Fiction

The 7 Basic Plots by Christopher Brooker

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I would like to deepen the interesting class and discussion we had about The Seven Basic Plots, a book written by Christopher Booker. These basic plots represent very rough summaries of all the stories ever written and told – which seems crazy but is instead very interesting. I am writing down the notes that I have taken while I was reading.

  1. Overcoming the Monster

There is a great evil that overshadows a land. The hero needs special equipment and weapons to head to defeat that evil and free the land.

The stages or the Overcoming the Monster plot are:

  • Anticipation Stage. The Monster threaten our hero from distance, but sometimes it can get closer. It’s vile, and alarming in its behaviour. Something about its nature is difficult to define. Is it humanoid? Animal? It has bestial qualities which make it abnormal, often having a mixture of normal animals’ features, but it also has human and extraordinary powers. The Monster can be a predator (it looks for victims), a holdfast (it keeps a secret) or an avenger (it looks for something that has challenged him). All these features can apply to the story Jack & the Beanstalk.
  • Call Stage. The hero needs to stop this Monster: it’s the call to adventure. Even if the hero does not want to answer, “the call” knows where they live – and it’s going to find them, because answering the call is their destiny. Who else is going to kill that thing otherwise? Only the hero can kill it.
  • Dream Stage. The hero prepares for battle, as they get closer to the Monster. Everything is okay by now.
  • Frustration Stage. The Monster shows up/off, demonstrating its incredible powers. No way the hero can beat such a powerful thing! The hero could be almost going to fall.
  • Nightmare Stage. This is the stage of the climatic battle. Everything seems like the hero is going to lose.
  • Thrilling Escape from Death. Death of the Monster. The power of the Monster is broken. It dies. People are liberated. The hero emerges, victorious. They get a kingdom, a princess/prince, the treasure. Happily ever after.

Examples of Overcoming the Monster plot: Beowulf, Terminator, Jaws, The Epic of Gilgamesh, James Bond Dr. No, Super Mario Jump & Run.

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2. Rags to Riches

A young child is raised among people who mistreat her/him. S/he will blossom into a mature person, showing his/her strength. There will be a happy ending. A common child will get royalty and riches through their hard work. They’ll get to be queen, king, princess or prince, obtaining a kingdom, a mate and riches. So the arc of the character can concerns their change from poor to rich, but in modern novels can be the coming of age kind of plot, in which the protagonist turns from child to adult.

Very typical of this plot is the false ending, when it seems like the hero has obtained what they wanted but it is too early. This is discovered at the price of losing something (sometimes the loss is enormous and not proportionate). This happens in Aladdin, when the wizard steals Jasmine, or in David Copperfield, with the marriage to an immature girl.

The stages of the Rags to Riches plot are:

  • Initial Wretchedness at Home and Call. In this kind of plot, the backbone of the story is the hero growth arc. The hero is very young and finds themselves in an unhappy state. The antagonist mistreats the hero. Then the call arrives, and the hero sets out into the world.
  • Out into the World, Initial Success. The hero gets a limited, quick success. It seems a prevision of good destiny. They meet the prince/ss, but also rivals. They’re not ready to face them. It’s a long way to the top.
  • The Central Crisis. Everything goes wrong. Dark figures from the past reappear. The hero is separated from what they love most (prince/ss). It can be a physical or psychological separation. The hero falls into despair. It’s the worst moment of the story.
  • Independence and Final Order. The hero is aware they have nothing to help them, so they need to prove their natural skills, develop independence and achieve their goals. It’s the final test and the climatic battle against the Big Bad between the hero and their goals.
  • Final Union, Completion, Fulfillment. The hero is victorious, they claim the treasure, the kingdom and the prince/ss.

Examples of Rags to Riches plot are: Aladdin, Cinderella, Harry Potter, Narnia, Jane Eyre.

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3. The Quest

This plot implies the search of an object, location or information. The object of The Quest can be information, qualified by mysteries, procedurals, suspects, alibis… The final is made by violent confrontation. This search requires the hero to leave their everyday life. Often, there is a party instead of a single hero. This party can be made of a hero and their companions. The hero can be accompanied by their opposites, like Sancho Panza with Don Quixote. Or it can be a close, loyal friend, like Samwise Gangee with Frodo. The party could be a balanced one, with people with different skills, like Brain, Brawn and Soul (the intelligent one, the big and strong one, the sensitive one): it happens in Star Wars, Game of Thrones etc. And the party can be made of a large company of minions that die during the voyage, like in the Odyssey.

The stages of The Quest plot are:

  • The Call. The hero needs to go. It is impossible for them to remain home. There is a McGuffin that they need to save their doomed hometown and find a new home. The refusal of the call is not an option. A supernatural direction explains where to go.
  • The Journey. The hero sets out in a hostile terrain, there are obstacles: monsters to fight, kill or escape from. There are temptations (in the Odyssey, the sirens who kill the companions, Circe who imprisons them, Calypso who seduces Odysseus and he stays with her voluntarily, the Lotus Eaters who make the companions stay in a relaxed atmosphere of self-indulgence). So there is the possibility of Death, Captivity, Self-Indulgence, Distraction (maybe also Illusion, Trickery). These temptations must be resisted. There are deadly opposites: the hero must face a narrow path between two dangers. Every misstep can lead to a certain doom. They mustn’t ignore the guides. There often is also a journey to the underworld, in which the hero climbs down the world of death. They may encounter spirits that can turn into guides. In between these tests come times of rest or succor, in which the party receive help or direction (from a wise old man, a beautiful woman etc.)
  • Arrival and Frustration. The journey part is over. But even if there is a sight of the goal, there are other obstacles. Odysseus needs to deal with the Suitors.
  • Final Ordeal. It’s the last series of tests, according to the Rule of Three (when part of the story is told three times with minimum variation). The final test is the most dangerous. There is a thrilling escape from death.
  • The Goal. The hero has won it all. The kingdom, the prince/ss, the treasure, a future, a new life, etc.

Examples of The Quest plot are: Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, the Holy Grail legend, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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4. Voyage and Return

The hero needs to go to a magical land where normal rules don’t apply. They explore it for a while, then dark things start to appear. The hero conquers or escapes, they have a flaw and will come back home as more mature people. Especially in children books, the Voyage and Return plot is used as a metaphor for immaturity turned into maturity. The hero goes back home more mature and changed – while home has remained the same. There is a great world of magic to explore. Allies can be good or trickers, and can lead the hero into danger. The hero must follow their heart – which can get them problems but eventually will be the right thing. This is very typical of fairytales. The story seems light and magical until it turns darker, the hero must face some ordeals, the final threats, and the journey home. The hero is often physically unchanged. Usually, a hero who gets no mate in the end is symbolically immature, unfinished. But in this plot the presence of a mate can be problematic, and often the hero must leave the mate behind.

The mate can cause problems because can lead the hero to ask themselves if remaining in their universe or come back home. Or the hero can find a parallel mate at home or the old one that is patiently waiting for them to come back. The your universe or mine? kind of plot is very usual and needs a balance (so if one person leaves, another must take the place). It can be prevented from the very beginning: people don’t stay where they don’t belong, otherwise the world will be in danger.

The stages of Voyage and Return plot are:

  • Anticipation Stage, Fall into the Other World. The hero’s consciousness is restricted (too young? Flawed? Reckless? Bored?). Often the hero suffers an injury and they regains consciousness in another reality.
  • Initial Fascination or Dream Stage. The hero is in the new world, which is puzzling, unfamiliar, cool. But it will never be a place in which the hero can feel at home.
  • Frustration Stage. The mood of adventure fades. The world darkens and shadows show up. It’s an alarming situation.
  • Nightmare Stage. The shadows are in the centre of the stage. The hero is doomed!
  • Thrilling Escape and Return. The hero has a dramatic exit back to the world they come from. There is the character development and the question: was it all just a dream?

Examples of the Voyage and Return plot are: Alice in Woderland, Chronicles of Narnia, Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Finding Nemo, Gulliver’s Travels, A Christmas Carol, Devil Wears Prada, etc.

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5. Comedy

There is a grand mesh of relationships among a large cast, and the whole story is based on miscommunication and misunderstandings. The fog is maintained by a dark figure, who can be the hero or a hero’s parent. A dark energy keeps the hero apart from their other half. The villain is almost never just defeated, they often redeem and joyfully rejoin the party. There’s no more fog on the relationships. All is clear. No love triangles. Often, in the Comedy, three or more relationships are prevented (for lack of acceptance, misunderstandings etc). Shakespeare is a great writer of the Comedy.

The stages of The Comedy plot are:

  • Under the Shadow. We are in a little world of confusion, uncertainty, frustration. People are shut up from one another.
  • Tightening the Knot. Confusion gets worse – the pressure of darkness is acute, it tangles.
  • Resolution. Things which were not recognized come to light, perceptions are changed. Finally, the union comes.

Examples of The Comedy plot are: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jane Austen, The Timing of the Shrew

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6. Tragedy

It’s the tale of a villain spiralling down into evil. They get defeated by the hero, and the story ends up with the death and destruction of the main character. The end is tragic, but seen as just even if we sympathize with the villain. One of the examples is the story of King Lear, who repents but it’s too late.

The stages of The Tragedy plot are:

  • Anticipation Stage. The hero is unfulfilled, has some desires, he’s incomplete.
  • Dream Stage. The hero is committed to his course of action. There’s no turning back. Bad things go well, and nothing can stop him.
  • Frustration Stage. Things start to go wrong, there are some difficulties. Further dark acts happen. There is a shadow figure. Something is threatening him?
  • Nightmare Stage. Things go out of control. The hero falls into despair. Opposition is close.
  • Destruction and Death Wish. The villain/hero goes down. There is a final act of violence. The world around him is liberated. World rejoices.

Examples of The Tragedy plot are Macbeth, Don Juan, Hamlet, Sweeney Todd, LOTR, Scarface, Oedipus Rex.

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7. Rebirth

A villain spirals into evil but raises their head at the end. A redeeming figure helps them (it can be the other half, a young child etc). This reawakens the hero’s ability to love and helps them to see things as they are. There is a reordering of priorities. The stages are the same of the Tragedy, with a different or extended ending. In this kind of plot there is often the pet the dog technique: it is showed that the bad character can have human feelings and can be right. They’re redeemable.

The stages of the Rebirth plot are:

  1. Anticipation. The young hero knows that there is a great shadow of a dark power.
  2. Dream. Things go well, the threat seems to be less scaring.
  3. Nightmare. The dark comes again in full force, the hero is imprisoned in a “living death”.
  4. Nightmare 2. The dark force goes on for a long time. The dark power seems triumphing.
  5. Miraculous Redemption. The redeeming figures helps the villain to love again.

Examples of the Rebirth plot are: Star Wars, The Secret Garden, Christmas Carol, the Sleeping Beauty.

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Of course, these basic 7 plots can be combined and used to tell or write very complex stories, such as The Lord of The Rings, Game of Thrones, etc. In books about contemporary times, all these features can be used as metaphors of people lives and behaviours.

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