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The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories Paperback – September 1, 2006
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This remarkable and monumental book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of 'basic stories' in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling.
But this is only the prelude to an investigation into how and why we are 'programmed' to imagine stories in these ways, and how they relate to the inmost patterns of human psychology. Drawing on a vast array of examples, from Proust to detective stories, from the Marquis de Sade to E.T., Christopher Booker then leads us through the extraordinary changes in the nature of storytelling over the past 200 years, and why so many stories have 'lost the plot' by losing touch with their underlying archetypal purpose.
Booker analyses why evolution has given us the need to tell stories and illustrates how storytelling has provided a uniquely revealing mirror to mankind's psychological development over the past 5000 years.
This seminal book opens up in an entirely new way our understanding of the real purpose storytelling plays in our lives, and will be a talking point for years to come.
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'This book...has mind-expanding properties. Not only for anyone interested in literature, but also for those fascinated by wider questions of how human beings organise their societies and explain the outside world to their inmost selves, it is fascinating.' Katherine Sale, FT
'Christopher Booker's mammoth account of plot types, archetypes, their role in literary history and where Western culture has gone horribly wrong.'Times Literary Supplement
'His prose is a model of clarity, and his lively enthusiamsm for fictions of every description is infectious...The Seven Basic Plots is...one of the most diverting works on storytelling I've ever encountered.' Dennis Dutton, The Washington Post
'This is the most extraordinary, exhilarating book. It always seemed to me that 'the story' was God's way of giving meaning to crude creation. Booker now interprets the mind of God, and analyses not just the novel - which will never to me be quite the same again - but puts the narrative of contemporary human affairs into a new perspective. If it took its author a lifetime to write, one can only feel gratitude that he did it.'Fay Weldon, novelist
'An enormous piece of work...nothing less than the story of all stories. And an extraordinary tale it is ... Booker ranges over vast tracts of literature, drawing together the plots of everything from Beowulf to Bond, from Sophocles to soap opera, from Homer to Homer Simpson, to show the underlying parallels in stories from what appear to be the most disparate sources. If stories are about "what happens next", this book sets out to show that the answer is always "the same things", then to explain why. I found it absolutely fascinating.' Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye
'This is literally an incomparable book, because there is nothing to compare it with. It goes to the heart of man's cultural evolution through the stories we have told since storytelling began. It illuminates our nature, our beliefs and our collective emotions by shining a bright light on them from a completely new angle. Original, profound, fascinating - and on top of it all, a really good read.'Sir Antony Jay, co-author of Yes, Minister
'I have been quite bowled over by Christopher Booker's new book. It is so well planned with an excellent beginning and the contrasts and comparisons throughout are highly entertaining as well as informative and most original - and always extremely readable.'John Bayley
'Booker's knowledge and understanding of imaginative literature is unrivalled, his essays on the great authors both illuminating and stimulating. This is a truly important book, an accolade often bestowed and rarely deserved in our modern age.'Dame Beryl Bainbridge
Number 5 in Foyles bookshop Top Ten
'some splendid links between story and reality...enjoyably provocative' (Gordon Parsons Morning Star)
'It's hard not to admire the commitment of any writer whose book has taken 34 years to evolve. And there can be no doubting that Christopher Booker's 700-page, exhaustive examination of "Why we tell stories" - the book's subtitle - is a labour of love.' (Gordon Parsons Morning Star)
"....remarkable parallels between the structure of the modern film Jaws and that of the Old English Beowulf."Writing Magazine
"If you have any interest in fiction and the way it works, you will enjoy this exploration of the seven basic plots and how they have been adapted and developed across the centuries."Writing Magazine
"one of the most brilliant books of recent years" (Bel Mooney Times)
Mentioned in article about author in The Lady, 17/07/07 (The Lady)
Title mention in article (Neil Philip Books For Keep)
"Fantastically entertaining" The Times
mention in Evangelical Times, 1 May 2009
"This magisterial volume really does offer readers a genuinely fresh and exciting perspective on virtually every tale ever told." —Bookmark, July 2005 (Sanford Lakoff)
'some splendid links between story and reality...enjoyably provocative' (Sanford Lakoff Morning Star)
'It's hard not to admire the commitment of any writer whose book has taken 34 years to evolve. And there can be no doubting that Christopher Booker's 700-page, exhaustive examination of "Why we tell stories" - the book's subtitle - is a labour of love.' (Sanford Lakoff Morning Star)
"one of the most brilliant books of recent years" (Sanford Lakoff Times)
Mentioned in article about author in The Lady, 17/07/07 (Sanford Lakoff)
Title mention in article (Sanford Lakoff Books For Keep)
About the Author
- Publisher : Continuum; 1st edition (September 1, 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 736 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0826480373
- ISBN-13 : 978-0826480378
- Item Weight : 2 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.1 x 2.4 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #963,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on May 12, 2021
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First we must dismiss the complaints of numerous reviewers that the book is excessively lengthy. It does weigh in at over 700 pages. Yet what is the basis for complaint? Anyone who purchases it knows in advance how long it is. And there is no reasonable basis for saying the book is bloated, repetitive, or in need of editing. If you are going to make an argument as ambitious as Booker does, giving a general theory of all literature, you need ample room in which to defend such a claim. Thus most of the book is a matter of providing empirical evidence for his theory in the form of numerous plot summaries of many works of literature. This also makes the book a relatively quick read, since plot summaries are easy reading. But there is no way this book could be any shorter without compromising its goal of demonstrating the basic patterns of all literature. If you’re not up for reading a long book, then do not buy it.
There are two distinct theses in this book, and they can be taken separately. One is whether Booker is right to hold that there is a single, distinct purpose of all stories: that they help us achieve ‘wholeness’ and identify with the Self. The other is whether there are just seven basic plots to which all literature can be categorized (obviously, there is some connection between the two theses: are there just 7 different ways in which stories can depict the achievement of Selfhood?).
Let us first consider the question of whether all literature can be reduced to 7 basic plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. The first thing to note is that this is a rather motley collection of mixed categories, many of which will inevitably overlap. Overcoming the monster for example can involve rags to riches (Frodo defeats the dragon and wins the wealth); it can also involve rebirth and a quest and a voyage and return. Moreover, comedy and tragedy don’t seem like types of plots at all, but rather something like literary forms. There can be a comic version of rags to riches (Chaplin’s Gold Rush) or a tragic version (Oedipus achieves the kingship, then it all falls apart). Further, the seven plot types are so vague as to be able to cover almost anything; rebirth for example could cover an enormous variety of plots, as could the quest. So it is unclear whether this categorization is all that helpful.
Even odder is the fact that there turn out to be more than 7 basic plots. In Chap. 28, Booker admits that there are at least 2 further types of plots, though he insists they are not ‘basic’ but ‘rare.’ In Chap. 29, he tells us that the detective story creates a new kind of plot for the modern world, and one that is very popular (hence not ‘rare’). He does not however explain why this should not count among the basic plots (is it a form of Quest? Overcoming the Monster (murderer)? Voyage and Return?). In Chap. 31, he discusses creation stories, but it is hard to see why this isn’t a distinct type of plot. One is led to suspect that the insistence on there being only 7 basic plots is a product of Jungian number mysticism; 7 is a number of ‘wholeness’ in Jungian thought (as is 4, and to some extent, 3). So the very insistence on the 7 basic plots may just be a product of Jungian dogma, and not in the end very convincing.
What about the more important question: is the single fundamental purpose of all stories to express the achievement of Wholeness in human life? To evaluate this point is to take a position on Jungian psychology in general. Jung is a very controversial and ambiguous figure; it is never quite clear whether his theory is meant as scientific psychology or as a kind of religion in which the idea of Self is a substitute for the traditional notion of God (for myself, I tend to see it as more a religion than a science). Booker too is ambiguous, sometimes declaring his theory is an ‘evolutionary’ one (in the biological sense), yet at other times suggesting something more like religion (as where he says that the goal of life is to transcend the ego and achieve unity with a ‘dimension beyond time and existence altogether’ (501)).
The notion of getting beyond egocentricity and achieving wholeness is, to be sure, in some sense quite attractive and uncontroversial. Surely it is reasonable to aim at a higher goal than merely pursuing the ego. But a lot depends on what one means by ‘wholeness.’ Here unfortunately Booker is distressingly vague. It is variously described as becoming fully oneself, being able to see the world objectively, achieving inner peace, becoming one with the universe, or achieving a kind of ‘holy awe’ at the universe. So what is this wholeness: personal happiness? Altruism? Union with the ground of being?
Moreover, just how do stories help us achieve this? Odysseus makes it home to his wife and defeats the evil suitors, killing them all. But in what sense is this a model for achieving wholeness? To be sure, Odysseus shows an admirable determination and faithfulness in trying to get home for 20 years. But is there really a message of finding the Self underlying this story? Or take Middlemarch: a central plot element is Dorothea finally uniting with her true soul mate, Ladislaw. Booker calls this ‘recognition,’ but it is unclear just in what sense this is the true meaning of the book; has she found the Self, or merely her lover? One might say the same thing about thousands of romance novels: they are about finding one’s true love – but is a Jungian explanation really helpful here? And for that matter, what makes Middlemarch a classic work of literature while Harlequin romances are not? (It is no small irony that a central theme in Middlemarch is the arid scholar Casaubon’s failed and futile quest for a ‘key to all mythologies’!).
Booker takes the Jungian theme even further, arguing that the true measure of wholeness in the self is the union of the masculine and feminine elements. It follows for him that a genuine work of literature must end in marriage of man and woman. Booker is a traditionalist and a gender essentialist; he pines for the old days when men were free to be truly masculine while women were allowed to be feminine. He does not like feminism and the ‘new assertiveness’ of women, which for him amounts to women trying to be masculine. Further, for the same Jungian reasons he does not approve of homosexuality, and even seems to suggest we should bring back the old laws prohibiting homosexuality (680). Further, ‘wholeness’ for him seems to require that one not only be married but be a parent as well. There is no room for him for the solitary path, or those who pursue art or science or philosophy without getting married or having children.
The rigidity of his limited formulas for a story lead him into unfortunate misjudgments. He struggles for example to make sense of the masterpiece of the Book of Job, since it has no monster or female heroine. He has a total blind spot for tragedy, since tragedy typically does not involve a happy ending. Booker implausibly insists on a moralistic reading of tragedy: since the hero dies at the end, he must be a sinner. But he fails to see the profundity of tragedy, and indeed how it can support his view that stories are about achieving wholeness; it is just that tragedy is arguably more profound than stories with happy endings. In tragedy, the hero (who is not a sinner) recognizes that true Wholeness cannot be fully achieved in this life (not even with a happy marriage and children), and so the hero is willing to sacrifice his life in the name of a higher value. If Rags to Riches can be a story, why not Riches to Rags (as in Oedipus)? Why must there be a happy ending? Similarly, Booker rejects entire genres (detective, horror) simply because they don’t fit his paradigm. The problem of course is the desire to reduce literature (and the meaning of life) to a simple formula.
Booker also shows poor judgment when it comes to great creative masterpieces, especially when they don’t fit his neat categories. He hates Joyce’s Ulysses (surely one of the great works of the 20th century, if not all time) because he sees the hero as emotionally inadequate. It is not clear exactly why, since the book suggests that Bloom ends up reconciled (more or less) with his wife Molly; and moreover it is a good example of a Voyage and Return story. Booker also despises Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, apparently because the hero is solitary (and does not end up married). In fact, Proust’s work could also be said to fit the paradigm of wholeness; in the last volume, the hero Marcel achieves a transcendence of ego and of time. Just because there is no monster to be destroyed or no marriage at the end does not make it a failed work of literature.
In the end, we must say that Booker’s work is an instructive failure, though a very illuminating one. Jung’s idea of the search for wholeness is by no means implausible; the human life can be described as a quest for meaning and purpose, for something larger than ourselves. It is equally plausible that myths and literature are centrally concerned for this higher purpose. It is just that this sort of wholeness cannot be reduced to a simple formula, and literature itself cannot be bound into rigid categories. This is to be sure a very long book, so it is not for everyone. But if you have the time, it is a worthwhile read, as long as you take it with a large grain of salt.
As a child the most horrifying movie I saw was Frankenstein. For three months waking in the night and looking through the square shape of the uncurtained window would remind me of the face of the monster.
At age 12, my uncle, an English teacher, told me the captivating story of Hamlet. Charles Dickens, and Gulliver's travels fired my imagination.
Stephen Booker took 34 years to craft this very comprehensive and detailed book.
Within, you can discover fresh, and invigorating insights into some of your favorite stories, and find some new ones, further illuminating your appreciation of these stories with a fresh perspective.
If you care to explore, you may discover not only food for additional thought, and curiosity to explore further, but also the desire to get the dvd or book of a particular story. It will also help you to understand how stories are constructed, and help you in constructing your own stories.
For example, he describes the pattern of a particular plot type, say a tragedy. Setting out the five stages:
He uses Hamlet as one example, including the story Amleth from which Hamlet derives, comparing and contrasting the two stories, because Shakespeare goes darker, and explaining how the tragic dark hero Hamlet destroys the light counterparts and others, such as the innocent young girl, Ophelia, the Wise Old Man, Polonious, his light alter ego, and so on. He also uses Jungian archetype terminology, to illustrate their presence in stories.
He unpacks the story of Frankenstein, showing how the mythic story played out in real life with eerie similarity. Mary Shelley's husband Percy Shelley, related to the light character of the monster, but perhaps more accurately resembled the dark shadow character of Dr Frankensein, resulting in the death of those around. Tragic coincidence, or strangely prophetic?
You will find many other such stories in the book. Over 600 stories are mentioned. A sample of those covered in some detail include: Anna Karenina, Aladdin, Alice in Wonderland, Bonnie and Clyde, Gulliver's Travels,various Dickens and Shakespeare, Star Wars, Jane Eyre, Pygmalion, Ulysses, The Odyssey, Snow White, and The Wizard of Oz.
I don't know if you know the seven stories. You may know them but you may not know you know them. What do Frankenstein and No Country For Old Men have in common? Both are monster stories. Not to mention Silence of the Lambs.
Other books you may enjoy include The The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series) by Christopher Vogler, which outlines the steps of the The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series) , the pattern set out by Joseph Campbell, and adopted as a template in Hollywood movies such as Star Wars, and The Matrix. It also deals with common mythic archetypes. You may also enjoy Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.
I hope you find this review helpful.
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Initially, I read about one third of the book and it then languished on a shelf for over a decade before I picked it up again last year (2018). Since then I have steadily worked through the remainder and, as I’ve read, I have realized why it got put to one side: it isn’t a book which I derived much enjoyment or illumination from reading.
Although it would be obvious to say that his analysis is an attempt to see how all stories can be slotted into seven basic pigeonholes, there is also an underlying framework of Jungian psychology which permeates the book.
His estimation of Jung is given on page 554 and runs, “This, his central contribution to our understanding of the unconscious, was one of the greatest intuitive discoveries of the twentieth century, ranking alongside those of Einstein and other nuclear physicists, or Watson and Crick’s double helix.”
Back in the 1980s, I read some Jung and eagerly looked forward to having a discussion with a friend who was studying Psychology at university. It was very disappointing to discover that Psychology had moved on and Jung didn’t even get a passing mention. Of course, there will be Jungian psychotherapists who still value his work, but even 35 years ago his work was already looking quite anachronistic.
This, for me, is one of the pitfalls which this book falls into over and over again: trying to shoehorn literature into a framework which is not really adequate to the task. It results in some absurdities as noted by other critical reviewers: where great literature gets lambasted and fairly trivial work gets praised.
War and Peace is described, on page 397, as a ‘profound and important’ story but he then goes on to say, “We also see in the book’s messily unresolved ending how Tolstoy was losing touch with the basic archetype.”
Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past caused him major headaches and comes in for even harsher treatment. On page 438 for example, “Thus ends the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of storytelling: a book so preoccupied with the ego-life of its author that it is not so much a story as a case study: the self-portrait of a man so frozen in immaturity by the unresolved tie to ‘Mother’ that he is incapable of making any contact with the deeper Self.”
A more sensible approach, when meeting a work which didn’t fit neatly into one’s schema, might have been to call into question whether the theoretical framework had certain deficiencies. Instead, it seems to have resulted in toys being thrown out of the pram.
This is my main objection to the book. However, I also had minor quibbles about his grasp of science and history. Overall, it was not a book which I enjoyed reading and I think that forcing things into the Jungian framework resulted in too many absurdities.
Booker’s main focus is literature and I particularly liked his chapters on Thomas Hardy and Anton Chekhov. Indeed, these were stand out chapters for me.
Booker also covers film. I loved the way he compared Beowulf, Jaws and James Bond and saw them as essentially the same story; that is, they are all build around the same archetypes, though on the surface they may appear different. I also loved for example reading his account of Straw Dogs and his exposition on Citizen Kane. I’d certainly never thought of these stories in this way before.
I also love big books, and this is one. At at over 700 pages it provides much to chew on. If there are any drawbacks they are few. I did for example consider the first part of the book better, and perhaps easier to read, than the latter parts. This I think is due to some of the latter parts of the book being written at an earlier stage, perhaps as part of a talk or lecture Booker made, and later decided to insert them into The Seven Basic Plots. The section on Hamlet is an example of this. And the fact that Booker took over 30 years to write the book lends itself to slight style fluctuations throughout the text.
The book is a magnum opus for any literature buff. I have filed my copy with two other works of literature that I like – Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and Colin Wilson’s Outsider. Wilson’s Outsider not only covers literature but also delves into the minds of the artists as well. In short: I would thoroughly recommend Christopher Booker’s impressive work of literature. Five stars, without question.
(If you want to write, then out of the dozens of books I've bought on writing, I only refer back to these four, and I use them regularly:
- The Seven Basic Plots;
- Save the Cat;
- The Art of Dramatic Writing;
- The Artist's Way.)
In my view the book as published is too long, partly because it comprises material which could easily have been separated into two individual books, the first being the recitation of the seven basic plots and the second treating of the changes that have occurred in literature over the last two centuries in lockstep with societal vicissitudes.
I would have found the book more enjoyable if all mentions of Anima, Self and Ego had been deleted. Perhaps these words and their import were thought to provide an otherwise absent intellectual ballast. For me though this was not a need that required attention and the frequent occurrence of these words were source of deep irritation.
Nevertheless the book has made a valuable contribution to the study of the world of literature.
I would also suggest that the book is superior to most modern non-STEM PhD theses and that it would be appropriate for Oxford and/or Cambridge to confer honorary degrees on Mr Booker.
Hence five stars.