two more of his plots lounging lazy on the warm beach behind us, forgotten, because Christopher Booker proclaimed nine, not seven, basic plots, the last two of which are:
8. Mystery: An outsider to some horrendous event or drama (such as a murder) strives to discover the truth of what happened.
And . . .
9. Rebellion Against The One Above All: A hero rebels against the all-powerful entity who controls the world (or kingdom or nation or corporation or family or what have you) until said entity, The One Above All, is forced to surrender their power through submission, attrition, or death.
I’ll explain why Christopher prefers only seven of these basic nine later. For now let’s say screw the beach, dive in headfirst and explore the undersea wonderment of Booker’s Seven Basic Plots in all their detailed glory.
1. OVERCOMING THE MONSTER: (The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force — often evil — which threatens the protagonist and/or the protagonist’s homeland.)
Overcoming the Monster stories involve a hero who must destroy a monster (or villain) threatening the community. Usually the decisive fight occurs in the monster’s lair, and usually the hero possesses a rare magical weapon and/or unique ability at his disposal. Sometimes the monster guards a treasure or holds a Princess captive, which the hero escapes with in the end.
Anticipation: the threat of the monster becomes known.
The Call: the hero is called upon to confront the monster.
Dream: all begins well as the hero prepares to face the monster or journeys to confront it.
Frustration: coming face to face with the monster, the hero appears to be outmatched.
Nightmare: the final battle with the monster, which seems hopeless for the hero.
Resolution: hero overthrows the monster, escapes (possibly with a treasure of Princess), and gains a new kingdom.
*Examples of OVERCOMING THE MONSTER Basic Plot include: Jaws, James Bond films, Beowulf.
2. RAGS TO RICHES: (The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, then loses it all and gains it back while growing as a person as a result.)
The Rags to Riches plot involves a hero who seems quite commonplace, poor, downtrodden, and miserable though possesses such potential for greatness. The story shows how he manages to fulfill his potential and becomes someone of wealth, importance, success and happiness.
Initial Wretchedness. We see the hero in a humble, unhappy state.
The Call: the hero is called into the wider world.
Out Into the World: the hero enjoys initial success, gets a taste of higher status, possibly meets their true love (who is someone previously above them).
Central Crisis: everything goes wrong; the hero is separated from their true love.
Independence and Final Ordeal: the hero discovers his true strength and proves it by defeating his rival.
Resolution: hero wins his true love and obtains a permanent higher status.
*Examples of RAGS TO RICHES Basic Plot include: Rocky, Cinderella, Aladdin, Great Expectations.
**Though as with many of the basic plots, there exist variations on Rags to Riches proving less upbeat:
Variation 1: FAILURE — What Christopher Booker calls the “dark” version of this story is when the hero fails to win in the end, usually because he sought to attain wealth and status for selfish reasons.
Variation 2: HOLLOW VICTORY — Christopher Booker’s second variation are stories where the hero “may actually achieve his goals, but only in a way which is hollow and brings frustration because he again has sought them only in an outward and egocentric fashion.” Another way to describe this would be a comi-tragic ending or personal failure; an outcome of success but a judgment of failure because the hero fails to resolve his inner conflict.
3. THE QUEST: (The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to achieve a specific location while facing temptations and braving other obstacles along the harrowing journey.)
The Quest stories involve a hero who embarks on a journey to obtain a great prize that is located far away.
Story begins in a ‘city of destruction’ where life is intolerable or oppressive.
The hero receives a vision or supernatural call that says the key to making things better is to go get something from far away.
The Journey: hero travels to the goal, having adventures along the way, gaining helpers and encountering monsters, temptations, dangers, and the ghosts of failed questers.
Arrival and Frustration: within sight of his goal, the hero finds another terrible set of obstacles to overcome.
Final Ordeals: hero faces a final set of tests as well his toughest fight yet.
The Goal: hero survives and obtains the treasure, Princess, kingdom, etc . . . forever more.
*Examples of THE QUEST Basic Plot include: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings (though here the goal is Losing rather than Obtaining the treasure), Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
4. VOYAGE AND RETURN: (The protagonist ventures to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons unique to that location, they return with experience.)
Voyage and Return stories feature a hero who journeys to a foreign world that at first seems strange but enchanting. Eventually, the hero comes to feel threatened and trapped in this world and must make a thrilling escape back to the safety of his home world. In some cases, the hero learns and grows as a result of his adventure. In others he does not, and consequently leaves behind in the other world his true love, or other opportunity for happiness.
We see a hero who is bored, curious, reckless, or otherwise open to a new experience.
Hero is transported to a strange new world without warning.
Dream: hero explores the new world, finding it puzzling but fascinating.
Frustration: gradually, the world becomes alarming, frustrating, oppressive, or difficult.
Nightmare: a serious threat to the hero’s survival arises.
Thrilling escape and return.
*Examples of VOYAGE AND RETURN Basic Plot include: The Wizard of Oz, Back to the Future, The Lion King.
5. COMEDY: (Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker stresses that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict grows more confusing though is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. The majority of romance films fall into this category.)
Here’s where things become confusing because Comedy is defined in three ways:
1. As any story that ends happily, meaning the story goal is obtained and the main character resolves their inner conflict to satisfying conclusion.
Or a story which is still humorous or satirical while leading to two other (and often ironic) conclusions:
2. the main character resolves their inner conflict but without obtaining their story goal.
3. the main character achieves their story goal but without resolving their inner conflict.
*The latter two options are the common Tragedy result, for all Comedies, with their humor removed, are Tragedies. The second option is less tragic despite the story’s goal unresolved because the main character resolves their inner conflict, while the third option punctuates truer tragedy with unresolved inner conflict despite the story goal resolved.
Though of course an abysmal fourth option exists, one of conclusive tragedy (see below: 6. Tragedy), that of the main character failing to resolve both their story goal and inner conflict, but such is the rarest case when applied to a protagonist and is most often displayed through the antagonist as the tragic result of their refusal of character growth and steadfast obsession in contrasting opposition to the protagonist’s contradicting example of character.
Romantic Comedy presents a drama about finding true love (most often new, young lovers), and traditionally end in marriage.
Booker makes a valiant attempt at a better definition of comedy, but he refrains from applying the same plot structure to it as with the other basic plots. Instead, he loosely defines Comedy in terms of three stages:
1. The story takes place in a community where the relationships between people (and by implication true love and understanding) are under the shadow of confusion, uncertainty, and frustration. Sometimes this is caused by an oppressive or self-centered person, sometimes by the hero acting in such a way, or sometimes through no one’s fault.
2. The confusion worsens until it reaches a crisis.
3. The truth comes out, perceptions are changed, and the relationships are healed in love and understanding (and typically marriage for the hero).
*Examples of COMEDY Basic Plot include: The Naked Gun, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Big Lebowski, Life of Brian, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, When Harry Met Sally, Airplane!, Blazing Saddles.
6. TRAGEDY: (The protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.)
Tragedy, along with Comedy, is usually defined by its ending, which makes these two unlike the other basic plots. A tragedy is a story in which the main story goal is not achieved as well the hero does not resolve his inner conflict happily.
Booker’s description of this plot is close to that of the classic tragedies (Greek, Roman, or Shakespearean).
Anticipation: we start with a hero who is unfulfilled and wants more.
Temptation: the hero finds focus in some object or desire or course of action (usually something forbidden).
Dream: the hero commits to his goal and things go amazingly well for him.
Frustration: gradually, things start to go wrong and the hero may resort to desperate and unwise actions that cannot be undone.
Nightmare: hero loses control of the situation; forces of opposition close in on him.
Hero is destroyed in some way.
*Examples of TRAGEDY Basic Plot include: Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Citizen Kane.
7. REBIRTH: (An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better individual.)
Rebirth stories show a hero (often a heroine) who is trapped in a living death by a dark power or villain until she is freed by another character’s loving act. As with Comedy, Booker’s outline of this plot is sketchy.
One of the big problems with this plot is that the hero does not solve his own problem but must be rescued by someone else, and therefore can avoid resolving his inner conflict. Which is why many modern women dislike classic fairy tales: because the heroines are so passive and helpless.
Hero or heroine falls under the shadow of the Dark Power.
Things seem to go well at first, and the threat seems to recede.
Threat returns in full force, imprisoning the hero in a state of living death.
The Dark Power seems to completely triumph.
Someone miraculously rescues the hero.
*Examples of REBIRTH Basic Plot include: Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast.
And here we are, boils and ghouls . . . the two additional basic plots Christopher Booker dislikes while viewing them as inferior, because they are less about the main character embracing his feminine side:
8. MYSTERY: (An outsider to some horrendous event or drama, such as murder, strives to discover the truth of what happened.)
-Note: Christopher provided no detailed breakdown for this basic plot (though I delve into much greater detail about the Murder Mystery plot and all it entails in my previous post: Anonymous Christie).
Booker dislikes Mysteries because the detective or investigator often has no personal connection to the characters he’s interviewing or the crime he’s investigating. Therefore, Booker argues, the detective possesses no inner conflict to resolve but for the outer plot itself.
Which may be true of many Mysteries, including plenty by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. However, in other Mystery stories the detective harbors a personal stake in the plot, which gives rise to inner conflict — often a moral dilemma. For example: Chinatown, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Maltese Falcon.
Nonetheless, it is true that Mysteries often do not leave one with the sense that the world is totally healed (after all, innocent victims are still dead). This sets it apart from most of the basic stories — with the exception perhaps of Tragedy.
*Often what is being investigated in a Mystery is a story based on one of the other plots.
**Examples of MYSTERY Basic Plot include: And Then There Were None, The Big Sleep, Gone Girl, The Postman Always Rings Twice, In Cold Blood, The Da Vinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Silence of the Lambs, Shutter Island, The Girl on the Train.
9. REBELLION AGAINST THE ONE ABOVE ALL: (A hero rebels against the all-powerful entity who controls the world ((or kingdom or nation or corporation or family or what have you)) until said entity, The One Above All, is forced to surrender their power through submission, attrition, or death.)
The hero is a solitary figure who initially feels The One Above All is at fault and that he must preserve his independence or refusal to submit. Eventually, he is faced with the One’s awesome power and submits, becoming part of the rest of the world again.
In some versions, The One Above All is portrayed as benevolent, as in the story of Job, while in others the reader is left convinced it is malevolent, as in 1984 or Brazil. These darker versions seem to be what make Booker less than keen on this basic plot.
Though Booker doesn’t mention it, a common variation is to have the hero refuse to submit and essentially win against the power of The One Above All. In The Prisoner, the hero eventually earns the right to discover that The One Above All is a twisted version of himself, after which he is set free. In The Matrix, Neo’s resistance eventually leads to a better world. Another example is The Hunger Games series, where Katniss’s continued rebellion eventually leads to the downfall of both the original tyrant and his potential successor, resulting in a freer world.
*Examples of REBELLION AGAINST THE ONE ABOVE ALL basic plot include: The Matrix, Les Miserables, They Live, Spartacus, V for Vendetta, Red Dawn, The Patriot, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars: A New Hope, Braveheart.
Take note of the five key similarities (though he sometimes uses different names for Act descriptions or even no names at all, depending upon the particular plot) recurring within all of Christopher Booker’s suggested basic plots which, when you strip everything else of unique value away, leaves us with his skeletal meta-plot.
This meta-plot begins with the Anticipation Stage (punctuated by the Initial Driver) in which the hero is called to the awaiting adventure. This is followed by a Dream Stage in which the adventure begins, the hero experiences some success, and thus earns an illusion of invincibility. However, this is then followed by a Frustration Stage in which the hero endures his first confrontation with the true enemy, and the illusion of invincibility is lost. This worsens in the Nightmare Stage, which provides the climax of the plot, wherein hope is apparently lost. Finally, in the Resolution Stage, the hero overcomes his burden against the odds (punctuated by the Final Driver).
1. Anticipation: the flawed hero is called to the awaiting adventure.
2. Dream: the adventure begins, and the ignorant hero achieves some success as well gains the illusion of invincibility.
3. Frustration: the hero experiences their first devastating confrontation with the true enemy to which the illusion of invincibility shatters to vulnerability.
4. Nightmare: the failing hero’s disclosing vulnerability worsens to fragile exposure, climaxing the plot, wherein all hope is apparently lost.
5. Resolution: until the rallying hero overcomes his flaw through change and triumphs against all odds through their full potential.
*though obviously there lives darker variation here within Booker’s metaplot; see 6. Tragedy above)
The key thesis of Christopher Booker’s book (The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories) is as follows:
“However many characters may appear in a story, its real concern is with just one: its hero. It is the one whose fate we identify with, as we see them gradually developing towards that state of self-realization which marks the end of the story. Ultimately it is in relation to this central figure that all other characters in a story take on their significance. What each of the other characters represents is really only some aspect of the inner state of the hero himself.”
Happy plotting and happy writing!