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The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

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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.

728 pages, Paperback

First published October 28, 2004

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About the author

Christopher Booker

20 books29 followers
Christopher John Penrice Booker is an English journalist and author.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 237 reviews
Profile Image for James.
Author 4 books16 followers
September 29, 2007
An absolutely infuriating book. The basic premise, that there are a limited number of basic structures to be found in narrative storytelling, is fair enough but hardly anything new. Booker makes some good connections and some of them are undeniably on-the-money. But the whole book is infected by Booker's right wing, traditionalist ideology that it becomes, as it goes along, a deeply unpleasant, reactionary read. For Booker, the ideal man is a martial warrior & the ideal woman a housewife (same ideals as Hitler, funnily enough). Booker combines all this with a kind of shallow, pop-psychology version of Jungian archetypal theory, blaming all the ills of the world on "human egotism" (to say which is to say absolutely nothing), and what is more condemning any author who dares to not bring their narratives to "a fulfilling, satisfactory conclusion." Booker trashes 200 years of modernist storytelling, thinks gay and women's liberation is a egotism and the shrew that ought to be tamed, seems to admire Thatcher as the Hero of the Falklands and certainly believes that Joe Orton deserved to be killed for daring to write Entertaining Mr. Sloane. The worst thing of all is that Booker misrepresents or just plain gets wrong a large percentage of the books and plays he is discussing, suggesting that he has either not read them or is simply lying about them to advance his ideological argument. Booker, it should be noted, is not the writer of any creative fiction at all, nor is he a proper academic critic (for a work of 700+ pages not to include a single citation or even a bibliography is shocking). This book will be the forgotten as an embarrassment in 20 years time; people would do better to go back to the work of a genuine critic of myths like Northrop Frye.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,131 reviews1,003 followers
January 17, 2021
Addendum: the New Yorker cartoonist Emily Flake implicitly argues there are only six basic plots.
Professorial type at a blackboard telling students “So, in writing, there are six basic plots, and their sequels and derivative franchises.”
Back to the regularly scheduled quasi-review…


All in all, there is some incredibly worthwhile information here. Too bad it’s overlong, and much worse: it shows a nasty writer at his opinionated nastiest.

But it looks like I never got around to constructing an actual review. So here are my notes. They'll have to do.

◼︎ Read all of Section 1, containing descriptions of the seven basic plots in erudite detail.

◼︎ Skip to Chapters 21 through 24 of Section 3. These explore the “dark” and “sentimental” variations of the foregoing.

◼︎ Skim Chapters 26 and 27, wherein the author is revealed to be a sexist reactionary. Keep in mind that if one can enjoy the music of Frank Sinatra while ignoring the fact that he was a sexist jerk, one can read the balance of Booker's book with the same forbearance.

◼︎ Either read or skim Section 2, which explores commonalities of all the plot archetypes, including character archetypes. But it will probably feel pretty redundant.

◼︎ Finish with Chapters 28, 29, 25 and 30 in that order. The first two of those introduce and analyze two modern plot types; the third explores Thomas Hardy's psychological novels; the final goes into a fascinating analysis of Oedipus and Hamlet.

Some explicit details:

Section I: the seven basic plots are:
1) Overcoming the Monster (incl. subgenre “The Thrilling Escape From Death”);
2) Rags to Riches;
3) The Quest;
4) Voyage and Return;
5) Comedy (not necessarily funny!);
6) Tragedy; and
7) Rebirth.

Section II: what they all have in common: the character archetypes.

Section III: “Missing the Mark” discusses how the plot archetypes go awry.

First examines each of the plots in their “Dark” and “Sentimental” versions. In the “Dark” versions, the protagonist never achieves “enlightenment” in symbolic form due to an egoistic focus. In the “Sentimental” versions, the story and ending appear happy, but without ingredients necessary for archetypal closure. (Chapters 21 to 24).

Then to Thomas Hardy (Ch. 25), documenting how his oeuvre shifted from “light” to “dark” in parallel with his increasingly frustrating and dysfunctional personal life.

p. 382: “[George:] Lucas drew on the knowledge of Joseph Campbell ... in an effort to ensure that his story matched up as faithfully as possible to their archetypal patterns and imagery. [...:] But however carefully Lucas tried to shape his script around these archetypal ground rules ... it had not got the pattern right.”

Then the worst two chapters (26, 27), reeking of personal biases and opinions regarding nihilism, violence, sex and the appropriate roles for women.

First of three “modern” archetypes (mostly unseen in classic literature): (Ch. 28:) Rebellion against “The One” (except Job); then (Ch. 29:) The Mystery (actually diagnosed as usually a sentimental comedy with a hero unintegrated into the basic story).

Finally, best chapter of the book, on Oedipus and Hamlet.

Section IV: “Why we tell stories”, pretty boring, unless you want an examination of how religious texts can be perceived in archetypal patterns.

Ch. 27: points out many books and films pushed out the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of sex and violence (e.g., Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But he conflates this with a fundamental shift in the center of gravity of story-telling, ignoring that many of these extreme works have a narrow public appeal and are not considered as having intrinsic lasting importance. Frankly, his reactionary rage (notable in his columns) is barely suppressed.

Ch. 27: Sexism. In discussing the movie Alien, he states “the basic plot is very similar to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (p. 486). He astonishingly ignores the fundamental distinction between mayhem performed by humans, acting as monsters, and that performed by actual monsters. The perverse horror of Chainsaw is in the very disturbing transformation of humans into monsters — even into a family of cooperating monsters. Being killed and “consumed” by the Alien is basically no worse than an attack by a shark, or a lion.

Also, he is quite sexist here. “The image of women was becoming de-feminised. No longer were the styles of women's clothing intended to express such traditional feminine attributes as grace, allure, prettiness, elegance: they were designed to be either, in a hard direct way, sexually provocative, or sexlessly businesslike.” [Frankly, I find Trinity in The Matrix (which he doesn't discuss) to be an paragon of grace, allure and elegance as well as sexually provocative.]

Apparently an archetypal hero must be masculine, and thus to portray a woman in heroic terms is a contradiction of the archetype. He sounds outraged: “There was now a premium in showing animus-driven women capable of competing with men and outperforming them in masculine terms. Female characters were expected to be show as just as clever and tough as men, mentally and physically.” His only saving grace is the uncertainty whether he believes (prescriptively) that women should properly behave only in a ladylike way, or whether he believes (descriptively) that the fundamental archetypes in our psyches are limited thus. I don’t think he ends up on the right side of that, though.

But, frankly, his chapters on the modern subversion of the archetypes display more irritation than admiration, and so we’re left with a sneaking suspicion that the author is a social reactionary, which also seems to be evident in his columns for the Telegraph.

Consider: the author makes a strong case that these plot archetypes are fundamental and universal (as, I understand, Jung had attempted to establish with personality archetypes?). But does this make them eternal and unchanging? And even if that is given, does it make them good and true? Many inheritances from our evolutionary past are dysfunctional; perhaps it is proper that we should rebel against aspects of these archetypes, especially those that are arbitrarily constraining. Booker doesn't perceive this possibility, implicitly treating any deviation from his perception of these rules as dysfunctional. Although he isn't consistent: The fact that the heroic Ripley in Alien is a woman he finds distressing; the fact that Oedipus marries and has children with his mother is brilliance. The distinction here is that Oedipus is punished for violating the norm, which Booker approves of, while Ripley is rewarded for being heroic. (I’d previously seen this as inconsistent, but belatedly recognized it’s all about the norms, whether they’re neurological or cultural.)

Ch. 31 (beginning of Part IV): “[If:] there is one thing we have seen emerging from the past few hundred pages it is the extent to which the stories told by even the greatest of them are not their own.” The stories told by Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo — not their own? Because they have been influenced by ghostly skeletons of plots and characters in their subconscious? This is incredibly arrogant. Booker has spent so many decades in his labors that he can't see the forest for the trees.

Side note illuminating arrogance: fn. 3, p. 553: “Various attempts have been made in recent years to provide a scientific definition of the difference between human consciousness and that of other animals. A *fundamental flaw* in all of them lies in their failure to take account of the consequences arising from the split between ego and instinct….” Booker — a journalist and author — apparently believes himself competent to evaluate and judge any effort, regardless of the expertise involved.

Minor annoyance: Q: does the quote attributed to Churchill belongs to Bernard Shaw? (p. 576)
Profile Image for Milena March.
127 reviews12 followers
October 25, 2013
Though I'm a little uncomfortable dismissing a book that has taken someone half a lifetime to write, I can't help but think that when it comes to The Seven Basic Plots the author's time could really have been better spent. There were points where this book outright insulted me; as a literature student, as a feminist, as a psychology major, and as a lover of stories in general.

The idea of applying Jungian theory to literature is not new, but reading this book often had me wondering whether such a reductive approach is actually useful. Booker doesn't really offer any compelling information which enhances my experience of literary criticism or of literature in general.

In fact, I had so many problems with this book that I think it's probably best to just list them in no particular order:

1. Booker's prose is at times very poorly crafted. For a writer who has a chapter entitled 'The Rule of Three: (the role played in stories by numbers),' he seems to take a kind of perverse delight in presenting the reader with endless sentences listing countless plot examples without pausing for breath. My advice? Give that poor semicolon a break and focus on putting 'the rule of three' into action.

2. I was about halfway through this book when I realised that just about every story examined in-depth in this book (barring folk and fairy tales) was written by a man. And I'm not the first person to pick up on Booker's gender and cultural bias either.

3. On the above point, the moment when I honestly thought I was going to hurl this book at the wall. Booker's analysis (or, more accurately, his outright dismissal) of two of the best-known female English novelists of all time was absolutely insulting to the intelligence. He begins by adopting the tiresome and oh-so-ignorant line that Jane Austen was desperately in love with her Irish cousin Tom Lefroy, and that the entirety of her writing career was her attempt to compensate for the fact that she would never marry him and have all of his babies. As I've mentioned before, this sentimental (and degrading) little folly is an invention of the Victorians and later of Hollywood, in an attempt to explain just why Austen was so good at writing about love and marriage, given that she apparently had no experience in either field. As just about any serious Austen scholar will tell you, there is absolutely no evidence that Austen was overcome with love for a boy she met only once or twice in her life, and for only a few weeks at a time. What Booker does is latch onto this sweet but irritating little story as a way to explain why a woman would want to be a writer - not just in Austen's day but at any point in history. Austen is 'acceptable' to Booker because she is trying to compensate for her supposed 'inability' to complete the archetypal journey from childhood to parenthood by re-creating her failed romance in a new setting which she can manipulate toward a new, 'happy' ending. This portrait of one of the most well-respected and loved English novelists of all time - male or female - is degrading. Booker does not given Austen credit for being an extraordinarily intelligent woman, a perceptive social critic, and an accomplished writer in all aspects of technique and style. In the few instances Booker does turn his attention to the writing of women throughout history, he constructs them as somehow 'piggybacking' on the fame, intelligence or inspiration of significant men in their lives. He does this with Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and though he doesn't analyse Bronte directly, when he looks at Jane Eyre he wilfully misinterprets plots and characters in order to fit it into his overall design.

4. Which brings me to another point. There is a lot of subtle twisting of plots in order to make them fit into Booker's overall plan. If a situation, ending, scene, or character doesn't fit in with his scheme, then it is conveniently ignored. A quick Google search using only the book's title as a keyword threw up an article which points out that Booker ignores the final chapter of Middlemarch and the character of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Ulysses. So it's not just me that has this problem. Of course, all literary analysis does this to some extent, but Booker so wilfully ignores it that reading The Seven Basic Plots you begin to wonder if you read the same version of these books as he did.

5. Why on earth does Booker feel he has to retell the entire plot of popular fairy tales in excruciating detail? Who doesn't know the plot of Cinderella?!

6. The book also promises to explain 'why we tell stories'. The answer to this question, according to Booker, is quite infuriatingly simple (we are trying to re-create the generational transition of child becoming parent, growing into their 'place' in the world) but takes so long to actually answer that the point (however unexciting it may be) is lost.

7. At the risk of sounding like a literary snob, it is vital that anyone who reads this book takes note; Booker is NOT a literary critic. Neither is he a psychologist. This is important to remember because what becomes apparent very quickly is how little citation there is in this book. It's a reflection of the assumption that to become a literary theorist or critic one simply has to read a lot of books. As someone working towards a degree in literature, I can honestly state that most of literary criticism involves reading around the text. Citing the Introductory Notes to The Thousand and One Nights just isn't going to cut it. The few references which do crop up are so ridiculously out of date that it makes the reader feel like Booker is too cheap to buy new books and too lazy to visit the library; instead his references seem to be solely those he can download free off Project Gutenberg or books he bought when he was an undergrad at university and never got round to throwing out.

8. The thing which bothered me the most: the fact that Booker dismisses any story which doesn't follow the archetypal pattern as 'wrong' or 'bad' fiction, that it is somehow a failure. I just... I can't even begin to talk about this one.

9. Where is postmodernism to fit in all this? Reading this book one would assume that the last sixty years of literary development never happened. Either Booker is too traditionalist to even crack open the cover of a postmodern novel or else he wilfully ignores them because he knows they refute his argument. Is everything that literature has become in the past few decades also 'wrong', because it doesn't fit neatly into Booker's personal preferences for literature?

There are a few interesting points in this book, but ultimately, I don't think it contributes meaningfully to our understanding of storytelling. It is an out-of-date book full of unenlightened ideas and little to really challenge the reader. Read it if you must, but be warned; finishing this book may bear a startling resemblance to the outline of Booker's 'Overcoming the Monster' plot.
Profile Image for Jessica Healy.
144 reviews14 followers
October 14, 2013
So I was uncomfortable, early on, with the extreme heteronormative attitude, and the appropriation of Freudian/Jungian discourse as if these theories are just self evident, but I gave it a bit of leeway, because, if problematic, that kind of analysis is at least widespread... But my discomfort and suspicion grew, and at last, I could read no more. I gave up after he attempted to discuss Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Here are the sentences that almost broke my brain:

"The question which then arises is: how did such an extraordinarily dark, inverted story come into the mind of a young girl who had never written anything before in her life? A good deal of the answer, as various commentators have observed, lies in the personality of the man who was by far the most dominating presence in Mary Godwin's life, Shelley himself." (357)

How could a GIRL have written a clever, dark, subversive story? BECAUSE OF HER BOYFRIEND, DUR!

How could a teenage girl, (the offspring of such revolutionaries as WILLIAM GODWIN and MARY FREAKIN WOLLSTONECRAFT, for crying out loud), possibly think of anything for herself until her sexy, smart, super-famous, romantic poet of a hubby came along and thought it for her?

Booker goes on to quote Shelley's reaction to the novel, as if his reaction to the novel somehow, ananchronistically, makes him responsible for its inception? (Also, there's an astoundingly misogynistic comment about Mary's cousin, Clare, "flinging" herself at Byron.)

So... no. I cannot value what this man has to say. I was suspicious of the breathtaking assurance of the subtitle "why we tell stories" (because there's only one, very clearly identifiable, reason, right?) I was unhappy with the language of psychoanalysis, and I considered the fact that he never engaged with any other theorists dubious... But I was intrigued by the premise, by the promise of a well-researched, far-reaching theory of story-telling.

I was wrong. This is nothing but patriarchy, condescension and tunnel vision.
Profile Image for Katie.
191 reviews71 followers
November 23, 2014
700 pages! A great deal of which is repetition of ideas and extensive plot summaries of exemplar stories throughout time, and can be skimmed. The ideas put forth in this book are appealing intuitively if ultimately unfalsifiable, and familiar if you've ever gotten into Jungian psychology or Joseph Campbell. Basically we're talking about archetypes, the psyche, and evolutionary drives; the human desire to "re"connect with "something greater," which might be god or more likely perpetuation of the species. The plots he identifies as the seven basic are (for those curious) overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy (a specific plot, not necessarily humorous), tragedy, and rebirth (and he later adds a few); the universal plot is the struggle of "light" against "dark"; the archetypal family drama is the rise of the son/daughter to inner maturity and sexual union, to become the father/mother him/herself. Whatever is confusing to you from my brief summary just might be cleared up by reading/skimming these 700 pages yourself:) Overall, I found it stimulating reading and often found myself jotting down abstract notes pertaining to works in progress - if I didn't, as I hoped, find the solution to all my narrative problems, I did find an illuminating new way of framing them.
Profile Image for Rachel.
565 reviews9 followers
November 15, 2013
Finished at last. What an utter waste of time - but in a sick sort of way I just had to keep going, to see just how bad it could get. He started off with a good idea - that a lot of stories have similar basic plot outlines. Unfortunately he then gets a bit carried away, comes up with a formula, then applies it not just to literature, but the whole of human history. Which is all a decline from some prelapsarian state of blessedness. It's like the theory of the four humours in medicine - it seems like it might make sense at first, the trouble is it's all wrong. Ninety-five percent of everything in this book is just wrong. The amount of sexism, homophobia, snobbery and racism was frankly shocking. However I'm sure the author wouldn't give a damn what I think because as a woman I'm obviously only supposed to feel and guess, not think. It's a long time since anything offended me as much as this.
Profile Image for Santiago Ortiz.
94 reviews170 followers
February 26, 2015
This book is actually many things:

- 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.
Profile Image for Michael Herrman.
Author 1 book13 followers
July 18, 2013
This book is 5x thicker than it needed to be. If it didn't make a very few fine observations I would have thrown it against the wall, which would have left a considerable hole.

Repetition aside, its greatest weakness is Booker's inability to disentangle his personal prejudices from what makes a story work in the general sense. For example, according to Booker, if the hero doesn't vanquish the villain and run off with the (victimized) female who, he maintains, is nothing more than a projection of the anima, it's because the culture that spawned the story has run off the rails. He also makes sweeping assertions on the immaturity of a culture by citing various examples of stories that ended in ways that he doesn't personally like. There are numerous counter-examples that don't fit with his theory, of course, but he ignored them.

It's not a worthless read, but don't cling to every word.


I've upgraded this book by one star. The more I think about his insistence on archetypes and the logical ends to which they should arrive re: the story arc, the more I think he may be right. His arguments on the cult of sensationalism through the lens of the Marquis de Sade's snuff porn (Justine in particular) and the lack of closure in such narratives makes sense to me.
Profile Image for Rita Crayon Huang.
66 reviews40 followers
May 2, 2009
I didn't mean to read this book. I just wanted to know see what the seven basic plots were! But I devoured the first 300+ pages in a way that made me realize I just might read all 700. (It's just so lucid! With all this yummy discussion of well-known stories from throughout the ages, FOR all ages . . . )

The next 150 pages or so have made me increasingly uneasy, as we discuss all the ways in which stories can go "wrong"--AND what this says about their authors. Not to mention us as a society. AND as we also discuss in depth a number of "failed" stories (of the violent and explicit type I normally avoid; so reading recaps of those was upsetting on another level). For one thing, it's just more fun to think about what makes great stories work than to go negative. This author also feels no compunction about reading his thesis right into these other authors' personal lives, issues, failed marriages (or lack of marriages), the way they died. And the big ideas are getting repetitive.

But I'm still on board . . . I inherently believe storytelling should have some moral value, which helps.

Even if I don't find the concluding few hundred pages as illuminating as the first, I'd still recommend this book. Seriously. Other "classic" books on plot and archetypes may have better prepared me for this book, but this really is the one.

Caveat: I find myself continually distancing myself from some of the blatant, gendered terminology used. I'm familiar with the whole "inner feminine" and "inner masculine" concept from other psyche texts, and the idea that everyone (male or female) needs to balance both in their personalities is great. (I once wrote a 35-page paper using those ideas!) But I'm not sensing this author cares to make any distinctions b/t these terms and his real-world politics. The farther in you read, the clearer it becomes: He's saying exactly what he's saying.
377 reviews7 followers
April 5, 2017
The Seven Basic Plots
Author: Christopher Booker
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group
Published In: New York City, NY / London, UK
Date: 2004
Pgs: 728


A small number of basic stories permeate the world. They are hardwired into the human psyche. These plots exist in ancient myths, folk tales, play, novels, campfire tales, James Bond, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. These plots go to the way that we imagine stories and human psychology. Stories that lose touch with their archetypal underpinning.
Literature & Fiction
History & Criticism
Politics & Social Sciences
Folklore & Mythology
Criticism & Theory

Why this book:
Writing and writers and the stories that they tell and we read.

The concept of The Seven Basic Plots is awesome in scope once you consider it.

The Feel:
It is interesting that the mores shattered as they did in the 1950s, when with Lady Chatterley's Lover seeing full publication in all of its details for the first time in history along with other novels and specifically Lolita which predated the unexpurgated Lady. Was it the shift of a flush society free from heavier wants causing this? A freedom from the power of the church in everyday life? Taken in context with Hitchcock's Psycho and its focusing on Norman’s murders and voyeurism, and other less artistic movie and page moments that rounded out the later half of the 21st century, we see how these treatments of those topics and the way that they are explained and touched upon fits in with the seven basic plots. And while all of that is fascinating as a study of the shift in morality, it’s not like it’s the first morality shift ever. It’s just the most televised and widespread visually and aurally. Despite this fascinating sidelight, this really doesn’t get the premise of the book. This book is about half again as long as it could have been.

Favorite Scene / Quote:
Relating the epic of Gilgamesh and James Bond’s Dr No adventure is sheer genius. Puts the concept of this book in perspective immediately.

Totally agree on the great majority of World War 2 fiction being Overcoming the Monster.

Plot Holes/Out of Character:
Androcles and the Lion doesn’t really fit with the Overcoming the Monster paradigm.

I do think that the monster is sometimes wholly human.

Is Mystery an 8th basic plot or is Mystery the plots dressed in different circumstances with a macguffin thrown in and a sense of suspense?

Hmm Moments:
Loved Jaws, hated Beowulf, never really considered that, at base, they were the same story.

Amazing on how many Overcoming the Monsters stories there are out there throughout history.

Feel that the stereotypes of Monster as Predator, Holdfast, or Avenger fits either for protagonist or antagonist roles.

I begin to wonder at where Frankenstein would fit. OtM may only work if Victor is indeed the monster.

Appreciate Ian Fleming’s Bond pattern being given a few pages. Despite the repeating pattern, I did enjoy those books. It just wasn’t the same when Gardner took over and, then, onward to the plethora of authors who became associated with fictional Bond-age. The pattern which holds true for the majority of the Fleming Bonds: the call-anticipation, initial success-dream, confrontation-frustration, final ordeal-nightmare, miraculous escape-death of the monster. This Bondian pattern appears throughout literature. The Thirty Nine Steps used the same format.

The Lord of the Rings is called a Quest. And while it is a Quest, it is also an OtM in that Sauron and, by extension, the Ring, itself, are the monster.

WTF Moments:
The dismissal of The Lord of the Rings as a “not a fully integrated, grown up story” plays as elitist drivel when taken in context with the author’s own assertion that LOTR exhibits all 7 basic plot elements. I believe that LOTR may be one of the best fully realized stories and worlds ever presented in literature, pulp, classical, neo-classical, modern, post-modern, whatever.

Meh / PFFT Moments:
Lists The Magnificent Seven as an OtM, I see The Magnificent Seven more as a The Quest or a Rags to Riches, with the riches being redemption as these bad men find their place in the sun. By the same token, the Sevens, both Magnificent and Samurai, could be seen as Rebirth stories.

I’m not in general a big fan of the Rags to Riches story type. I, also, disagree with the idea that Jack and the Beanstalk is a Rags to Riches instead of an Overcoming the Monster. I guess that some of these fit more than one category.

Disagree with the idea that Lolita is a veiled Raging Temptress. I see it more the in vein of a weak protagonist who fails to Overcome the Monster, with himself as the Monster.

Talks of Dracula and how Jonathan Harker unexplainedly escaped the castle at the end of Part One of Dracula. Always felt that Dracula let him go as both preamble and herald of Dracula’s coming to England to bring his scourge and reign onto England’s nighttime scene.

This has shown me that perspective shows us that many of the stories that we think of as examples of this type can, in many cases, be categorized in many different ways. What I’m gathering from this book, despite Booker’s protestations in classifying classical and neo-classical stories into the seven basic plots, is that many crossover and merge many elements from across the basics. Maybe part of what makes a truly great story is when it’s a little bit Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

Missed Opportunity:
The failure to focus more sharply on the seven basic plots, 8 if we go with the mystery idea.

Last Page Sound:
I’m disappointed, that’s not really fair. I’m unhappy that the reason I read this book, the reason brought up in the title isn’t given full service in the book, which that isn’t really fair either. The ideas and the frameworks of the seven basic plots is here. The problem is that it is covered over in a cat box full of othter ideas. It’s like the author wanted to get into the ideas of the self and ego more than the seven basic plots. I would argue that there are at least two or three tangentially related books hidden inside these 700 some odd pages.

Author Assessment:
I don’t know, would depend on subject matter, length, and whether I felt the focus was tight enough.

Editorial Assessment:
Failure to drive focus to a laser point….or a dull scooping spoon. There were three good books about writing here, but they weren't’ scooped into their own piles.

Knee Jerk Reaction:
not as good as I was lead to believe

Disposition of Book:
Irving Public Library
South Campus
Irving, TX

Dewey Decimal System:

Would recommend to:
no one

Profile Image for Garry Powell.
Author 2 books15 followers
November 29, 2013
This is first-rate criticism--and I am usually averse to criticism, as in my view few critics understand literature. (Perhaps that sounds absurd, but I think most writers agree with me.) It's also a particularly useful book for writers. Its basic premise is that Jung is correct on his theory of the archetypes, and if stories are to mean anything to us, they need to conform, basically, to archetypal patterns. Obviously that doesn't mean that they need to be formulaic. Booker thinks that western literature has been "losing the plot" quite literally for the last couple of hundred years, citing people like Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and Proust. He attacks a lot of sacred cows, in my view almost always correctly. But even if you don't agree with him you will find the book thought-provoking. It's a monumental work which will not only make your reconsider your views on literature, but also on film, and if you are a writer, it's bound to make you reflect more deeply on your own practice. I believe I understand my own work better now, thanks to Booker. I understand why my best stories work and why the less successful ones don't work so well. I can't think of any other book that could have done that. I recommend this very strongly indeed.
Profile Image for Adam Stevenson.
624 reviews13 followers
November 6, 2016
I read the book in one sitting, powered through the sheer weight of verbiage by the force of my hatred for it.

To say there are 7 plots and they represent ways of talking about overcoming the ego is fair enough - but when he can't find a single novel that properly exemplifies these ideas, it may have been time to ditch the theory.

Instead he concludes that all authors since the romantic movement have not been emotionally mature enough to fit his theory, so it must be the author's fault. Not a fault with the theory.

This then goes on to dig its own deep hole, where an author can show their emotional immaturity by having a female hero, or an ugly person or a gay relationship - or pretty much anything really.

I would recommend this book, but only to argue against.
Profile Image for Carl.
109 reviews5 followers
February 7, 2015
Perhaps you have heard that there are no new stories, there are only the retelling of old stories. Or maybe you have heard it said that there are only a small number of basic stories. Well, Christopher Booker took these statements seriously, and spent a lifetime writing his book about them and published it in 2004. He asserts in the beginning that there are only seven basic plots: Overcoming the Monster as exemplified by Beowulf and Star Wars, Rags to Riches with Joseph in the Bible and David Copperfield being good examples, The Quest typified by The Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Voyage and Return with Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe being good examples, Comedy exemplified by A Midsummer Night's Dream and Crocodile Dundee, Tragedy as illustrated by The Oresteia and Anna Karenina, and Rebirth with Sleeping Beauty and Crime and Punishment as good examples.

In the first third of the book as he identifies each of these plots he describes their structures and variations in some detail. For example, with the Voyage and Return plot, besides it fitting literally what the words say, he identifies three main variants on the theme: there may be a true growth and transformation, such as experienced by Robinson Crusoe, there may be a return but no change at all, usually when a relationship with someone of the opposite sex in that other world has been involved, as characterized by Orpheus, or there may be a totally negative outcome, meaning no return at all, and for this he gives the examples of Kafka's The Trial and Metamorphosis.

What makes his book even more interesting is that he goes on to make two stunning assertions. First he asserts, that these seven basic plots ultimately reduce themselves to one basic story, a universal plot. He links this basic structure to Jung's theory of the archetypes underlying human behavior, and goes on to state that because they are “imprinted unconsciously in our minds, we cannot conceive of stories in any other way.” (p. 216) The evolving structure these universal stories take is:

“(1) This begins with an initial phase when we are shown how the hero or heroine feel in some way constricted. This sets up the tension requiring resolution which leads into the action of the story.
(2) This is followed by a phase of opening out, as the hero or heroine sense that they are on the road to some new state or some far-off point of resolution.
(3) Eventually this leads to a more severe phase of constriction, where the strength of the dark power and the hero or heroine's limitations in face of it both become more obvious.
(4) We then see a phase where, although the dark power is still dominant, the light elements in the story are preparing for the final confrontation. This eventually works up to the nightmare climax, when opposition between light and dark is at its most extreme and the pressure on everyone involved is at its greatest.
(5)This culminates in the moment of reversal and liberation, when the grip of the darkness is finally broken. The story thus ends on the sense of a final opening out into life, with everything at last resolved.”(P. 228)

Having laid out the individual structures of the seven basic plots and the universal structure, he then proceeds in the next third of the book to identify and describe the recurrent but limited set of characters in stories. Specifically, he proceeds through the Jungian cast of characters: the dark figures, the feminine and masculine values, the archetypal family drama, and the light figures as they structure and illuminate the stories. The dark figures are those who oppose the hero and/or heroine in the struggle toward maturity, and may include any of the following: the dark father, the dark mother, the dark rivals, or the dark other half. The hero, or heroine, must, to achieve his goal, develop and embrace in himself the masculine values of strength and order as well as the feminine values of understanding and feeling. Ultimately for the story to succeed there must be an interplay, repeated again and again in stories, among the father, the mother, the hero, and the heroine. And in most cases the ultimate resolution will require some guidance provided by the light figures, most often a wise old man or Jung's anima.

Booker's second major assertion is that storytelling in the past two centuries, beginning with the onset of the period of Romanticism, has shifted, and some stories have “become detached from their underlying archetypal purpose...
that the central goal of any human life is to achieve the state of perfect balance which we recognize as maturity; and how the central enemy in reaching that goal is our capacity to be held back by the deforming and ultimately self-destructive power of egocentricity." (p. 347-348)
During this time egocentricity was allowed to run rampant while at the same time the imprinted rules of storytelling held the stories true to human nature. He illustrates these points with the stories The Scarlet and The Black by Stendahl and Moby Dick by Melville. In The Scarlet and The Black, Julien Sorel is driven by blind ambition to succeed at all costs in the social world and does so until he is brought down by his own undoing, and the rules of storytelling. Just when he reaches the social pinnacle he desires, his fortunes are threatened by a revealing letter from a former lover. He rushes to his former home, shoots her while she sits in church, is convicted, and executed by the guillotine. In Moby Dick, as we all know, Captain Ahab is obsessed with the hunting down and killing of the white whale, Moby Dick, to satisfy his vengeance against the animal who bit off his leg on a previous expedition. In seeking his revenge he sacrifices not only the lives of his sailors, but, in a victory for the rules of storytelling, his own life too. Booker asserts that the price paid for man's seeming emancipation from what he calls his “natural frame” brought about by Romanticism was a severing not only of his links to the natural world, meaning that world outside himself, but also from his own deeper nature inside. He spends the next section of the book exploring these deviant story patterns, or what he calls “Missing the Mark.”

In a final chapter, Booker makes the assertion, derived from Jung, that all animals have two sets of instincts, a physical set of instincts which tell them what to do about eating, sleeping, and carrying out the functions that keep them individually alive, and an ordering set of instincts which tell them how to behave in groups of their species, to preserve the species. Humans, he asserts, do have intact the first set of instincts, the physical ones, but “the fall” means they have lost the innocence of the second set, and in a sense, are left floundering on their own when it comes to the second set, the ordering ones. What happens, then, is that the selfish ego is disconnected from the restraining influences of the unconscious, and all sorts of mischief happens when the ego runs unfettered; it becomes the monster. Stories in human culture become the device that was evolved to reassert the power of order; stories tell us how to behave in relation to other human beings to keep from destroying the species.

Booker's final assessment is that:
“What stories can tell us, however, much more profoundly than we have realized, is how our human nature works, and why we think and behave in this world as we do.” (p. 698)

My Evaluation --- After all is said and done, over seven hundred pages of it in The Seven Basic Plots, I find I have some ambivalence about this book. I spent most of my adult life looking for a book like this, and one that would confirm the impressions I had developed from my years of reading stories as well as watching them in movies.

And I, like Booker, am a lumper. By that I refer to a comment made by a colleague of mine who once said, “The world is made up of lumpers and splitters.” Clearly, Booker is a lumper, for not only did he reduce all stories to seven basic plots, but he then proceeded to reduce them further to one universal plot. On all of this I find myself in agreement and feeling enlightened by his thorough going analysis, an impression confirmed by repeated reading. What troubles me, and what nagged at me throughout the book, enough so that I abandoned the book for several months, however, was Booker's anchoring of the explanation for what he observed in a Jungian analysis of archetypes, which he talks about as immutable. Throughout the book he makes the point that these archetypes and their relation to storytelling is “imprinted in the unconscious” to the degree that they cannot be escaped, even when the author seems to vary from their scripting. I have trouble with such a deterministic view, although I will confess to lacking any other explanation for the seeming convergence of story plots. Nonetheless, I believe this book to be of greater depth than anything I have read in the last several years. It is in my mind profound and thought provoking.
Profile Image for Janice (JG).
Author 1 book20 followers
June 30, 2012
I purposefully did not research this author before finishing the book because I wanted to absorb the book on its own merit.

I loved the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed Booker's conjectures and conclusions about why humans seek meaning in their stories, and what meaning they seek. The only real flaw in the book (for me) was toward the end when he was discussing contemporary fiction... I think Booker's British experience and passionate nationalism clouded and somewhat distorted his otherwise mostly consistent objectivity, especially concerning America in the 1960's & 70's. But, in this case I think the error was one of perception, since life in Britain in the 60's & 70's was a very different experience than what was happening in America at that time.

There might also have been tinges of anti-feminist & and anti-gay comments within the text, but because he is adamantly non-PC (and sees the advent of Political Correctness as a kind of death of substance in storytelling), I chalked these possible lapses up to a certain courage for not abandoning his mighty meaty theme for a popular stance... because all seven of these basic plots deal with the dualism that must transform to a conscious union in order for human existence itself to succeed. This is definitely not your typical "How to write a plot outline" primer :)

Overall, I think this book is of great value -- I certainly will never see storytelling the same way again, and I will be much more critically aware of an author's motivation as well as the final purpose of a work of fiction. And for writers of fiction, this may be all the resource you need to create a successful story.
Profile Image for Heather.
71 reviews
August 1, 2011
An exellent book that I highly recommend to any writer, or "wannabe" writer. It helps if you have some concept of Jungian psychology, but the author does a good job of making his discussion of the concept of the "self" and "ego" very approachable. He does synopses of many famous stories, ranging from ancient folk tales to modern Hollywood blockbusters. If you've ever wondered why you found a particular story unappealing, reading this book might help you understand why. I foresee this book being an excellent reference as I pursue my dreams of writing.
Profile Image for Thomas Edmund.
881 reviews50 followers
January 17, 2021
Wow, this is quite a tome to try and write a review for - at 700ish pages and as the authors says: taking half his life to write one struggles to do it justice!

I'll be cheeky and divvy my review into the same sections as the book. Even though it makes my completionist obsession twist I thoroughly recommend considering reading seperate sections of this book as they take your interest, simply because this is such a massive and thorough book!

PART ONE - the basic plots

The first section delves into what is promises by the first part of the title. Booker explores their analysis of classic stories and what he believes are the Seven basic types. It's important to note a few things about this thesis. First of all Booker is not claiming that their are only Seven plots (he goes on in later chapters to explore Detective Stories and dystopias for example) nor does he claim that plots fit easily into one of seven. Also the main focus of these 'basic' plots are classic stories, the Shakespeare plays and Greek mythos for example.

Bookers point isn't so much that there are limited plots, but rather that classic resounding myths fit archetypal patterns that usually fit with an either 'dark' or 'light' basic plot.

This first section of the book was incredibly enjoyable and highly recommended for anyone looking for books to improve their own writing. The material doesn't just cover basic plots, but also various elements of stories which make them work.

PART TWO - the apparent rant on sex and violence.

The second part of this tome was actually somewhat unexpected and a little odd. In part two Booker discussing changes to the Seven Basic Plots over recent (like 200 years not past 20 years) with particular focus on ever increasing sex and violence. Just to be clear while movies like Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are mentioned, the real focus in on literature which pushed the boundaries (e.g. A Clockwork Orange).

What is strange about this section is that Booker isn't exactly lamenting the bebaurchery of sex and violence, but rather the straying from the Seven Basic Plots mentioned above. Where classics are focussed on heroes and sometimes heroines becoming 'balanced' more modern stories just seem to be about 'high drama'

Just to be clear this section doesn't read as a lengthy prudish rant, Booker seems far more concerned with the straying from the classic story structure than the presence of 'the burlesque'

PART THREE why we tell stories

In this section Booker attempts to bring the massive piece of work together into a tidy conclusion around how stories and real life interelate and make sense. In my opinion this is the weakest part of the massive work, not due to lack of effort or diligence, but more as the overall thesis becomes a little confused. Booker starts to analyze recent history through the lense of classic stories and it starts to become blurry - is Booker saying that life follows the arcetypal patterns of stories, or that our perceptions do or that ultimately life is a big story?

Possibly my feeble brain just didn't wrap around the last section, or possibly just at that point the book shifts from an review of "basic" plots into much more complex academic theorizing which gets pretty intense.

Throughout the whole tome, Booker reviews inumerable plays, novels, movies and stories to back up his points and explore the concept of story telling, which are some of the strongest points. Booke really loves archetypal analysis which involves a lot of discussion about Light and Dark, Masculine and Femine which I think could easily put many off.

Ultimately as said, Seven Basic Plots has an excellent writely section in Part One, and some in depth academic material in later sections. Defintely glad I picked this tome up.
Profile Image for B. Tollison.
Author 4 books4 followers
July 2, 2018
If you want to read this book because you think the author is going to outline seven basic stories that permeate through all or at least most of written literature then you're going to be disappointed.

For one, Booker focuses almost solely on Western stories and literature. And even then, the seven basic plots that he offers (he actually changes it to nine at the end of the first section) in no way incorporates all or even most of the stories (written or otherwise) in Western civilisation. The seven/ nine basic plots only really apply to pre-enlightenment stories so if you thought this book would give you a holistic analysis of the shared underlying principles or mechanisms of story telling then you will find it falls well short of that mark.

This is Booker's central thesis (as described in chapter 31):
1. Every animal (including humans) has two 'complimentary sets of instincts'. 'Ego instincts' and 'ordering instincts'. The former describes basic physical needs like eating, mating, breathing, etc. while the latter describes “genetically coded instructions” enabling the animal to relate to the world around it.
2. Human beings are flawed because a separation has arisen between these two sets of instincts. They have “in some way broken adrift” (that is literally the only explanation Booker offers).
3. Stories are thus the unconscious aspects of the human mind trying to reunite and reconcile the 'ego instincts' and 'ordering instincts'. It is the human mind's attempt at trying to repair itself and close the 'psychic split' that has arisen.
4. There are seven ways in which the unconscious mind attempts to close this division. These are represented by seven/ nine basic story plots.

Booker wants to argue that stories and their structures can tell us a lot about our unconscious mind. This seems like an interesting and plausible idea but Booker's underlying theory (based on Jungian psychology) leads him to some very strange conclusions.

Booker believes all stories are supposed to be representations of human consciousness and its desire to be whole again, to be rid of what he refers to as 'ego-consciousness' (egocentric and selfish behaviour). So it makes sense (in a way) for Booker to see those stories that don't end in reconciliation or growth or a happy ending as stories that represent the failures of the specific writers to achieve this wholeness that he describes.

Indeed, Booker believes the works of Waugh, Salinger, Lewis Carroll, and J.M. Barrie “tell us more about the psychological short-comings of the authors […] than they do about the deeper levels of human nature.” (p. 567). He also refers to Proust as “self-absorbed and futile” (p. 660). I don't particularly like these authors but such blatant value judgements are completely baseless. They're simply an opinion that isn't even appropriately qualified.

Booker believes their stories are failures because they depict characters that fail to shed their ego-consciousness. And since he believes the story is an unconscious representation of the writer's own psyche then the writer must be flawed as well. In short, their stories don't count as real stories. They represent discord while the stories that fit within the seven (nine) basic plots represent harmony and 'oneness'.

Booker believes that stories in the last two centuries (post enlightenment) have deviated from the conventional plots of the past and aren't collectively following the seven (nine) basic plots. He thus consigns the majority of the last 200 years of literature to the dustbin.

Booker tries to show how the decline in society since the enlightenment is closely linked to the decline in literature. He spends about 100 pages doing so. It's as if he thinks that people prior to the 1800's did not have any problems, that they didn't experience greed or avarice or personal limitations etc. after all, why else would their stories end in the positive, reconciliatory, and holistic manner that they do? They must have been living in that perfect 'natural' state because if they weren't then their stories would have shown discord and destruction without learning or redemption etc. He argues that Mozart and Bach and co. were the “last art-form to express complete harmony with the values of the self” (p. 653) as if they lived in the golden age of civilisation, as if the society they lived in was not experiencing difficulties like today. The Greek and Roman civilisations were filled with violence, war, religious conflict, sexism, and racism so the link Booker is trying to establish between harmonious literature and a harmonious society is an incredibly weak one.

His theory and subsequent analysis is also a very narrow interpretation of modern story telling. Modern stories may not be written in a conventional way. They may not be structurally identical to their predecessors but their morals are generally still the same. Through witnessing the folly of protagonists we understand how not to behave. The moral of the story essentially remains the same it's just the way it is conveyed that has changed. That the archetypes Booker describes are the only way for someone to express an idea is incredibly narrow minded. You can have two completely different stories and structure arguing the same points.

The book itself is over 700 pages long and it isn't until around page 500 when he actually starts to explain the basis of his theory. He spends 500 pages(!) providing plot synopses for the stories which he has based his theory on. I appreciate that he is trying to provide evidence for his theory but someone should have taught him how to use bullet points. The vast majority of the first 500 pages can be skimmed and the last 200 pages can be ignored since they are reliant on value judgements, clumsy psycho-analytical babble, poorly drawn conclusions, and unexamined assumptions.
Profile Image for Regret Husk.
46 reviews2 followers
April 23, 2020
The Seven Basic Plots is a book on the Guildhall School of Music and Drama reading list for MA Acting students, written by climate change denier Christopher Booker (The Real Global Warming Disaster (2009)). The book holds that every story, and indeed real life, follows the five stages of progression: anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare, and destruction or rebirth. This last stage more than any other defines the genre of the work: rebirth or the 'happy ending' if the characters have been able to transcend their own limited ego-consciousness, or destruction if their tragic hubris was too great for them to reform themselves. Handily, the experience of reading the book itself can be divided according to his own categories:

In the prologue, Booker outlines his theses for the coming 1000 words of literary criticism. It all seems exciting! How will he pull it off?

In Part 1 (The Seven Gateways to the Underworld), Booker neatly delineates his Seven Basic Plots, weaving narratives from many different cultures together in a surprisingly multicultural and really quite good account that also serves as a crash course in Western literary history. It all seems too good to be true!

In Part 2 (The Complete Happy Ending), Booker begins judging characters and stories based on their balance of masculine and feminine values, drawing heavily from Jung's 4 Archetypes, despite the fact that this book was released in 2004. You start to wonder how long it took him to write this thing? 39 years? Oh.

In Part 3 (Missing the Mark), Booker becomes Boomer as he asks, what went wrong after the Enlightenment? He laments the decline in art, citing classic examples of failed artists such as Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov. They failed, he says, because they didn't meet the standards he devised. However, he ends the chapter with some very good analysis on Oedipus Tyrannos and Hamlet, and there is a faint glimmer of hope - is he going to somehow pull this all together by retreating into the classical narratological literary analysis he undoubtedly excels at?

In Part 4 (Why We Tell Stories), Booker fucks it. In his final act of hubris, Booker reads the last 400 years of western history in light of his own theories. Restating traditional conservative narratives with a veneer of literary criticism, Booker takes potshots at civil rights activists, feminists, angry working-class people, young people, environmentalists, peaceful protesters, political correctness and the clitoral orgasm. One shining figure of traditional values emerges out of his bleak portrait of the 20th century: our very own Lady Margaret Thatcher.

By the end of the book, I emerged feeling... different. His theories of narratology are undoubtedly well-researched and useful for actors as storytellers, and in that respect I see why Guildhall included this monomythical reading of Western Literature as a way of broadening their students' horizons. However, in presenting this work without comment (alongside the far more outdated and white male Hero With A Thousand Faces) as some of the first set texts you encounter in the degree, Guildhall have tacitly endorsed a set of values that is kyriarchical to its core, a hydra of sexism, racism, classism, antisemitism, anti-environmentalism... you get the idea. Perhaps what is required in response to this can be found in one of Booker's plots, one of the earliest and most primal we come across: in the act of decolonising the curriculum, we are Overcoming the Monster.
Profile Image for Daniel Teo.
12 reviews39 followers
May 21, 2009
Anyone who likes reading or writing, or even some other form of storytelling (like movies for example) really owes it to themselves to read this book. This book will give you so many great new insights and you will gain a much deeper understanding and appreciation on how stories are built up. I found myself looking at stories differently than I did before.

Booker explains how all stories basically fit into one of the seven basic plots. What's more, those stories will go through the same five main stages:

* The Anticipation Stage
* The Dream Stage
* The Frustration Stage
* The Nightmare Stage
* The 'Resolution' Stage, which of course may vary depending on what type of story it is.

These stages are not entirely fixed, as some stages may come back several times in a story, or the story may start at a different stage, but basically all stories follow the same structure.

In the latter part of the book, Booker goes on to explain how storytelling has become 'broken' in recent times by consciously or unconsciously breaking the rules. He makes a very compelling case, although I felt he is too rigid in his opinion. A 'broken' story may just be as powerful in its own right as a 'correct' story, and I see those stories more as an extension of the seven basic plots instead (although some of the examples are really extreme, and I agree that those particular examples should not be recognized as storytelling in any way).

In the end, you may or may not agree with his opinions, but don't let this difference of opinions stand in the way of the main thesis of the book. This remains far and away the best book I've ever read on writing.
Profile Image for Erin Lale.
Author 38 books16 followers
July 6, 2011
This book helped me do something I find excruciatingly difficult: describe my own novel. I read this book when I was trying to write back cover copy for Punch book 1: The Loribond. It was only in reading The Seven Basic Plots that I realized I had unwittingly written a comedy.

The Seven Basic Plots is a humongous tome. For a book that purports to survey all of human literature to reveal the basic driving psychology of human storytelling, it's focused on the DWMs a bit too much for me. There were several points at which I found some of the basic premises offensive, such as that the heroine of any story is not a real person, only a projection of the hero's anima. But there were other points at which I was thinking, "So that's why I didn't like that book-- that story violates our sense of how a story is supposed to be shaped."

This book falls into the trap of thinking that ancient literature shows that everyone in Homer's Greece was a person of perfect psychological wholeness, and you can see the decline of Western Man in Chekov and that licentious boy Elvis Presley. Is it not more likely that the ancient literature that has stood the test of time to be passed down to us today is better because it's the best of its time and the bad stuff disappeared, not because everything was better back then?

That said, this book does seem to have reverse-engineered the magic formula behind the success of many classics of Western literature, and I would recommend it to any author.
Profile Image for Chris.
719 reviews98 followers
May 7, 2011
Booker's identification of the principal narrative structures underlying the best examples of stories, novels, plays and films is attractive and, seen retrospectively, intuitively right. Those seven plots (which he entitles Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth) singly or in combination naturally appear to underpin a very large proportion of the narratives Booker approves of. The first part of this mammoth study seems to triumphantly prove his analysis.

However, around the middle of this tome he begins to sink into a morass of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytical argument which obfuscates more than it elucidates. Obviously in love with this approach he then starts to judge all narratives by whether they adhere to his masterplans or not. Rather than seeing much fiction of the last two centuries as perhaps reflecting different priorities -- characterisation, realism or experimentation, say -- he prefers to castigate them for not matching his templates, and his rather conservative viewpoint thus somewhat undermines, for me, the initial promise of this book.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 11 books197 followers
March 14, 2012
A fascinating but infuriating book which requires one to accept the premise that Jungian archetypes form the only satisfying basis for a narrative. This premise is explored through the means of numerous if partial examples from both literary and popular culture. The author's bias and erudition make this an enjoyable read and it is worth persevering to the end, however there are several annoying factual errors in the plot summaries. And Booker's despair with regard to novels and other works from the 18th century onwards, with a few exceptions (Crocodile Dundee is a bizarre and much-quoted example) leave one feeling frustrated.

A note of caution: Booker seems to believe that the only possible fulfilling relationship is that between a man and a woman, and that other permutations must by their nature lack validity. Which is a bit normative, if you ask me. But it remains a work that anyone who loves writing or reading should take a look at, if only because it provides a guide to many different types of plot and the archetypes that *may* underlie them.

This is one for fans of narrative closure! ;-)

Profile Image for Linda Robinson.
Author 4 books129 followers
September 2, 2011
Too much of a muchness, as my grandmother was fond of saying. Nothing revelatory or fascinating, and every other word could be eliminated. I appreciate the research and the hours behind the book, but the outcome is a daunting and misnamed book. Covers "how" in great detail and leaves hanging the "why."
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,171 reviews1,025 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
May 25, 2013
I'm quitting this. I'm really perlexed that Brooker is acting as if the idea of the commonalities in stories is merely a "teasing notion" to everyone else, and that he's the only person to actually research it. Plus this review.
Profile Image for Paul.
Author 5 books98 followers
November 6, 2015
This massive, in-depth work presents a unified theory of the art of storytelling based on Jungian psychology.

As I recall, this was another work that came to my attention via the Goodreads recommendation engine. When I checked out its contents on Amazon, I knew I had to get it. Here was a large, serious work on the basic plots of storytelling--a subject that I have been trying to come to grips with myself over the years. When the book arrived, I plunged in with great interest.

And in the main, the book, all 700-odd dense pages of it, sustained that interest, even as it became apparent that its scope ranged far beyond the 7 basic plots identified by the author. He mostly finishes discussing those by page 214; from then on he looks in more depth at what role storytelling plays in the human psychic economy, and finishes with a detailed look at how storytelling has, in the West anyway, undergone a convulsive change in the last 200 years, and speculates as to the causes of this convulsion. I loved the aim of this book, its seriousness, its ambition, and its depth. I loved too that the author thinks outside the box and doesn't pull his punches in taking a dissident stand with respect to many classic and popular works of storytelling. In some of his assessments I found myself agreeing with him (Gone with the Wind); in other cases not (The Wizard of Oz, Ulysses). But throughout he is principled and consistent in his judgments, and backs them up with his comprehensive theory.

Other things I was less pleased with. For one thing, the book is chock full of spoilers. The author, in the course of his exposition, outlines many plots, old and new, in full, and if you were hoping to read or view the stories in question, they will be spoiled. Maybe that's inevitable in a book of this type, but I think that the author could and should have made some gesture toward preventing the worst of it, perhaps by discussing a reading strategy in his introduction, or providing simple spoiler alerts in the text. For my part, when I saw that the author was about to discuss a work that I had not yet read but knew I wanted to, I would do my best to skip that summary and move on to the next. The author, Christopher Booker, has read a heckuva lot of books (in his "personal note" at the end of the book he expresses special gratitude to the Penguin Classics for providing such a large, accessible library of the world's stories). Like many readers, I have read only a subset of that number, and I would have appreciated a sympathetic effort on the author's part to get me through his text with minimal spoilage of the world's literature.

Another issue for me was the author's prose style, which, although it was competent and got the job done, I thought had some defects and lacked discipline. In a book of this great length, a serious effort should be made to tighten the text by every means possible. This wasn't done here, and the text remains larded with adjectives, adverbs, and whole sentences that aren't pulling their weight. A further issue was the author's reliance on figurative language, specifically the many references to "dark" and "light" characters, using these words in just this way, in quotation marks. Aristotle warns against using metaphors in an argument, for there is the danger that the underlying literal sense will not be communicated or understood. Ordinarily, I would take dark to mean either "evil" or "vicious", or perhaps both (if they are not the same thing), and that is in effect what the author means here, but a major part of his argument is that evil or vicious behavior arises specifically from egocentrism or selfishness, in contrast to good or virtuous behavior, which is selfless. The connection between evil, vice, and selfishness on the one hand, and between good, virtue, and selflessness on the other, is interesting and important, but it's also controversial, and I think it was the author's duty to sort this out for the purpose of his argument and to define his terms, that is, to say plainly and literally what he meant, and not leave it to me, the reader, to grapple with the question. Throughout the book the words "dark," "light," "heart," "soul," and "seeing whole" are used thus, in quotation marks, and are never formally defined, and this reader regarded that fact as a weakness.

But the theory that the author expounds, the actual argument of his book, is exciting and thought-provoking. In a project that began in 1969, he examined stories of the Western world to discover what their basic plots are. This project, interestingly, has seldom been undertaken seriously before. In the author's survey of the existing literature, the earliest reference to the notion that "similar stories and situations may be found throughout literature appears in the late eighteenth-century, in James Boswell's biography of Dr Samuel Johnson." But Johnson left no list or even hint of what these might be. A writer named Gozzi found that there were 36 "dramatic situations," but as the 19th century arrived, the interest in storytelling shifted to the realm of folk tales. But the finding and cataloguing of these, while it exercised scholarly minds, never amounted to a classification system into distinct story types. As far as Christopher Booker was concerned, a serious scholarly effort in this direction still needed to be done.

So he watched plays, movies, and operas, and read books--lots of them. And eventually he discerned seven basic plots or story types. And it's no spoiler to say what they are, since they're listed right on the cover of the book:

Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return

In the first 228 pages the author sketches the outlines of these plots, giving examples from vastly different times and literary genres. Along the way there are a number of striking revelations. I was astonished when the author described a list of typical events in an Overcoming the Monster plot, and showed how the list applied equally well to the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh's journey to combat the monster Humbaba and to Ian Fleming's 1958 James Bond novel, Dr. No. This by itself was a convincer for me that he was on to something.

Giving many and diverse examples, the author shows how almost every story can be reduced to one or more of these 7 plots--for many stories combine them. The author asserts, for example, that The Lord of the Rings combines all 7 of them. Some of the identifications are surprising and thought provoking. For example, he finds that War and Peace, in terms of the 7 plots, is essentially a Comedy! That is, its main plot conforms with the characteristics of Comedy as he defines it: a story about young couples overcoming the obstacles to realizing that they are meant to be together.

Why 7 basic plots? Where did they come from? Here we come to the heart of the author's theory about storytelling. Stories exist in order to help us all mature and live fulfilling lives. They do this by giving symbolic representation to factors at work in our unconscious minds and showing how they must be worked with if we are to become complete, adult human beings. In particular, the author avails himself of the concepts of Jungian psychology to say that storytelling provides us all with a kind of map for how to grow from a condition of narrow egocentrism to one of wise, balanced wholeness. The hero or heroine of any story represents the ego, the archetype of our conscious self, as it confronts the difficult challenges to becoming more adequate to life. The villain of a story represents the ego's shadow, the archetype of the wicked personality that carries the negative traits of egohood, which boil down to selfishness. Often a story will have a love interest for the hero; this character represents what Jung called the anima (or animus in the case of a heroine), the personification of his own unconscious, who fascinates and excites him, and whom he must win if he is to achieve fulfillment and wholeness.

The deepest and most powerful archetype of them all is called the Self, which is identical with the total person and not to be confused with the ego, which stands only for the center of conscious experience. Jung referred to the Self as the "god-image in man"; in its most positive aspect it represents the end of all aspiration and all striving, the complete actualization of a human being, beyond the petty and selfish aims of the ego. Like all the archetypes, though, the Self is unconscious and cannot be made conscious; its existence can only be inferred from the images and symbols that arise and point to it as their source. In storytelling, the Self manifests as the state of the hero when he has overcome all opposition and won through to a happy ending. The true and complete happy ending, according to this author, is one in which the hero has vanquished the villain, married the "princess"--the woman he loves--and has succeeded, with her, to a "kingdom" of some kind, which they will rule together. This fairy-tale ending remains the most emotionally satisfying for an audience, because it most accurately represents, in symbolic form, the psychological aims of human life. The fairy-tale ending shows the ego fully realized, in harmonious, complete relationship with the Self. That is exactly what makes the ending a happy one, giving a sense of fulfillment with nothing further to be done.

The great task of human life is to realize this relationship with the Self. It is primarily an inner work, which requires courage and determination--the qualities of a hero. The great danger is that we will be seduced by false gods along the way, that we will not be able to look past our ego and will consume our lives in inflating it and gratifying it. When we do this we become vicious--we become villains. And if we take villainy to its furthest extreme, we become monsters. And Overcoming the Monster, the first of the 7 basic plots, is exactly, according to the author, about the challenge of overcoming an ego that has metastasized to its ugliest state. For the monsters of stories are not the same as the "monsters" of nature--the crocodiles and sharks. The monsters of stories add the qualities of malice and cunning: human qualities, which show them to be not natural creatures, but hideously deformed humans. That is what makes them so frightening.

And it turns out that the order of plots in the list is not random, but rather presents a rough progression of story types, each showing the educational journey of the ego-hero in a different light. Along the way are many fascinating insights. I found especially interesting the discussion of the evolution of Comedy, the only one of the plot types that has actually changed over time. The author shows how Comedy began as the Old Comedy of ancient Athens, most famously exemplified in the plays of Aristophanes. These were social comedies that pitted the individual against society or group against group. Old Comedy gave way to the New Comedy of Menander and the Roman comedians, which was now romantic comedy, in which a young pair of lovers are blocked from fulfilling their desire for marriage by the powers that be--usually their parents. Later, Comedy morphed again, so that by the time of Shakespeare it is no longer external authorities who are keeping the lovers apart, but now, sometimes, qualities within the characters themselves, such as in All's Well That Ends Well or The Taming of the Shrew. The author thinks that Comedy is continuing to evolve, so that in some contemporary comedies the obstacle to the union of the lovers is no longer any particular vice in them, but simply in the whirl of circumstance in which they find themselves, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The author goes on to discuss the causes and symptoms of what he regards as the degeneration of storytelling in the last 250 years. According to him, writers moved away from stories that celebrated the virtues representing the Self (strength, intelligence, compassion, wisdom), and wrote stories instead that glorified the ego, stories in which vice triumphs over virtue. A work such as Justine by the Marquis de Sade, in which a virtuous young woman is tortured by a cruel sexual deviant, a monster, who goes unpunished, would have been unthinkable to ancient writers. The trend continued on into the 20th century, with the appearance of stories that merely presented enigmatic, unresolved situations, such as Waiting for Godot. All this represents the triumph of ego regarding itself as the supreme principle in the world. The author believes that such stories are based on fantasy, as opposed to imagination. And while he discusses this distinction a little, I would have liked him to go into much more detail, for it is a fascinating idea.

There are many fascinating ideas in this book, and many striking and original insights. I loved his discussions of Hamlet and of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. I found his analyses of the psychologies of individual authors absorbing, even as I have hesitations about interpreting writers' works based on facts of their biographies, never mind their presumed character flaws. I loved his ability to draw parallels, surprisingly close ones, between such disparate works as the Book of Job and Nineteen Eighty-Four. All this was great.

I suppose I would sum up by saying that The Seven Basic Plots is a great idea for a book, and well and thoroughly thought out. The author presents his ideas, many of which dissent from scholarly and critical consensus, confidently, which I like. The actual prose I found to be a bit flabby and uninspired, and the material could well have been put into three separate books. The problem of spoilers is a serious practical issue for the reader who is still looking forward to enjoying many of the works he discusses.

But if you're interested in stories and their structure, I think you've got to read this.
Profile Image for Goran Jankuloski.
171 reviews14 followers
January 6, 2023
Najbolja knjiga o pričanju priča tačka.

730 strana je ozbiljno planinarenje, ali vredi truda. Prvi deo o sedam zapleta je na nivou drugih autora: Kempela, McKeea isl. Ali to je u stvari samo suptilni setap za filozofiju koja dolazi na kraju: zašto pričamo priče, zašto baš ljudi, zašto baš na taj način. Spakuj krampove i šator.
Profile Image for Starry.
709 reviews
January 16, 2014
Full disclosure: I didn't finish this book. But that's partly why I give it only 2 stars.
1. It was much longer than it needed to be.
2. It made me angry, or at least uncomfortable, with where the author was taking his arguments.

The first section of the book was interesting and worthwhile. The author demonstrated how stories -- from all over the world and from ancient times to modern -- can be categorized by seven basic plots. I enjoyed reading the examples (summaries of books, movies, operas, fairytale) and seeing their similar structures. I will most likely recall this as I read in the future.

However, the author then tries to explain how all seven plots relate to our innate biology/underlying psychology -- that's where I became increasingly uncomfortable.

Now, I don't have a formal background in literature, so I can't discuss this book and my impressions in the terminology and context of literary criticism. I can only say his conclusions felt wrong.

For one thing, I chafed at his whole "inner feminine" and "inner masculine" language. It struck me as full of gross gender stereotypes. For example, saying a strong woman is a woman in touch with her masculine side at the expense of her feminine side (feeling and intuition). Ugh. WHY use such loaded gender terms when there are plenty of other, more inclusive/general ways to describe this? Example: over the course of the story, the character developed a trait he/she previously lacked, thereby becoming more well-rounded. To me, that's a better fit. But was it maybe too boring to warrant a 700-page book?

Then the author goes into some Freudian bit about all plots showing the younger generation replacing the older for breeding purposes. Couldn't winning the princess' hand and/or the kingdom simply be an easy way to illustrate that your character is now well-rounded and mature enough to handle the next big stage of life, ready to be entrusted with grown-up responsibilities?

Also, the author's conclusions are strictly biological/instinctual, ignoring the spiritual side of humanity. The growth of a character is often a triumph of virtue either for cultural or spiritual improvement. Another common thread or theme of stories could be turning darkness to light -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, morally. You could still make this biological -- humans developed to fit into community, so the main character must develop some trait they lack that will benefit his/her community, and character will develop from selfish to selfless.

Then I skipped ahead to read the chapter about mystery plots, since the author said they didn't fit his 7 basic plots. Wow, what an ascerbic chapter. Apparently, a category of books that defy his 7 plots deserves his wrath and condescension? I understand his points but feel he hasn't read enough mysteries to make these generalities (eg that all are told from the detective's perspective; that detectives are cold, unchanging super-egos) and takes his criticism too far. Going back to my potential summaries of all the basic plots, mysteries fit with the triumph of light or virtue or community. Mysteries are morality tales, read to see justice reign, darkness brought to light, goodness overcome bad.

And to me, that's the most basic and satisfying plot of all -- good wins.

Anything else is tragic. :)
Profile Image for Ana.
317 reviews
April 17, 2018
I think if you stick to the technical juice of the book and to the presence of mind it takes to come up with the definition of the different plots, this is pretty neat.
Yet, the lack of diversity in the examples, namely on the gender of the authors (that was the one that struck me the most) is definitely a turn-off. I think that if the author had stuck more to the actual matter at hand, instead of throwing so much opinionated secondary thoughts, everyone would probably have enjoyed this a bit more. I went into the book merely to get Booker's answer on the old riddle of whether there are only a small number of basic stories in the world and I was fairly satisfied with that portion of the book, I wish he would have just kept it shorter and less bias overall.

I still think it is a good read for anyone interested in the subject or for writing professionals. But you could probably get away with reading a short summary somewhere else online instead of going through this 700+ mammoth book. I don't regret reading it, but then again, I must admit I skimmed through a fair portion of it (you gotta do what you gotta do).
Profile Image for Rebecca.
10 reviews
September 13, 2008
The thing I recall most about this book was the author's feeling that something has grown askew within the 21st Century story structure...as if we can't resolve things 'the way we used to' - Post modernism? Something about storytelling inside that giant evolving universal perspective appealed. Stories are incredibly powerful. I didn't finish this book, but I cherry-picked some gold. However, I read these structural writing books and then instantly try to forget them. I don't want to feel to head-y or clever when I'm writing.
Profile Image for Erin.
25 reviews2 followers
June 29, 2019
This is a treasure. It draws you in like a story itself, a story about mankind’s relationship to the world around him and the world within him, and dives so much deeper into why we have that narrative, creative impulse than any other work I’ve read. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves literature, or theatre, or film, or music, or any art form, or history, or psychology, or sociology, or anything to do with humans.
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