Reflections on The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Having completed Christopher Booker’s chunky The Seven Basic Plots, I took a few days to digest what I have read before writing this. It needs a few days to digest and even now, I feel like I might write further reflections.

My initial impressions are that of slight betrayal; I feel like I was ushered down interesting pathways of a formal garden, only to get dragged into thickets of undergrowth and then made to witness scenes of seedy nature. It has left a bad taste in the mouth.

Part One begins brilliantly, working way through the seven plots that he has identified across epic poetry, plays, novels, plays and films. I’m not going to detail them verbatim but, in summary, they are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

As it normal in any of these meta-analyses, there are inevitable issues with application of a neat abstract model to reality. The boundaries are blurred and Booker often plucks out an exemple, only to have to explain why it doesn’t quite fit the mould. However, it’s not about finding precise matches. By applying the model and identifying the gaps helps to inform one’s understanding of the story underneath, perhaps why it doesn’t quite ‘work’. And this is the real insight, for it tells us something about the mind and how stories work in the mind.

Part Two starts to focus in on the archetypal characters in stories. This is interesting and really explores that old chestnut of how-to-write classes: ‘story is character’. The idea of ‘imbalance’ in a protagonist is especially good. Booker plays with ‘light’ and ‘dark’ archetypes (the Dark Mother, the Light Father and so on). Unfortunately, this is also the point he also introduces his core thread, namely the ‘ego-consciousness’ and how it has separated itself from the Self. This is where we start to get pulled in uncertain directions.

From Part Three onwards, thing really go adrift. Booker riffs on his theme on the rise of the ego and tries to crowbar it into the twentieth-century canon. Modernism gets a going over, the kitchen-sink dramas of the sixties, the sex and violence of seventies Hollywood. It’s quite entertaining to read a closely-argued position explaining that Waiting for Godot was rubbish and Chekhov didn’t have a clue (I paraphrase). But it’s wears thin when you stop believing it.

It seems anachronistic for someone to be quoting Freud and Jung with such earnestness in 2004. I’m not a qualified student of psychology, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment, but I do get the feeling that when people drag out concepts such as the ego and the Self and relationships to the unconsciousness, it’s not dissimilar to discussing the universal ether or vital forces. Its a little bit passe.

That said, it has always been a pet theory of mine that the best stories arise from the tension between the ancient animal we once were and the rational, self-conscious builder of civilisations we have become. When I discussed this with a friend, they suggested immediately that I read Freud, so perhaps there is something worth exploring here – I think the dogmatism with which Booker approaches it is wrong, though.

When we get to Part Four, we are promised ‘Why We Tell Stories’ but really, it descends into little more than a moan over how things went really wrong following the Romantics. He doesn’t like the Enlightenment much, he hates the 1920s and the less said about the sixties the better. Apparently it all got better in the 1980s, because we went to war with Argentina. And by this point I just wanted to put it down.

I think the end of the book is a massive confusion between disciplines: are we talking about literature or history or sociology or psychology here?  I don’t think Booker should conflate these areas. Stories are stories. Real life is real life. While you may find yourself tracing some Quest or Comedy or Rebirth plot during your lifetime, most of the 657,450 hours of your existence are going to be spent just living (you know, doing stuff). Living has no narrative art. The seven basic plots identified are powerful because they happen to work powerfully in the mind, not because they remind us of what we did last week. 

This is an important point – what we enjoy in stories is not what we (necessarily) enjoy in real life. I can enjoy Tolkien and George RR Martin and fantastical stories of the inherited power of kings regaining thrones through savagery. However, I still want to live in a democratic, peaceful society where there are laws that mitigate against all forms violence. I may have an interest in the collective formation of a more accountable state apparatus through applied technology … but I’d hate to read an (unironic) story about it!

There is a brief mention of news being edited to adopt stories but what Booker has missed (possibly due to the 2004 publishing date) is the most contemporary appropriation of the seven basic plots. You need look further than the Apprentice, the X Factor, I’m a Celebrity … (and the creepy TOWIE and its clones) in order to see the Tragedy, the Rebirth, the Quest all played out. These shows purport to ‘reality’ but they are not, again, like real life. Even Big Brother, which has a continuous live stream, cuts footage and starts to overlay narrative. The producers make stories out of the material they’re given. The stories they create are character-driven, and conform to the archetypes identified in Booker’s tome.

If you decide dip into The Seven Basic Plots, I wouldn’t advise trawling through all the chapters. And definitely stop before the last section. It has nothing to do with the seven basic plots (and I believe it has naff all to do with Jung either) and should have been heavily edited as result. 

(It is quite funny though, when he sticks the knife into Ulysses. He’s wrong, naturally. But it’s still funny).

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