Booker’s basic plots and the need for unoriginality

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…

 

myth chart

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:

  1. Overcoming the monster: the hero sets out to destroy a great evil threatening the land.
    Examples: Perseus, Beowulf, Dracula, Harry Potter
  2. 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
  3. The quest: the hero sets out to find something, usually with companions.
    Examples: The Aeneid, Pilgrim’s Progress, Treasure Island, Lord of the Rings
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. Tragedy: the protagonist spirals slowly down into darkness and is finally defeated.
    Examples: Medusa, Faust, Dorian Grey, Lolita
  7. 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?

seven-basic

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.

 

But it’s what my character would do…

Several of my posts this week have been inspired by Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You. But there’s one thing she discusses that I really don’t like, and that I hear authors doing all the time.

She talks about the characters taking over.

My character made me write it

A lot of writers talk about the points at which the character takes over. When they want to go one way but the character won’t fit with that direction. When the character takes the story in a direction they didn’t expect. When they feel like the character has gained a life of its own and taken over. For many, the character then becomes the one directing the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and sympathise with this outlook. Characters are absolutely central to story, and sometimes that comes into conflict with the plot you had intended. Sometimes you realise that the way the character’s heading and the way you wanted to take the story don’t match, so you change course. That direction didn’t seem to come from your ideas, so it must have been the character taking over, right?

Wrong.

So very wrong.

Mystifying vs empowering

Lets face the uncomfortable truth. There are ideas in our heads that we aren’t aware of. There are emotions and instincts that take over and try to warn you when you’re heading in the wrong direction. That’s called the subconscious.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable to think that we’re not in control of what’s going on in our brains. So we mystify it, we externalise it, in the case of writing we talk about the characters having lives of their own.

But they don’t. Everything about them comes from you, from your ideas, your passions, your emotions. The person telling you that your plot and your character aren’t consistent isn’t the character, it’s you. That uncomfortable niggle when something doesn’t fit doesn’t come from your character or your muse, it comes from you, from the skills and awareness you don’t even recognise that you have. Your brain is capable of far more than you realise. Accept it. Revel in it!

Wait, that came from me?
Wait, that came from me?

 

Sure, the metaphor of the character taking over is a useful one, but it still muddies the waters, stops us carrying this through to its logical conclusion. It makes the character seem like something whole and complete, beyond you to change.

Again, wrong.

Facing the conflict

If your subconscious is telling you that the character and the plot don’t match then you don’t just have two options – write your plot or listen to your character. Once you acknowledge that the character, that little nagging voice, is just as much you as any other thought, then you have three options – the bad option, the standard option and the other option.

Bad option: Ignore it, let the character behave inconsistently for the sake of plot. Terrible idea, it’ll annoy readers and make a worse story. This is why people usually take the second option.

Standard option: Change the plot to fit the character. Keep things consistent through different events. This is usually the right option. It keeps the character, the driving force behind your story, consistent.

Other option: Change the character to make the story work. This is lots of hard work, as it means going through the rest of the story and altering the way the character thinks, talks and behaves, but if you really want that plot twist then it is an option. It might even lead to a better character.

Facing the cold, hard truth

Openly acknowledging that the character is part of you, and just as open to change as anything else in your story, is an uncomfortable but an empowering thing. There’s a useful part in the ‘my character says…’ approach, and that’s acknowledging the voice of your subconscious. But lets go further. Lets recognise that voice for what it is, own the insight it brings us, make it our own. It’s more honest, it gives us more options, and it can lead to better storytelling.

Taking responsibility for what your character ‘says’ also means empowering yourself as a writer. How can that possibly be a bad thing?

 

Photo by Matthew Wynn via Flickr creative commons

Thor: The Dark World – layers of conflict

I went to see Thor: The Dark World this week and, no surprise, I enjoyed it. It was just as fun and engaging as its predecessor, even if I missed Branagh’s distinctive direction.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KTvjFGgGkk&w=560&h=315]

But there was something interesting about this film’s use of conflict that seemed worthy of more comment.

Less Ecclestone

It’s been widely noted that the film’s main villain, Malekith, didn’t have a lot of screen time. At first glance this seems an odd choice for an action movie, especially when they’d cast the ever-menacing Christopher Eccleston in the role. There’s talk of more Eccleston footage that wound up on the cutting room floor. Maybe that’s the case, maybe it’s just what people want to hear.

But while I wouldn’t have minded more Malekith, I thought this decision actually played to the film’s strengths, and highlighted where its real conflicts lie.

Internal vs external conflicts

Most of the conflict in a film like this is external to the characters. They aren’t grappling with their doubts and inner demons, though there’s usually a nod to that. The main things they’re grappling with are each other, in big knock-down fights or exchanges of pointed dialogue.

But there are levels of external. There are the threats and conflicts that rise against the group of protagonists, and these are those between them. The Dark World is mostly about the latter. It’s about the politics of Asgard, family feuds between gods, and to a lesser extent the conflicting ways that human society responds to the unfamiliar.

The battery and the machine

So if the film’s main theme and story isn’t about dark elves, where does Malekith fit in? Was he just a bolt-on to provide action set pieces?

Of course not. His presence applies the pressure needed to bring out those other conflicts. He’s the rising water that leaves people hunting for rescue, the sinking balloon from which someone must be thrown for the good of the rest.

The machinery of the story might be bickering Asgardians, but Malekith and his minions are the battery that powers that machine. And in that role, they get just the right amount of screen time.

If you’ve seen the film what did you think? Not enough Eccleston, or just enough? Was it all just about Tom Hiddleston? What were your highlights?

Lessons learned from OCork

I’ve just finished reading Shannon OCork’s ‘How to Write Mysteries’, one of those random charity shop acquisitions I’m fond of. I’m not a mystery writer, but I like to read widely about writing, as it helps develop a range of skills. And to help some of that learning settle in my head, here are a couple of key lessons I learned from this one.

OCork talks about the real and apparent plot. By her reckoning, every mystery should have these two main plots, if not more. The apparent plot is what seems to be going on. The real plot hides behind it, and is slowly revealed as you go through the apparent plot. This is meant to create curiosity and excitement in the reader, as they recognise what is being exposed. I think this idea has value beyond mystery novels, as it’s a way of both building intrigue and helping your reader feel smart. I have a theory that feeling smart is a big part of what makes us enjoy books, so this sits well with me.

The other top tip I took from this book was to use each success to foster another difficulty. The character might retrieve the magical sword they need, but this will draw the attention of the goblin king, creating a new challenge to overcome. They might succeed in wiping the files they were being blackmailed with, but the hack that let them do this draws the attention of the FBI, putting them on the run. It’s a way of piling on the excitement through new challenges, but making those challenges seem to arise naturally.