Plots worth digging over

plotsChristopher Booker
The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories
Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd 2005

I was attracted to this book for a number of reasons, not least by the fact that its title told you exactly what it was about, reinforced by the witty cover by photographer Jonathan Ring showing a pile of books reflected in a metal film canister. And I was predisposed to like this because of the mix of stimulating ideas that books, both fiction and non-fiction, promise the reader. (Mind you, I tend to read anything, from cereal packets to greetings cards, so it may not take much to stimulate my negligible intellect.)

Booker’s identification of the principal narrative structures underlying the best examples of stories, novels, plays and films is attractive and, viewed retrospectively, intuitively right. Those seven plots (which he entitles Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth) singly or in combination appear to naturally underpin a very large proportion of the narratives Booker approves of. Overcoming the Monster, for example, applies to any number of plots, whether literary or popular culture, from Beowulf to King Kong, from Dracula to a large proportion of video games. The Rags to Riches theme, familiar from Cinderella, finds a home in Aladdin and in Jane Eyre. Some works, such as The Lord of the Rings, include virtually all the plots. The first part of this mammoth study seems to triumphantly prove his analysis.

However, around the middle of this tome of over 700 pages he begins to sink into a morass of Freudian and, particularly, Jungian psychoanalytical argument which obfuscates more than it elucidates. Obviously in love with this approach he then starts to judge all narratives by whether they adhere to his masterplans or not. Rather than seeing much fiction of the last two centuries as perhaps reflecting different priorities, characterisation, realism or experimentation, say, he prefers to castigate them for not matching his templates, and his rather conservative viewpoint thus somewhat undermines, for me, the initial promise of this book. Booker has a well-known penchant for bucking orthodox thinking, adopting contrary stances on the dangers posed by passive smoking or asbestos, the link between human CJD and Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, denying climate change and global warming and promoting intelligent design over evolution. While some of these issues may seem to be a matter of political persuasion (he has a regular column in The Telegraph), for me Booker’s belligerent attitude to genuine innovation in storytelling and his cod psychology both outweigh his familiarity with a broad range of texts (from literature to films and TV soaps) and his ability to summarise and categorise them.

Ultimately, his attempts to explain why we tell stories (actually, what he’s trying to do is tease out why we need stories) don’t, beyond his constant references to ego and self and archetypes, explain much to me at all. It’s true that we often ‘script’ our lives according to the plots he’s identified: for instance, TV talent shows highlight are awash with individuals going on a ‘journey’ or anticipating going from rags to riches, and we often see life as ‘comedy’ or ‘tragedy’ depending on our outlooks being optimistic or pessimistic. But Booker sees much of storytelling through conservative lenses and minimises the possibility that some storytelling needs to tell messy tales: narratives that don’t fit neatly into his catalogue, that don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end; that, in short, more resemble everyday life than the life of the imagination. Nor, conversely, does he appear to admit the possibility of narratives being available to higher mammals other than humans; for example, we know that some animals seem to suffer from depression (tragedy, perhaps), indulge in foraging (the quest) and transhumance (voyage and return): is it possible they can conceive of these processes as a form of unspoken narrative? If so, do his Jungian analyses still apply?

In addition, I was disappointed with his all too brief mentions of previous ways of categorising narrative, such as tale-types in the Aarne-Thompson folktale index and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth model. He seems unaware of Vladimir Propp’s analysis of the morphology of folk-tales and he doesn’t mention the concept of narremes (basic units of narrative structure first proposed by Eugène Dorfman in his interesting 1969 study The narreme in the medieval romance epic: an introduction to narrative structures). There is not even a peep about memes which even back in 2004 wasn’t particularly obscure as a concept. Failing a fuller discussion of earlier literature on the subject he doesn’t indicate how his sevenfold scheme might overlap or relate to these, preferring instead to present his solution as the only correct one. I find this approach at best disingenuous.

Nevertheless, I found much of The Seven Basic Plots enlightening, providing insights into narrative structure and pointing out similarities shared by very different stories told in different media. It’s just a shame that it’s buttressed by so much psycho-gibberish and laced with unadulterated prejudice.

First published December 23rd 2012 and here slightly edited

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15 thoughts on “Plots worth digging over

    1. Thanks for drawing attention to your fiction, Pat. I wonder if your finished work will fit neatly into Booker’s scheme or whether, as it follows its own course, it challenges his assumptions of what makes a good plotline.

  1. With all its faults, this seems an interesting study of the main scenarios which go into the makeup of a story. I am glad to note that I use generous combinations of all of them in most of my scribblings.
    BTW – surely it is a no-brainer that evolution is intelligent design in action?

    1. It is certainly very interesting, and I go along with a lot of it. It’s just the polemics I baulk at.

      As for ID I’m not going to get drawn on that — I think we may have to agree to differ!

        1. More worrying to me is his denial of climate change or the dangers of passive smoking, both examples of promoting individual freedoms over collective responsibilities.

  2. I have had this on my shelves for years (my shelves now being at home at my parents’ place), and see it at the National Library over here quite often, so I have been meaning to read it for some years now. It is interesting to see you mention the author’s forays into contrarianism as regards passive smoking and climate change. That does reinforce what I have often thought upon picking up the book, that I ought to skip him in order to examine Joseph Campbell more closely. I have been intimidated by Campbell and other such theorists for years, feeling under-prepared in terms of classical literature and the like. I have been watching a DVD series on him recently though and I am attracted to his approach.

    1. The only Campbell I’ve read (well, mostly read) is ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ that seemed to be in most bookshops in the 70s. His monomyth is a beguiling concept, but all those years ago it struck me as reductionist though I suspect it was more subtle than that.

      Booker’s schema is also attractive, if you can get past the judgemental pronouncements. But it’s long…

    2. I seem to remember catching part of a tv interview with Campbell some years ago, part of a series — maybe this are the same programmes you’re referring to.

  3. I’m not a big reader of big books unfortunately. I tend to read too many books at once for that. When I can get my hands on them as audiobooks it can work better for me, but otherwise I’ll likely be dipping in and out of book like this, though there is a place for that.
    The series is called the Tjhransformation of Myth Through Time. It involves lots of archive footage of Campbell holding forth, often, it seems, while being fairly tactile with the pretty women invariably sat next to him in what seemed to be his favoured impromptu seminar-like gatherings. So far I find his ideas great as a kind of jumping off point.
    I was introduced to his work by a guy I used to work with who had a real interest in archeology and spoke of Campbell and people like Anne Baring, whose Myth of the Goddess has also been on my list for a long time.
    You’ve convinced me, here though. I often take a notebook to the reading room of the National Library where I can work internet-free and therefore relatively free of distraction and pick up a book to dip in and out of between writing stints. Booker’s Seven Basic Plots is one of the books there. I’ll pick it up next time I’m there.

    1. That’s my feeling. I’ve dipped into later bits, skimming and scanning, but my impression is that having come up with a simple rule of thumb for narratives he then spoils it by overcomplicated Jungian analysis, disappearing up his own fundament. Do peruse the bits discussing books you might have read or want to read, though — a few insights as well as confusion to be had at times!

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