‘The Seven Basic Plots’

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) makes sense of storytelling through the symbolic psychology of Carl Jung. Booker identifies seven story types, a range of archetypal characters, and the all-pervasive effect of ‘light’ or ‘dark’ internal worlds. At the core of this psychology of storytelling is the balance — or imbalance — between the male and female aspects of characters, and the mirroring of their internal journey to their progress in the world.

The Seven Basic Plots uses this Jungian framework to make sense of the hero’s journey, from the call to action, to the resolution. The plots are: (1) Overcoming the monster, (2) Rags to riches, (3) The quest, (4) Voyage and return, (5) Comedy, (6) Tragedy, and (7) Rebirth. Booker includes some alternative, ‘dark’ versions — endings where the hero fails to achieve his or her objective.

The point of storytelling, as Booker sees it, revolves around externalising our subconscious thoughts, and using this construct as a revelatory tool for understanding the ego. The ego is fundamental to his concept of the hero’s journey, because it sets their ‘fate’. Their effectiveness in the world mirrors their inner, psychological development. Once they are able to face the truth, and let go of their denial, or otherwise poisoned way of thinking, they can be liberated, and attain completeness. Likewise, those who are unable to overcome themselves — either because they are unwilling, or because they are unable to face the truth — are condemned to inner weakness, or darkness, which either results in them failing to reach their goal, or turns them into a ‘dark’ character. Why? Because, as Jung says: “The treasure which the hero fetches from the dark cavern is life: it is himself.” And an inability to fetch this priceless treasure places a character, at best, into inner torment (which leads to failure), and at worst to become the monster (the perpetuator of evil).

Looking at stories as celebrations and warnings; the celebration comes from the hope of ‘fetching’ the treasure out of the cave, so to speak, and the warning comes from the fear of not being able to retrieve it.

Booker also refers to elements being ‘above’ and ‘below’ the line, which refers to consciousness — the threshold between awareness and non-awareness. He also uses this distinction in relation to class: the poor people in the film, The Titanic are forgotten, both symbolically, and physically, ‘below the line’, located in basic accommodation in the lower decks, beneath the waterline.

The interplay of masculine and feminine elements plays a prominent role in his understanding of stories, and the archetypes inhabiting them. The hero must essentially get in touch with his masculinity, to achieve his goal. Male characters dominated by their feminine sides are inherently weak and liable to become a ‘dark’ figure. The dark figures are: the dark father, the dark mother, the dark rival, and the dark other half.

The ‘other half’ plays an important role, because Booker views characters as having a divided self; a ‘dark’ and a ‘light’ side, the brooding dark tends to be masculine, while the feminine side is portrayed as ‘light’. Often the protagonist and antagonist, although the opposite of one another in many ways, require some element of the ‘other’ in order to be whole. A heartless tyrant could do with some ‘light’ or femininity to make him ‘whole’, and a young hero might need more ‘masculinity’ to attain his goal.

Booker convincingly, in my view, explains that ‘modern’ genres, like the crime mystery, fall into one of his seven plots: a crime mystery, for example, is likely to be a tragedy, or a voyage and return. The quest plot explains a science fiction story like Star Wars.

Booker’s framework for understanding stories is elaborate and convincing, masterly even. It reflects incredible depth of knowledge, and a lifetime of reflection. But — his framework also feels old fashioned, theatrical, focused on classic mythology, filled with archetypes of the heroic male, potentially coming across as a series of traditional stereotypes: the masculine hero rescuing the beautiful princess. He does explain his framework with references to contemporary film, but it feels contrived: the examples have been carefully selected, because they fit in.

Booker is onto something, but at the same time one might hope for something less formulaic. Because, today, the most interesting heroes are complex, flawed, and incomplete — they are not ‘whole’ — they may even be ‘broken’. But, somehow, through courage, through conviction, by taking tough decisions, through perseverance, fearlessness, and ingenuity — they can succeed. And they can be victorious on their own terms, without conforming to imposed notions of what makes them a ‘whole human’.