Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker

Have you ever thought of yourself as an 'avid reader'? Are you addicted to stories and narrative? And are you interested in structure and analysis? If so, you must read the book I am (still) reading, The Seven Basic Plots - Why we tell stories, by Christopher Booker.

I grew up on stories. As soon as I could read, I read everything I could get my hands on, especially fiction, and I kept that habit all the way through school. Even during my Uni years it wasn't uncommon for me to become completely engrossed in a series of books (to the detriment of my study, unfortunately.)

This has meant I have become quite a narrative-driven person. Everything is a story, in that it has characters, events, consequences. Even my study of medicine has been story-driven. Why does this happen in the body? What is it used for? Every part of the body has a function, so that the relevant molecules flow from food to flesh to waste. Every microorganism has its own story of survival, invasion or elimination. The textbooks I relate to most easily are the ones that tell me the best stories, so that I can just sit down and read them. (I've never been able to study anatomy, unfortunately. Or spend any amount of time on a reference book.) And I love case presentations.

As soon as I saw the book The Seven Basic Plots and flicked idly through it, I had to have it. A detailed analysis of the structure of stories? (The use of the word 'plots' here is a little arguable.) I was in heaven. I'm now on page 630-ish of 730-odd. And, as is immediately apparent even from a brief flick-through, the book is all it set out to be, and much, much more.

Yes, plots have been recycled, reinvented and reused throughout the history of literature. The author has looked deeper, though, and found seven basic ways in which a story can be structured. They are, in the order that he examines them, "Overcoming the Monster", "Rags to Riches", "The Quest", "Voyage and Return", "Comedy", "Tragedy" and "Rebirth". (Yes, there are exceptions, and he deals with those too in this book, a highly-structured thesis.) These, of course, have been combined and recombined countless times, and he gives many examples to support his ideas. There are 350-odd individual stories referenced in the book, from the oldest known (the Epic of Gilgamesh) to the ultra-modern (Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone), with references to the literature and storytelling culture of every era between then and now. And it's not only the written word that he examines - oral culture, theatre, propaganda, movies and television also fall into the scope of the book.

What he has done, further, is to look at the stories in terms of the archetypal figures who appear in them, and how the plot is shaped around the relation of the hero/heroine to each of these figures. I guess it's not too surprising that he has based these around the Jungian archetypes - the Mother, the Father, the Teacher, the Alter-Ego, the Anima/Animus, the Tempter/Temptress, the Child, the Ego, the Self, the 'masculine' qualities, the 'feminine' qualities. These are supposed to be the figures of our subconscious appearing in our dreams, and it would be natural for them to appear in stories, an outwardly-projected extension of our subconscious. I wasn't that familiar with Jungian psychology myself - all I really knew was that he was a student of Freud, and that Freud was that psychoanalyst preoccupied with sex :P But as these archetypes are explained in this book - as an explanation of the figures who appear and reappear in stories throughout the ages - the author's arguments make a lot of sense.

Now, all of this analysis takes some time. 350-odd pages of quite small print on a largish page. At the same time, it is surprisingly easy to read. Of course, this is in part because he stops so often to tell us the plot of yet another story, before weaving it in to his overall theme. This plethora of stories had me completely engrossed. But it cannot be denied that he is a highly-skilled writer. I was not surprised, when I looked up his biography an hour ago, to find that he has been a lifelong journalist. And, despite his age (more on that later), he writes in very contemporary language - as you'd expect from anyone wanting a book published in 2003.

And then ... And then, at the halfway point of the book, having completed an analysis of all these plots, he embarks on two even greater endeavours. The first is a study of the progress of literature in the past two hundred years, as these plots have gradually changed, been overtaken by fashions, stereotypes, sentimentalism, sex and violence. For me, this was a very difficult section of the book to read, and I believe that many people will instinctively find it so.

Now, this is not to say that I was offended by the content. The stories themselves ranged from the shocking to the bleak and the pointless, and having read the analysis I am actually inspired to read (or in some cases see) the originals; many of the ones he includes have been lauded as great, groundbreaking works of literature, theatre and film. And the author presents all of these items in a very objective, analytical, impartial manner. He examines our reactions to each, and combines them into his analysis and his theme: the disintegration of our relationship with stories. But his main point rang true with every page - that these stories no longer resonate with our sense of the struggle to become one's own Self, and so each story, in its own way, feels somehow wrong and unresolved.

Finally, after a brief interlude in which he tells how stories relate to the 'real world' and history, he presents a gargantuan chapter on what I think is his final topic: the stories of religion. Here, I will not give away his thesis; although his theory is uncontroversial, I know that religion is quite a sensitive topic with many people. Being an atheist myself, I was very much impressed at his absolutely impartial treatment of a near-comprehensive list of religions and cultures. But it will probably be slightly uncomfortable for any person who adheres to a particular religion to see the roots of their own culture analysed so objectively, especially those which the author shows to be varying from his theme.

All the same, I feel this is the most important part of the book; it is the one which finally prompted me to write all this. The level of understanding of the human psyche he demonstrates is awe-inspiring. You would not tell from his tone of writing that he is in his seventies, but his insight in finding these themes, these values, these relationships, shows the true wisdom obtained only by experience. My idols and role-models have always been those who show such insight, and while they have previously been the Galileos, the scientists of the world, or more recently Terry Pratchett ... this is one man I would really want to meet and shake by the hand. (And then he'd wonder who this shy little girl was, who couldn't express herself properly.)

Yes, in my ideal world everyone would read this book and learn something about themselves, their culture, the history of literature. But of course, the book itself is not accessible to everyone. People may be discouraged by its small print and large size (although many who look inside may find it to be surprisingly readable, as I did). There is extensive use of three- and four-syllable words (sample from one paragraph: incognito, disarray, overshadowed, arrogance, dissipation, infesting, miserably, majesty, massacre, reunited, triumphantly) which may unfortunately rule out a proportion of the population, and then of course there are those who simply are not interested in stories, literature or analysis. I even saw a writer's review complaining about typographical errors and excessive use of the word 'little'. But for the rest of us, I implore you to read this book.

Even if you do not start off sympathetic to the points of view he later proposes, you will find his arguments compelling. Even if you read critically with an eye to his omissions, his elisions and biases, his thesis will still be interesting. Because, readable though it may be, this is a finely-constructed essay building on point after point after point, example after example, theory after theory, to a stunning understanding of the way we tell ourselves who we are.


  1. I enjoy reading someone who is bright enough to write compelling arguments without offending. Even if I don't's nice to learn some critical thinking skills and I think you do when you read writers like the one you write about.


  2. I have heard about the deconstruction and compartmentalisation of fiction in this way since high school English, and have always been petrified that I might absorb too much of it, and from then on relegate every story I read to a category of seven (in this case).

    If every story I read becomes 'the quest', or the 'rags to riches', or another School of Plot, then I fear I may lose interest in the originality of literature. Scary, scary thought!

    By the way, I'm currently reading The Tawny Man trilogy by Robin Hobb, who I find to be an amazing author.

  3. Ahh, but it's so much more than a categorisation ... and don't worry, after reading it from cover to cover I still believe in the ability of authors to come up with original ideas. It's just how they structure them, that has many basic commonalities, precisely because certain structures appeal to our minds.

    And The Tawny Man rocks. The final novel made me cry, it was that good. Enjoy!


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the angel Jean