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The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Many writing guides have suggested that fiction contains a limited number of basic plots, and Booker offers his version at great length. Furthermore, he claims all of these plots, from "overcoming the monster" to "rebirth," are variations on "the same great basic drama," a Jungian archetypal representation of the development and integration of the mature self. The meticulous detailing of this theory in plot summaries (of everything from Beowulf to Jaws, ancient comedy to modern tragedy, Western culture and Eastern) is an imposing enough task, but Booker is just warming up. In the book's second half, he explains how the psychological shortcomings of modern authors such as Shaw and Joyce led them to reject archetypal truth in favor of writing out their own sentimental and morbid fantasies. The biographical analysis is simplistic, however, and Booker makes numerous errors in the sections on film. The transition from literary criticism to Jungian psychology might be more bearable were it not saddled with an overabundance of academic cliché surprising in a writer of Booker's extensive journalistic background (he now contributes to England's Daily Telegraph). Clearly striving for the intellectual respectability of Northrop Frye, he falls far short, and accusing those who disagree with him of suffering from "limited ego-consciousness" doesn't help his case. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"This magisterial volume really does offer readers a genuinely fresh and exciting perspective on virtually every tale ever told." —Bookmark, July 2005 (Bookmark)
'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
"one of the most brilliant books of recent years" (Bel Mooney Times)
"This magisterial volume really does offer readers a genuinely fresh and exciting perspective on virtually every tale ever told." —Bookmark, July 2005 (Sanford Lakoff)
"one of the most brilliant books of recent years" (Sanford Lakoff Times)
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Top Customer Reviews
- An introduction to the seven basic plots and their many associated archetypes that work in combination.
- A system. It can be applied to any story you know (and it’s fun to do so).
- A tool. An almost obligatory read for anyone who invents stories. If you don’t tap on this 37 years research you’re simple on disadvantage. It’s not that everyone should follow the author's guidance in order to write stories that fulfill the self and not the ego, on the contrary, a writer might find herself not wanting to do so, but the structure the book provides is a map to decide when and how to move away or within the Self archetypical path.
- A partial and moral history of literature, and an even more partial and equally moral history of Western culture.
- A psychoanalis of our modern western culture, throughout the stories we invent and the ones we tell ourselves. And it's, indeed, a moralistic analysis, something that can pull the nerves of a grownup reader.
- A compendium of great and diverse stories.
- A source of unexpected spoilers (if you read the book be very careful with this, for it reveals the plot of so many stories and books, that chances are it will spoil something you want to read. I had to overlook several paragraphs when reading).
The Odyssey versus Ulysses, E.T. versus Encounters of the Third Type, Terminator versus Frankenstein… in each comparison the author prefers the first and rejects the second option. Interestingly, this framework (or as I called it: system) allows strange and yet consistent and justifiable comparisons, such as Jaws versus Gilgamesh (borrowing a famous gedankenexperiment from Chomsky, if someone told these two stories to a martian, it will think they are just two slightly different versions of the same). It’s refreshing to see how the author jumps without loss of continuity from Hollywood B movies to universal classics. And this tool's lack of respect for the boundaries between high and low cultures (the below-the-line and the above-the-line archetype), which is itself a moral construct, compensates, in my opinion, its otherwise unbearable moralism regarding other aspects (ego versus self).
In summary: vaccinate yourself against moralism, enjoy this awesome construction and the many stories it contains, be aware of spoilers, and use what you learned to write great new stories.
Or is it?
Christopher Booker has written the best worst book on fiction on the market: The Seven Basic Plots. Within, the reader discovers a powerful set of tools for evaluating and composing fiction. Along with a nucleus of elementary human situations, basic casts of characters, rhythms of constriction and release, Jungian interplays between masculine and feminine energies, an impressive psychological schema resides at its core at the nexus between character and plot. The weaknesses of the text are its strengths. Booker's unimaginative failings in fleshing out his system, along with the counter-intuitive judgments generated by Booker's mindless application of his own mechanism, demonstrate the potential scope available in terms of literary insight. Seven vertebrae comprise the backbone of his system: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, Quest, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. If each has at least four possible variants -- classical, romantic, sentimental, and modernist, we have a powerful theory explaining at least twenty-eight different plot types.
Cheesiness in fiction is not a matter of chance. Why did Lost, to take an example, end on so cheesy a note? Despite having the surface appearance of a standard Voyage and Return plot, there was no rhyme or reason concerning who lived and who died. But more importantly, the characters were written without a capacity for change; they all *literally* (I mean literally as in literally, not not-literally) ended up in limbo. Terrible.
In a CLASSICAL story, as an ordinary person goes about their ordinary business, something happens requiring the protagonist to change, at some cost to egocentricity that must be paid, leading to a deeper alignment with the world, thus establishing a satisfying conclusion. This even applies for tragedy, i.e. a plot about transgression. The protagonist here will reach a "what I have done?" moment, as his actions will typically victimize a masculine authority figure, a light-hearted alter-ego, and someone representing feminine innocence, all different aspects of himself the tragic protagonist symbolically rejects. For instance, in Breaking Bad, if Walter White began as Heisenberg, instead of *becoming* Heisenberg, it would be cheesy. At the end of the story, if Walter White lived, after all of his transgressions, it would be cheesy. If Walter White's cancerous actions didn't lead to the demise of many around him, especially the symbols specified above, it would be cheesy. Cheesy? Yeah. Try-hard, unsubtle, inauthentic, fake, phony, campy, fantastic, garbage, sentimental, whatever you want to call it.
A protagonist without the ability to change resembles Milton's Satan. It presents novelists with a dilemma: resolve the story with cheesiness, or without it. If the author decides against cheesiness, then to preserve the protagonist's unchangeable individuality, a dark story ensues in a minor key; the hero becomes brooding, world-weary, extraordinary, passionate, intense, unique, Byronic. The characteristics of the protagonist and the source of the conflict must swap completely, and the protagonist must be destroyed. Comedy, which is about consciousness and confusion, becomes an unholy union, as in Lewis's The Monk. Voyage and Return? A bad trip, a highway to hell, a bogus journey, like Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. Overcoming the monster? Moby-Dick takes on the properties like lightness and innocence, while Ahab takes on the typical characteristics of a monster and perishes. And so forth. Such ROMANTICISM had a realist core, and eventually evolved into realism.
Good guys win. Love conquers all. We're all the same underneath. Believe in yourself, and you can accomplish anything. This is what happens when an author starts by writing a Romantic plot with the world against the individualist hero, but spares the unchangeable protagonist: a sentimental story. Sentimental stories frequently make a point of their SENTIMENTALITY -- the world not only needs innocence, goodness, naivety, integrity etc., but needs these factors for their own sake. Dmitri Karamazov, Jean Valjean, Howard Roark -- a sentimental hero has the typical attributes of a hero, but unlike a classical hero, a sentimental hero does not dramatically change.
Closed worlds. Fragmentation. Dissonance. Atonality. Violence. Indifference. Randomness. Incompleteness. No control, no life, no meaning, no purpose, no importance. A MODERNIST story has the appearance of a classical plot where none ultimately exists. In a pseudo-ending, the protagonist circularly ends up where he begins; an anti-hero stands where a hero should reside. Hans Castorp's voyage to the magic mountain? He understands what means to be lost to life. Winston Smith reborn? "He loved Big Brother." What about Don Draper's rebirth? In a flash of enlightenment, he learns he's an ad man. Meanwhile, philosophizing is "a cowardly pretense that doesn't get you anywhere." That's what Ferdinand Bardamu got out of his quest. What about the Dude? The Dude abides.
Despite spilling ink on hundreds and hundreds of pages, Booker struggles to make his system comprehensive. I'd say he got 80%, maybe 85% of the way there. Consider the tragic plot type. What is a Romantic tragedy? What is a sentimental tragedy? Booker fumbles around with Wagner, various dystopias, and Jungian psychology, when the answers are quite clear, easily deduced from his definitions. For a dark tragedy, the key thing is that the protagonist lives. Invert everything and have the environment transgress against the character, who in turns punishes the environment to resolve the story. This turns out to be a very common plot type, what I call the revenge fantasy, or the avenging angel, who deliberately causes the death of backstabbing friends, corrupt authorities, and deceitful women. The Count of Monte Cristo is paradigmatic case; Quentin Tarantino loves this plot. A sentimental tragedy seems obvious too: the sacrifice story. Children of Men, Looper, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, all immediately come to mind off the top of my head. Not complicated stuff. Or, consider modernist comedies. The first thing that comes to Booker's flailing imagination are sitcoms. Why, why, why! Booker spends many excellent pages explaining the nature of comedy, from ancient times to the Renaissance world and beyond. We can do better. Consider Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It has all of the paraphernalia of a comedy: confusion, misunderstood doubles, strains caused by people taking themselves too seriously, and even liberation from below, but with a modernist point: "I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin." American Psycho is another great example. And the Big Lebowski, which is inspired by Raymond Chandler stories.
Even worse, Booker attempts to argue for the excellence of any story fitting the classical mould, and the unsatisfactory nature of any non-classical story; this lame attempt at consistency forces Booker to praise some very tacky material, while rejecting some of the best fiction in the canon. A more skilled view would look at the challenges each format presents. Classical stories? They're predictable, so the writer better understand how to use predictability to their advantage. If someone in the first act hides a pill of ricin and puts an M60 machine in the trunk of their car, they had better use them by the third act. In Romanticism, the challenge is realism, how to effectively blend "imagination and improbability" with a naturalistic presentation of human character, as Walpole describes it in his preface to The Castle of Otranto (a dark comedy). In a sentimental story, since the hero does not change, there's a risk of getting emotions without paying for them. It will need philosophical heft; otherwise it will look Hollywood. Modernism requires the most discipline of all, relying on Style and Idea alone to move things forward, with many more ways for things to go off track than on.
Caveat emptor! The Seven Basic Plots will revolutionize your understanding of literature. But it also fails to apply its own principles consistently, and uses them in a way to deny rather than generate insight. Weird things going on, like random hating on American authors. As I said, the best worst book on fiction you'll ever read.