Sometimes we do best by listening to the wisdom of others. So today I’m going to take a back seat and share some wisdom from everwalker, who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the power of myth and story archetypes. Take it away…
How many stories can you think of? One hundred? Five hundred? A thousand? In 2013 1,444 films were released worldwide, and approximately 2.2 million books published (not counting self-publishing, which accounted for 391,000 in the US alone. That’s a lot of stories, right?
According to Christian Booker, there’s only seven. In his book The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories, he says:
“Wherever men and women have told stories, all over the world, the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways… There are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any story-teller ever entirely to break away from them.”
Booker is far from the first person to posit this theory. Dr Samuel Johnson and Goethe were both before him, but we don’t have any surviving texts of theirs that go into detail.
Booker’s list of basic plots, then, is as follows:
- Overcoming the monster: the hero sets out to destroy a great evil threatening the land.
Examples: Perseus, Beowulf, Dracula, Harry Potter
- Rags to riches: the hero defies oppressive forces and blossoms into a mature figure who wins riches and the perfect mate.
Examples: Joseph, Cinderella, Pygmalion, Superman
- The quest: the hero sets out to find something, usually with companions.
Examples: The Aeneid, Pilgrim’s Progress, Treasure Island, Lord of the Rings
- Voyage and return: the hero sets off into a distant land with strange rules, survives the madness, and returns home more mature than when he set out.
Examples: Orpheus, Goldilocks, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Chronicles of Narnia
- Comedy: the protagonists are destined to be together but dark forces intervene. The story conspires to make those forces relent and everyone is seen for who they really are.
Examples: The Wasps, Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Four Weddings and a Funeral
- Tragedy: the protagonist spirals slowly down into darkness and is finally defeated.
Examples: Medusa, Faust, Dorian Grey, Lolita
- Rebirth: as with tragedy, but the protagonist realises his error and changes his ways.
Examples: Orestes, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, Star Wars
For me, this leaves two questions: why do we feel compelled to use the same building blocks over and over and over again, despite the changes in social structure and cultural norms? And is it something to be embraced or fought against?
The first question is pretty fundamental to the idea of storytelling in general. Why do we tell them at all? As a means of communication, sure, but what are we communicating? Well, generally it’s about how to live well. Stories tell us where we came from, where we are now, and how to make the best future possible. They give us social guidelines and behavioural models. Those that don’t play by the rules of the story – the villains and tragic figures – get cast out as being detrimental to the community. The details have changed to accommodate different times and cultures, but the necessity for a working communal structure remains. Thus the stories endure. There is more nuance to it, of course. Shared stories bring us together as individuals, and provide an accessible template for self-identity.
And there’s the problem. We have individual identities with egos and selfish impulses that can easily become damaging to the wider community. Stories are a tool to remind us of the ‘right’ way to behave in order to achieve the sense of belonging that we also, conflictingly, crave. They not only show us how to build a community, they also soothe that part of us which doesn’t want to.
So, should we be railing against the uniformity of our stories? Trying desperately to find an eight original plot? To be honest, I’m not sure we should. Yes, it would be nice to come up with something completely and brilliantly new but sticking to the building blocks hasn’t done people like C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling any harm. In many ways it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, at a subconscious level, we have an expectation that stories will follow certain patterns then any that don’t run a serious risk of being unsatisfying. Besides, the fundamental need for a community that works, and a sense of belonging, is probably stronger now than ever. In this over-communicating society, connecting with people outside of cyberspace is a major challenge. Those building blocks might be a bit warn but we aren’t done with them yet.