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The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories…

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (original 2004; edition 2006)

by Christopher Booker (Author)

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7951824,337 (3.84)31
"The Seven Basic Plots Why We Tell Stories" by Christopher Booker is, at over 700 pages, overwhelming at times.

Overall, I see it more as a textbook. It goes into great detail about what he considers the seven basic plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

The book itself is divided into four parts with thirty-four chapters. There is a lot of information packed into the pages--analysis of stories, a lot of psychology, a lot of history. It's not really a book to sit down with and read cover to cover, but a book that needs a lot of time to really think about what Booker puts down on the pages. Since the book is required for school, time isn't a luxury I had while reading this book.

As a writer, I found the first twenty pages the most helpful (parts one and two). The types of plots Booker identifies are dissected in great detail, using well-known works as examples. I have a lot of highlighting and post-it flags in those two sections. There is a lot of helpful information in what Booker says; information that will be useful in my own writing. This is a book I will keep close at hand.

( )
  Cheryl.Russell | May 25, 2019 |
English (17)  Dutch (1)  All languages (18)
Showing 17 of 17
Christopher Booker is mostly famous for being one of the founders of the satirical magazine Private Eye, which he edited for a couple of years, and for his long and irritating career as a satirical columnist on the Telegraph, gleefully attacking anything and everything that he happened to disapprove of that day, from environmentalism to mini-skirts. The obituary in the Guardian quotes George Monbiot as describing Booker — obviously with reference to his tedious campaign of climate-change scepticism — as "simply a device to waste as much of other people’s time as possible … a computer programme randomly generating nonsense."

This Casaubon-like project to provide the Key to All Narratologies is very much in the Booker tradition, full of more or less random attacks on movements and writers he disapproves of, such as Romantics, Americans, women, Joyce, Lawrence, and anyone younger than Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. He also tosses out the predictable drive-by attacks on miniskirts, Beatles, feminism, Angry Young Men, and most politicians other than Thatcher, Eisenhower and Churchill. He even manages to be caustic about the satirists of the 1950s, apparently forgetting his own participation in TWTWTW and the Eye!

But of course that's not the main point, what we're here for is to be told "why we tell stories". And the answer to that turns out to be surprisingly simple, indeed it's probably the answer we would have come up with ourselves before reading the book: stories serve as paradigms for human life, teaching us things about the world and our human nature. Booker fleshes it out with Jungian archetypes and a lot of stuff about the struggle to get the Unified Self out of the clutches of the Ego, but that's what it boils down to. Classical stories move towards a resolution in which the protagonist gets the "masculine" and "feminine" sides of their personality into proper proportion (happy ending) or are destroyed after failing to (tragedy). Stories that don't fit into this model (all the most important works of 20th century literature) are flawed and unsatisfactory. So there.

So, a flawed, blinkered and rather pointless project, but it's still often quite a rewarding book to read, if you filter out Booker's professional contrarianism and just enjoy the steady torrent of plot-summaries running over you. Whatever major work of world literature you are looking for, somewhere or other in this book you will find a convenient thumbnail sketch of its storyline. And the same goes for quite a lot of cinema, visual art, folk tradition, world history, and the myths of the great religions of the world. This is something where Booker's journalistic training really comes in handy: the summaries are lively, short, reasonably accurate, and to the point.

There were a few chapters in the book where he really grabbed my attention, like the very clear historical analysis of the development of comedy from Aristophanes to Beaumarchais. But elsewhere he does ramble and repeat himself rather.

You have to admire Liam Gerrard's courage in taking on the audio narration of this elephant of a book, and getting all the way to the end without major mishap. I assume that his cheerful insistence that every foreign word or name in the book be pronounced as though it were English (Prowst, Dissard, etc.) is an act of subversion, although Booker might well have approved of that approach. As a listener you do have to remain quite alert to avoid getting mixed up between what he turns into Die, Fledermaus! and The Mousetrap, or between I, Vitelloni and I, Claudius... ( )
2 vote thorold | Feb 22, 2021 |
Starts off by delivering on the title but even before halfway starts analysing and even moralising on the history of mankind. It tries to show how our perceptions of the world and its history are shaped by the same plots that are present in books. All this makes sense since its the same brains that made the stories. The book takes a long time to get there because it contains the synopsis of dozens of major works of fiction (and some less major ones). ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
"The Seven Basic Plots Why We Tell Stories" by Christopher Booker is, at over 700 pages, overwhelming at times.

Overall, I see it more as a textbook. It goes into great detail about what he considers the seven basic plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

The book itself is divided into four parts with thirty-four chapters. There is a lot of information packed into the pages--analysis of stories, a lot of psychology, a lot of history. It's not really a book to sit down with and read cover to cover, but a book that needs a lot of time to really think about what Booker puts down on the pages. Since the book is required for school, time isn't a luxury I had while reading this book.

As a writer, I found the first twenty pages the most helpful (parts one and two). The types of plots Booker identifies are dissected in great detail, using well-known works as examples. I have a lot of highlighting and post-it flags in those two sections. There is a lot of helpful information in what Booker says; information that will be useful in my own writing. This is a book I will keep close at hand.

( )
  Cheryl.Russell | May 25, 2019 |
Don't let the fact that Booker is a journalist by profession make you think he isn't as well versed on myth, storytelling, and Jungian psychology as a professional in those fields. He clearly knows the topic backwards and forwards. But this is not a psychology book, it is a very digestible analysis of plot forms and an explanation as to why specific patterns appeal to the mass mind and appear throughout all story telling traditions and the arts. This will especially appeal to fiction writers that are interested in learning the elements as to what makes a story really appeal to as many people as possible. Also might be good for aspiring propagandists trying to take over the world or start a cult. ( )
  Chickenman | Sep 13, 2018 |
The Seven Basic Plots
Author: Christopher Booker
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group
Published In: New York City, NY / London, UK
Date: 2004
Pgs: 728


A small number of basic stories permeate the world. They are hardwired into the human psyche. These plots exist in ancient myths, folk tales, play, novels, campfire tales, James Bond, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. These plots go to the way that we imagine stories and human psychology. Stories that lose touch with their archetypal underpinning.
Literature & Fiction
History & Criticism
Politics & Social Sciences
Folklore & Mythology
Criticism & Theory

Why this book:
Writing and writers and the stories that they tell and we read.

The concept of The Seven Basic Plots is awesome in scope once you consider it.

The Feel:
It is interesting that the mores shattered as they did in the 1950s, when with Lady Chatterley's Lover seeing full publication in all of its details for the first time in history along with other novels and specifically Lolita which predated the unexpurgated Lady. Was it the shift of a flush society free from heavier wants causing this? A freedom from the power of the church in everyday life? Taken in context with Hitchcock's Psycho and its focusing on Norman’s murders and voyeurism, and other less artistic movie and page moments that rounded out the later half of the 21st century, we see how these treatments of those topics and the way that they are explained and touched upon fits in with the seven basic plots. And while all of that is fascinating as a study of the shift in morality, it’s not like it’s the first morality shift ever. It’s just the most televised and widespread visually and aurally. Despite this fascinating sidelight, this really doesn’t get the premise of the book. This book is about half again as long as it could have been.

Favorite Scene / Quote:
Relating the epic of Gilgamesh and James Bond’s Dr No adventure is sheer genius. Puts the concept of this book in perspective immediately.

Totally agree on the great majority of World War 2 fiction being Overcoming the Monster.

Plot Holes/Out of Character:
Androcles and the Lion doesn’t really fit with the Overcoming the Monster paradigm.

I do think that the monster is sometimes wholly human.

Is Mystery an 8th basic plot or is Mystery the plots dressed in different circumstances with a macguffin thrown in and a sense of suspense?

Hmm Moments:
Loved Jaws, hated Beowulf, never really considered that, at base, they were the same story.

Amazing on how many Overcoming the Monsters stories there are out there throughout history.

Feel that the stereotypes of Monster as Predator, Holdfast, or Avenger fits either for protagonist or antagonist roles.

I begin to wonder at where Frankenstein would fit. OtM may only work if Victor is indeed the monster.

Appreciate Ian Fleming’s Bond pattern being given a few pages. Despite the repeating pattern, I did enjoy those books. It just wasn’t the same when Gardner took over and, then, onward to the plethora of authors who became associated with fictional Bond-age. The pattern which holds true for the majority of the Fleming Bonds: the call-anticipation, initial success-dream, confrontation-frustration, final ordeal-nightmare, miraculous escape-death of the monster. This Bondian pattern appears throughout literature. The Thirty Nine Steps used the same format.

The Lord of the Rings is called a Quest. And while it is a Quest, it is also an OtM in that Sauron and, by extension, the Ring, itself, are the monster.

WTF Moments:
The dismissal of The Lord of the Rings as a “not a fully integrated, grown up story” plays as elitist drivel when taken in context with the author’s own assertion that LOTR exhibits all 7 basic plot elements. I believe that LOTR may be one of the best fully realized stories and worlds ever presented in literature, pulp, classical, neo-classical, modern, post-modern, whatever.

Meh / PFFT Moments:
Lists The Magnificent Seven as an OtM, I see The Magnificent Seven more as a The Quest or a Rags to Riches, with the riches being redemption as these bad men find their place in the sun. By the same token, the Sevens, both Magnificent and Samurai, could be seen as Rebirth stories.

I’m not in general a big fan of the Rags to Riches story type. I, also, disagree with the idea that Jack and the Beanstalk is a Rags to Riches instead of an Overcoming the Monster. I guess that some of these fit more than one category.

Disagree with the idea that Lolita is a veiled Raging Temptress. I see it more the in vein of a weak protagonist who fails to Overcome the Monster, with himself as the Monster.

Talks of Dracula and how Jonathan Harker unexplainedly escaped the castle at the end of Part One of Dracula. Always felt that Dracula let him go as both preamble and herald of Dracula’s coming to England to bring his scourge and reign onto England’s nighttime scene.

This has shown me that perspective shows us that many of the stories that we think of as examples of this type can, in many cases, be categorized in many different ways. What I’m gathering from this book, despite Booker’s protestations in classifying classical and neo-classical stories into the seven basic plots, is that many crossover and merge many elements from across the basics. Maybe part of what makes a truly great story is when it’s a little bit Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

Missed Opportunity:
The failure to focus more sharply on the seven basic plots, 8 if we go with the mystery idea.

Last Page Sound:
I’m disappointed, that’s not really fair. I’m unhappy that the reason I read this book, the reason brought up in the title isn’t given full service in the book, which that isn’t really fair either. The ideas and the frameworks of the seven basic plots is here. The problem is that it is covered over in a cat box full of othter ideas. It’s like the author wanted to get into the ideas of the self and ego more than the seven basic plots. I would argue that there are at least two or three tangentially related books hidden inside these 700 some odd pages.

Author Assessment:
I don’t know, would depend on subject matter, length, and whether I felt the focus was tight enough.

Editorial Assessment:
Failure to drive focus to a laser point….or a dull scooping spoon. There were three good books about writing here, but they weren't’ scooped into their own piles.

Knee Jerk Reaction:
not as good as I was lead to believe

Disposition of Book:
Irving Public Library
South Campus
Irving, TX

Dewey Decimal System:

Would recommend to:
no one
_________________________________________________ ( )
  texascheeseman | Apr 5, 2017 |
A titanic disappointment. Must all those who seek underlying unity in the human experience be reactionary bores? Can they really continue to ignore non-Western cultural expression almost entirely when they refer to "the world?" Can they seriously still try to raise up patriarchal norms that are greatly responsible for obliterating our former humility towards the living world as "nature's way?" As a lover of storytelling in all its forms, who shares Booker's notion of its centrality to our species' understanding of ourselves in the world, I couldn't disagree more with just about every other argument he puts forth in this tedious tome. ( )
  CSRodgers | Feb 17, 2017 |
Read the prologue, and the reviews, and decided it's not for me, sorry. Especially as one reviewer said, 'repetitive' and 'unfalsifiable.'
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
This is quite an academic tombstone of a book to read. I enjoyed it, but it will not be everyone's choice. If you're looking for a practical guide on story structure this is not it. There are lots of other book on the mythic structure of stories. If you're an academic or interested in the psychology of why we tell stories then you may find it interesting. ( )
  JMJ_Williamson | Apr 24, 2015 |
A very detailed examination of the plots that are universal in storytelling from the original myths and legends to current films and popular fiction. Not a read for those who are not serious readers, but would be extremely useful for students in later high school or first year university. ( )
  CarterPJ | Jul 24, 2013 |
A fascinating but infuriating book which requires one to accept the premise that Jungian archetypes form the only satisfying basis for a narrative. This premise is explored through the means of numerous if partial examples from both literary and popular culture. The author's bias and erudition make this an enjoyable read and it is worth persevering to the end, however there are several annoying factual errors in the plot summaries. And Booker's despair with regard to novels and other works from the 18th century onwards, with a few exceptions (Crocodile Dundee is a bizarre and much-quoted example) leave one feeling frustrated.

A note of caution: Booker seems to believe that the only possible fulfilling relationship is that between a man and a woman, and that other permutations must by their nature lack validity. Which is a bit normative, if you ask me. But it remains a work that anyone who loves writing or reading should take a look at, if only because it provides a guide to many different types of plot and the archetypes that *may* underlie them.

This is one for fans of narrative closure! ;-)

( )
1 vote JessicaRydill | May 26, 2013 |
  beabatllori | Apr 2, 2013 |

Check some reviews on this, and also wait until Janice George finishes and see what she thinks.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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 the Cinderella story, finds a home in Aladdin and in Jane Eyre. Some works include virtually all the plots, such as The Lord of the Rings. 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 poltical persuasion (he has a regular column in The Telegraph), Booker’s belligerent attitude to genuine innovation in storytelling and his cod psychology for me 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 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 seems to see 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 animals seem to suffer from depression (tragedy, perhaps), indulge in foraging (the quest) and transhumance (voyage and return): is it possible they can conceive these processes as a form of unspoken narrative? If so, do his Jungian analyses 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. 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 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.

http://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/plots/ ( )
3 vote ed.pendragon | Oct 22, 2010 |
Dennis Dutton, the editor of ALdaily, reviewed or mentioned this excellent work. It is long not easy. ( )
  BraveKelso | Apr 10, 2010 |
The premise of this book -- that all stories, from classics to modern movies, follow seven basic plots -- is intriguing. Booker has compiled a lot of examples to illustrate his analysis, and the volume of summarized stories becomes almost overwhelming. What begins as a interesting read becomes tiresome due to an excessive level of detail. I kept yearning for an executive summary. A good book, but I could not finish it. After I found myself skimming whole chapters, I decided to give up. I may come back someday. One unexpected plus -- I have added a number of older books and classics to my reading list after getting hooked by Booker's synopsis of them. ( )
1 vote hannahbond | Jan 3, 2009 |
This book, which by all accounts has taken Christopher Booker 30 years to write, isn't the first attempt to distil all of storytelling down to a few archetypes. I dare say it won't be the last, either. While it's a fantastically learned, well-read, and at times insightful entry on the subject, it encounters the same problems others like Joseph Campbell have: that that the facts of actual literature tend to sit uneasily with the unifying theory, and that the unifying theory itself tends to rest on an analysis of human psychology which sounds like it might be so much bunk, and a particular world view - moral objectivism - which definitely is.

Both Jungian psychoanalysis and moral objectivity are taken as read by Christopher Booker and as such he spends no time justifying them (perhaps understandably - the arguments for and against each would fill this book many times over). Nonetheless, in my view, he's simply wrong about both of them, and it blows a Big Hole in his Big Idea.

Booker's Big Idea is this: when you boil them down, there are only seven archetypal stories in all of literature, and further that if you boil those archetypes down, they are in many ways the same story viewed from different perspectives. This is perhaps intuitively understandable: in the broadest sense all stories are a variation of "there once was a problem, and it got resolved" - but the kicker is this: Booker asserts that any story which fails to follow his prescription is - objectively - flawed. Now that sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it.

The first observation to make is that this significantly undermines his claim to have found a unifying theory: Suddenly, it's not all literature that follows the archetype, but all *good* literature. As a moral objectivist, that doesn't seem to Booker like much of a concession, but from any other perspective it is: what Booker is saying is that all literature *which he likes* meets one of the seven archetypes. What seemed to be a bold assertion about the nature of literature is instead a simple indictment of Booker's appreciation of it.

That seems more plausible, anyway: the point and content of a story, you would think, cannot be straight-jacketed in this way. The fact that popular stories tend to have similarities speaks to our cultural heritage, the common dilemmas of life and death we share, and perhaps to our lack of imagination, not to some cosmic rule of fiction. This has been borne out in more "enlightened" times (literally - since the enlightenment), as Booker notes to his dismay that these similarities have tended to fade. But even without that modern interference, Booker notes that the seven archetypes tend to fragment under the weight of closer analysis - there are "dark inversions" of each, and inversions of various characters. So, the seven become fourteen or more.

The second problem is that, as mentioned, the last couple of centuries have seen stories fail more and more to keep to the archetypes. Booker blames this on romanticism, and is required by his theory to claim that these divergent stories are intrinsically flawed. That might not be a problem were these flawed stories not to include almost all the classics of modern literature, except perhaps Lord of the Rings and the Narnia chronicles (both of which, quelle surprise, have a fundamentally Christian, and therefore morally objectivist, subtext).

So, you can write off Melville, Nabokov, Balzac, Lawrence, Stoker and Shelley, or write off Booker's theory.

For me, it isn't a difficult choice. ( )
4 vote ElectricRay | Sep 30, 2008 |
Interesting but odd book! It puts forward a good analysis of the types of stories and their links to the hero/myth cycle. And so with a clear Jungian basis for its psychological insights, then it seems to lurch into a anti 60's rant as to this being the reason for the collapse as it sees of traditional stories. This is due to the rise of ego blocking the purpose of stories which is to transform. An example he gives of this terrible switch is that in Moby Dick the "monster" does not transform the hero and wins so under mines its traditional deep function. Yet Moby Dick as evil is only one interpretation. The white whale has also been seen as a metaphor for the elements of life that are out of our control, or God. The struggle is not about conquering a monster but his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man's struggle against fate and things they can't control. Starbuck, the young first mate of the Pequod is the only sailor to want to work with what is rather then be in pursuit goals that being impossible destroy your humanity. It’s no coincidence that he is a Quaker.

Booker ignores that the myth cycle is not a fixed pattern. And makes the same error in analysis that Freud makes, terms that explain internal processes are not generalisable to external processes. For example, my motives for my behaviour in a group are not the same as understanding how the group behaves. One of the criticisms that Jung had of Freud is that becoming a mature sexual being is not the only psychological goal of the individual. In practice, individuals compete for partners, status and growth as much as organisations can be seen in terms of power, function, shadow etc. He also falls in to the trap of looking at stories from time x and ignores that many contemporary stories of the time would not had exhibited those features he praises. And then he ignores the stories of this period that do have the features he praises! ( )
2 vote ablueidol | Nov 10, 2006 |
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