The Seven Basic Plots
Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots is a long book. It's on the order of War and Peace for thickness. It also gets a bit repetitive at times, but if you can slog through the material, you're rewarded with a good understanding of the seven basic plots. You can also get a good dose of Jungian psychology to boot. Booker likes to talk about the symbolism of the masculine and feminine aspects of a character.
Here are Booker's seven plots:
- Overcoming the Monster: Hero learns of a great evil threatening the land, and sets out to destroy it.
- Rags to Riches: Surrounded by dark forces who suppress and ridicule him, the Hero slowly blossoms into a mature figure who ultimately gets riches, a kingdom, and the perfect mate.
- The Quest: Hero learns of a great MacGuffin that he desperately wants to find, and sets out to find it, often with companions.
- Voyage and Return: Hero heads off into a magic land with crazy rules, ultimately triumphs over the madness and returns home far more mature than when he set out.
- Comedy: Hero and Heroine are destined to get together, but a dark force is preventing them from doing so; the story conspires to make the dark force repent, and suddenly the Hero and Heroine are free to get together. This is part of a cascade of effects that shows everyone for who they really are, and allows two or more other relationships to correctly form.
- Tragedy: The flip side of the Overcoming the Monster plot. Our protagonist character is the Villain, but we get to watch him slowly spiral down into darkness before he's finally defeated, freeing the land from his evil influence.
- Rebirth: As with the Tragedy plot, but our protagonist manages to realize his error before it's too late, and does a Heel Face Turn to avoid inevitable defeat.
The Plots in Detail
Overcoming the Monster
One of the oldest known stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is set in this form. So is the first James Bond movie, and of course a wealth of stories in between. Also the base for many video games, e.g. any Super Mario jump'n'run. Here's the gist of how the stages run:
Anticipation Stage and Call
The fearsome Monster makes his presence known, often from "a great distance" although occasionally more up close and personal. Its nature is base and vile, a picture of the dark side of humanity. To drive this home, it is "highly alarming in its appearance and behaviour"... treacherous and deadly, ugly or ill-formed, and, often, "something about its nature [is] mysterious... hard to define" (elusive, shapeless, nightmarish).
The Monster may be humanoid, animal, or a combination of both (e.g., the Minotaur). If it's humanoid, it will still have bestial qualities, as well as some deformity or abnormality that shows it as not quite human (abnormal size counts). If it's physically an animal, it will be "invested with attributes no animal in nature would possess, such as a peculiar cunning or malevolence" - thus partly human. As for combinations: We tend to imagine creatures composed of things we know, such as the dragon with "a reptilian body, a bat's wings and the head of a giant toad or lizard." (Hey, even when we craft Cosmic Horrors we give them a squid's tentacles, right?)
During the course of the story, the Monster may take on any of three basic roles:
- Predator: Prowls around, trying to find victims. The Devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
- Holdfast: Zealously guards a Treasure or a Princess. Very suspicious of any strangers, but may be sleeping when the Hero comes to claim it.
- Avenger: "When its guardianship is in any way challenged," the Monster rushes out to find and destroy those who've taken its Treasure.
All three are found in the pattern story Jack and the Beanstalk: First it's "Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman," then it's the sleeping giant guarding his treasures, and finally it's the angry giant pursuing Jack across the clouds and down the beanstalk.
In any case, the Monster poses a grave threat. Who's going to stop him? The Hero, who receives his Call to Adventure. If he's smart, he heads out immediately (since The Call Knows Where You Live!) - and after all, who else is gonna kill that thing?
The Hero prepares for battle while moving closer to the Monster (either he's heading out, or the Monster's approaching his home). But the danger is still "comfortably remote" and everything seems to be working out okay.
The Monster shows up and shows off, "in all his awesome power." There's no contest here: No way the Hero can beat a thing this strong! At this point, the Hero seems to be "slipping into the monster's power" and "may even fall helplessly into the monster's clutches."
Time for the climactic battle. The odds seem to be against our Hero even surviving this fight. But, of course, we know how these things turn out, right?
The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
The Monster's power is broken, and it dies; the people who had been under its power are liberated; the Hero emerges victorious.
To symbolically complete the tale, the Hero receives three things:
- A treasure (an inheritance counts)
- A kingdom (something to rule over, e.g., a cook hero might get his own restaurant)
- A Princess (or, in the case of a female Hero, a Prince - either way, it's the ultimate mate, the Hero's other half)
And they all lived Happily Ever After.
A young child grows up surrounded by shadowy figures who suppress and ridicule her, but through great testing she slowly blossoms into a mature figure fully worthy of her happy ending.
The basic tale behind such gems as "Aladdin" and "Cinderella" (that one's technically riches to rags to royalty and riches), this shows the character arc, from an impoverished beginning to a complete, Happily Ever After end. At the end the character should have status, riches, and a mate, and often a kingdom as well. (A more modern spin on the plot, the Coming of Age Story, may eschew the kingdom and downplay the initial "rags" aspect, as neither is something a modern reader would have much personal experience with, but the arc is otherwise the same.)
Key to this basic plot is the false ending, in which the hero appears to have gained her heart's desire—but it is too early, and she is too immature, so she loses it all, usually through some fault of her own (though not necessarily matched to the enormity of the loss). This loss is the most devastating blow to the hero, prior to the story's climax. In Aladdin it's the moment when the evil wizard uses the genie to steal the princess (note that the genie was lost because Aladdin failed to either keep it with him or inform his wife of the importance of the lamp).
In another example (David Copperfield by Charles Dickens), the false ending is marriage to an immature wife, who soon dies - so the hero may actually lose the thing he wanted completely, only to get a better thing (a mature wife) by the end.
Anyway, here are the stages:
Initial Wretchedness at Home and the Call
Far more than any other story, this is a story whose backbone is the Hero's growth arc. We start with a very young Hero in a "lowly and unhappy state, usually at home." Antagonists of various sorts "scorn or maltreat" the Hero - though that is merely "the most obvious reason" for her unhappiness.
This lasts until she receives The Call and either heads out, or is sent out, into the world.
Out into the World, Initial Success
After a few minor ordeals, the Hero gets a quick but limited success, "some prevision of their eventual glorious destiny." She may even meet her Prince, may outshine her rivals - but she's not ready for this yet. It is pretty clear that she's got a long way to go toward maturity before she can truly succeed.
The Central Crisis
"Everything suddenly goes wrong." Some of the dark figures from her past might reappear. The initial win is stripped away and the Hero is separated from that which she values most - especially her Prince. (Note: The separation may be physical, or it may be, for example, due to slander or other misinformation.) The Hero is "overwhelmed with despair" and this is clearly "their worst moment in the story."
Independence and the Final Ordeal
In Aladdin, the poor boy has lost his Princess and his palace, and on top of that his father-in-law has sentenced him to death if he can't bring them all back. More important to the story: He's lost his genie, the magical power that was letting him do all the cool stuff for the first half of the story. Now he's got to rely on his wits and his natural skills - no more easy outs. But in doing this on his own, he's developing his independence and proving that he is worthy of achieving his goal.
After the ordeals that show off the Hero's newfound strength, the Hero must undergo one final test, one climactic battle against the Big Bad "who stands between them and their goal."
Final Union, Completion, and Fulfillment
At last the Hero emerges victorious, and lays claim to the treasure, the kingdom, and the Prince.
Show me a list of basic plots that doesn't have The Quest on it. Here it's the search for an object, a location or some information that requires our Hero to leave their (usually) everyday life to find. It's the basic plot most likely to include a party instead of a lone hero. Booker allows for four basic party types:
- A close friend who is loyal but little else (Samwise Gamgee);
- A companion who is the hero's very opposite and usually displays opposite emotions, for good or ill (Sancho Panza);
- A large group of faceless minions who die right and left as the story goes on (a la The Odyssey - and often not a single one makes it to the end);
- or a balanced party distinguished by skills, generally Brains, Brawn, and "Soul" (which might be represented by courage, intuition, charisma, compassion, or spiritual power). Here, The Hero may be counted among them, or may be less specialized and merely rely on them.
So here's how this plot works out:
The Hero finds it impossible to remain at home. Often it's because The Quest is to find a MacGuffin that will save his hometown. Other times it's because he's already got a Doomed Hometown and is hoping to find a new home. It may be that he's escaping from slavery or trying to set others free. Whatever the case, Refusal of the Call just isn't an option.
What helps matters is some level of "supernatural or visionary direction" explaining where to go, how to get there, what to do. And it's time for him to set off, his eyes set on that "distant, life-renewing goal."
The party heads out over hostile terrain. Here begins the episodic nature of The Quest: The heroes face an obstacle, the heroes overcome it, again and again and again. Obstacles tend to come in a few distinct flavors:
- Monsters: Fight them. Kill them. (Or escape, at the very least.) It's like a miniature form of the Overcoming the Monster story, so play up the nature of the beast.
- Temptations: Booker further divides these into the four categories found in The Odyssey:
- "The beautiful but deadly sirens" whose "only aim is to kill."
- Circe, who imprisons but does not kill.
- Calypso, who "so captivates [Odysseus] that he stays seven years in her cave" - but "he stays voluntarily."
- The Land of the Lotus Eaters, "which saps all will in an atmosphere of relaxed self-indulgence."
...So, I guess, the four divisions are Death, Captivity, Distraction, and Self-indulgence. Anyway, temptations are to be resisted. (Booker doesn't explicitly include "Illusions" or "Trickery" but maybe they ought to go here. Falling prey to an illusion or buying into a false story seems to fit this general pattern.)
- Deadly Opposites: The Hero sees the road up ahead leading between two roaring lions. Or between a giant whirlpool and a giant sea monster. Or between two giant walls of crushing water. Maybe he has to balance on a thin ledge of rock without falling to one side or the other. This can be a less literal path, of course, but Booker works with the most visual forms. Somehow or other, the Hero must tread a narrow path between two dangers, and any misstep will lead to certain doom. (So don't ignore your tour guides!!)
- Journey to the Underworld: The climb down into the world of death, and the encounter with the spirits there, is a classic motif. Often the spirits can give the Hero some information about his journey that no living being could know, thus enabling him to head the right way or to avoid some upcoming danger. In between the various tests come periods of rest and succor, during which the party receives advice about the path ahead. (Booker claims this is often from a wise old man and a beautiful young (or ageless) girl.)
Arrival and Frustration
We reach the halfway mark, and the journey part is over. But - gasp! - the story has a long way to go! The party is within sight of the goal, but now sees a series of obstacles yet to be overcome.
In The Odyssey, this is when Odysseus arrives home but still has to deal with the suitors before he can claim his wife and home as his own again.
The Final Ordeals
A "last series of tests," often following the Rule of Three (Booker's big on that). The final test - which is "the most threatening of all" - may be a test that only the Hero can pass.
Then there's a "thrilling escape from death."
The Hero has won it all: treasure, kingdom, and Princess. There is "an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future."
The Hero enters a Magical Land where normal rules don't apply, happily explores for a while, then encounters a darker side of things; he conquers or escapes, in the process overcoming a character flaw, and returns home far more mature than when he left.
This is the backbone for Alice in Wonderland and The Labyrinth, and the framing concept for The Chronicles of Narnia.
It's an obvious plot for dreams. Then again, it's also one of the most common plots used in kiddie books, since it's an easy way for a kid to explore an immaturity (e.g., fear of the dark) and symbolically conquer it - secure in the knowledge that when he finally gets home, everything will be just as he left it. Nothing has changed except the kid.
And, of course, there's the wondrous realm of magic and monsters to explore. It's a realm where intuition rules, rather than logic - common sense gets thrown out the window. The Hero has to rely on the advice of allies - unfortunately, most of them are Tricksters, and a few might even be leading him into danger. Then again, if he's a good kid, he'll probably be able to follow his heart - it'll lead him into problems at times, but it'll all work out in the long run. This is the way plenty of FairyTales run.
At any rate, the story stays pretty light at first - amusing, whimsical, fun - until suddenly things take a dark turn. The Hero has to pass some ordeals, then finally overcomes one final threat, makes a "thrilling escape from death," and returns home mature but physically unchanged.
Generally speaking (according to Booker), at the end of the story, a hero who has failed to join himself to a suitable cross-gendered mate is symbolically immature or unfinished. However, in Voyage and Return, the presence of a mate is actually a problem, since the hero can take nothing back with him but experience - hence he must leave his mate behind. Some stories attempt to avoid this problem by providing a parallel version of the hero's love when he returns home; see The One and The Forbidden Kingdom for two film examples. In other tales, they get by with a Your Universe or Mine? dilemma (see the movie Alice, where Hatter leaves his world to stay with Alice); sometimes this requires balance (if one person leaves the dream world, another must take their place), and other times it's explicitly prevented ("by staying where you don't belong, you're ripping the worlds apart!").
So here are the basic steps in the Voyage and Return plot:
Anticipation Stage and 'Fall' into the Other World
The Hero's "consciousness is in some way restricted," most commonly because she's young, or because she has a serious flaw, or because she's "bored, or drowsy, or reckless." It is also commonly a blow to the head or some other injury. The character regains consciousness in an alternate reality.
Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
This new world is "puzzling and unfamiliar" - hence, cool! The hero explores.
Booker does note that, no matter how cool this whole setup might seem, "it is never a place in which they can feel at home."
The "mood of the adventure" starts to darken. It's not as easy as before, and options are disappearing; the hero's starting to get hemmed in. "A shadow begins to intrude, which becomes increasingly alarming."
The shadow takes center stage, and it looks like the hero is doomed!
Thrilling Escape and Return
Just when it looks like it's over, the hero makes a dramatic exit back to the world she came from.
But the real question is: Was there any Character Development? "Have they been fundamentally changed, or was it all just a dream?"
Comedy, for Booker, is the grand mesh of relationships among a large cast, rooted in miscommunication. The fog of misunderstanding is maintained by some dark figure, often the hero's parent but sometimes the hero himself; the focus of the dark energy is in keeping the hero apart from his other half.
Unlike the other stories, the villain here is almost never just defeated; he is often redeemed, brought to a point where he admits wrongdoing and joyfully joins the party of the other characters released from the fog. The misunderstandings get cleared up, the relationships get properly aligned (eliminating any Love Dodecahedron problems), and everything gets brought to light.
Basically, if there's three or more relationships being prevented mostly by misunderstanding or lack of acceptance, you're looking at Booker's definition of a Comedy, even if the tone is rather dark. Shakespeare of course had several; George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man is another good example.
...will complete this later.
Tragedy is the flip side of Overcoming the Monster: It's the tale of the villain spiraling down into evil and then being defeated by the hero. Here, release comes only with the death or destruction of the main character. The end, however tragic, is seen as just, even if we can sympathize with the villain and see some of his choices as right or forced.
Here are the stages for Tragedy:
The Hero gets focused on "some unusual gratification... object of desire or course of action." At this point, he is "incomplete or unfulfilled."
Like in many other stories, the Tragic Hero gets "committed to his course of action" (Booker mentions Faust's Deal with the Devil as an example). There's no turning back now. However, at first "things go almost improbably well for the hero." Even if he's doing bad things, nobody seems to be catching on, or even if they catch on they seem unable or unwilling to stop him - he's "getting away with it."
Things start to go wrong... perhaps very slowly, "almost imperceptibly," but the Hero is starting to experience difficulties and annoyances. He may decide, at this point, to do "further dark acts which lock him into his course of action even more irrevocably."
There may also appear some "shadow figure" which seems to threaten him (perhaps only in his imagination).
Booker describes this stage better than I can: "...things are now slipping seriously out of the hero's control. He has a mounting sense of threat and despair. Forces of opposition and fate are closing in on him."
Destruction or Death Wish Stage
He's about to go down, hard. This is caused by either "some final act of violence" or because of the various enemies he's made - the "forces he has aroused against him."
The Tragic Hero's death or destruction releases the world around him from the darkness he had wrought, and the world without him rejoices.
Rebirth is the more optimistic form of Tragedy, in which the villain spirals down into evil and then at the last second raises his head and gets pulled out of the mire by some redeeming figure, either his other half or a young child. The redeemer awakens the hero's ability to love (or feel compassion) and helps him also to see things as they are, including, sometimes, a reordering of priorities. Silas Marner is Booker's main example, in which a little girl helps the miser to stop caring so much about his lost gold.
Booker doesn't give stages for this plot in the same fashion. However, it's mostly modeled on the Tragedy, with some Pet the Dog moments (to show the Hero is redeemable) and a different or extended ending. He does offer this "basic sequence" (quoted in full):
- a young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of the dark power;
- for a while, all may seem to go reasonably well, the threat may even seem to have receded;
- but eventually it all approaches again in full force, until the hero or heroine is seen imprisoned in the state of living death;
- this continues for a long time, when it seems that the dark power has completely triumphed;
- but finally comes the miraculous redemption: either, where the imprisoned figure is a heroine, by the hero; or, where it is the hero, by a Young Woman or Child.
Of course, when you begin combining elements from the seven basic plots, you end up with a more complex tale, like, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which combines six (Tragedy for Saruman; Comedy the one absent); or The Hobbit (combining Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, and Voyage and Return).
Examples of Works Based on These Plots
Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
- A Little Princess
- The Deed of Paksenarrion, by Elizabeth Moon, is one of the most involved and satisfying versions of this plot available. It details the journey from sheepherder's daughter to True Paladin.
- Her early loss is of two things she held dearest at the time: her courage and her ability to fight. It's caused by immaturity and rushing things, both important to Booker's description of this plot. Oh, and it ends not with marriage but with the ultimate fulfillment of her duty to her God, and the rescue of a King, which does work within the symbolism.
- The Horse and His Boy, book 5 of The Chronicles of Narnia.
- Harry Potter
- Jane Eyre
- Most Holy Grail stories including:
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
- Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail though the movie abruptly cuts off before the final conflict
- If information can be the object of The Quest, then many mysteries and police procedurals qualify. Frustrations, in this instance, might include red-herring clues, suspects with alibis, and other obstacles to solving the case; the Final Ordeal may be a violent confrontation, or a verbal "duel" fought in a courtroom.
Voyage and Return
Everything listed as an example at "There and Back" Story.
- Alice in Wonderland
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
- Also Tin Man, which is based on The Wizard of Oz... only in that, the ending differs.
- The Where the Wild Things Are movie is a good modern example.
- If you thought the movie was odd, though, you're not alone. Now, in a Voyage and Return story, the Hero always leaves the fantasy land, and it does seem to be normal for him not to fix all its problems before he leaves. But Where the Wild Things Are seems to end on a note of incompleteness. Dunno what Booker would say, but it's hard to imagine a more complete ending, what with the theme of "Maturity doesn't come all at once." Yes, Max saw his negative traits highlighted and was able to learn from this, but it's not like they won't show up again, over and over, as he spends his childhood trying to master his own impulses. Such is life.
- Most Digimon series.
- Dream-like sequences with character growth but no physical change? Sounds like A Christmas Carol fits the bill.
- Gullivers Travels
- Space Trap, by Monica Hughes.
- Away Is a Strange Place to Be, by H. M. Hoover.
- The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer.
- The Glass Mermaid
- The Devil Wears Prada actually falls under this plot, the heroine enters a new world (her new job at the magazine) finds her normal behavior patterns won't work there, adapts, but discovers that the job is making her a bad person and quits.
- The Phantom Tollbooth
- Inception omits the joyful exploration of the dreamworlds, but Cobb is certainly a different man at the end of the movie than in the beginning.
- The joyful exploration was shown in flashbacks of the fifty years Cobb and Mal spent in limbo
- Don't forget the training of Ariadne where she got to romp around in Cobb's dreams, an adventure that produced the now iconic image of a city being folded in half.
- Macbeth is an example Booker returns to a lot. It's like the crystallized form of this plot, complete with three specific murders, each of which leaves behind a survivor who stays in the shadows until it's time to strike back at the monster MacBeth has become.
- Hamlet also, although you'd have to read Booker's analysis to figure out whether you agree with his reasoning. But it includes three specific crimes: murdering the old man Polonius, murdering Hamlet's double Laertes, and driving the young girl Ophelia to suicide. These three symbolic crimes crop up a lot in tragedies.
- Don Juan, Don Giovanni, and assorted versions of the story.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
- Although it's mostly encountered externally, this is a pitch perfect description of the character trajectory of all the major villains in Lord of the Rings (Smeagol/Gollum, Saruman, Sauron).
- Code Geass and Death Note are probably the best known anime Tragedies
- Archer's backstory of Fate/stay night looks just like this, which is all the more sad because our Tragic Hero had only one desire: to be a hero.
- Most crime films take this form - Goodfellas, Scarface etc. Not to mention any film entitled "The Rise and Fall of ____".
- A Christmas Carol
- The Light Princess
- Note particularly the use of capes. The title character decides to accept his evil "destiny" with a switch to his darkest cape; later, when there's need, he takes on the mantle of the old hero (literally), only to drop it at the heroine's feet when he refuses the call - and then she holds onto it until he's proven where his heart truly lies. This resonates with one of Booker's examples where the heroine holds onto the hero's heart/soul while he journeys to find himself. It's not insignificant that at his most heroic, Megamind looks exactly like the old hero.
- Silas Marner
- Sleeping Beauty
- The Secret Garden
- and of course, the Star Wars Saga
Note: Booker has chosen to condense most of the world of literature into seven specific plots. Other authors have come up with other formulations, but this is not the page on which to discuss the work of other authors. Any book that discusses tropes can be summarized on its own page; see Books on Trope for links to many of them. If you would like to make a page discussing the distinctions between various authors, go make a page and do so; this is not the right page for that.