The Seven Basic plots is a theory by Christopher Booker. Essentially, he believes that their are seven plots that a story can fit into. Any story. All stories.
So what are these seven plots?
1. Rags to Riches
The title of this plot doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The character or characters find themselves in a much richer state than they had originally started with. But it doesn’t always have to be money. It can be a core value.
This one seems obvious what stories would fit here. Cinderella is probably the first story to come to mind. There is also Oliver, who goes off and lives with his granddad.
But I would also argue that A Christmas Carol is also Rags to Riches (as well as other plots). Yes, Scrooge has money and power, the things that Cinderella and Oliver both lack until the end, but he misses the love that the two characters have.
It isn’t until the three ghosts visit that Scrooge is able to feel love once again and he becomes a richer and kinder man for it.
Aladdin and Charlie/Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are also variations of this plot. As is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Of course, each character goes on a journey to find their missing value.
Oliver lands up on the streets, then at Fagin’s who choruses him into pickpocketing, before he is found by his granddad. Yay! Until Nancy kidnaps him and Bill uses him as hostage. But all ends well.
Macbeth goes on a journey for power. Once humble and modest, he becomes corrupt and paranoid. He loses his core value of humbleness and suffers the consequences… (so almost reverse rags to riches, but also not as he dies a king).
Cinderella must escape her wicked stepfamily and marry her prince, and Scrooge goes on a journey to find love and kindness.
2. Overcoming The monster
Another obvious meaning. This one is seen in stories like Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Harry Potter and many many more. A villain wants something. That villain is a monster in the eyes of the protagonist.
The protagonist must find a way to defeat that villain.
For Beauty and the Beast, it was love. Harry Potter defeated Voldemort by killing him several times in his various forms, and he defeated Umbridge by playing her at her own game as well as making alleys with centaurs. Little Red Ridding hood either, used her brains, had a woodcutter save her or died (a failed overcoming of the monster)
There is usually anticipation for the monster. We saw Maurice be kidnapped and Belle’s concern for him. We knew someone was after a stone to bring back the man who killed Harry’s parents, and we knew their was danger in the forest if Little Red left the path.
Star wars had Darth Vader, who Princess Leila warned us about, and Dracula, who the locals tried to warn us about, is another monster that needed to be overcome.
Often, the monster meets a deadly end, sometimes they get the justice that they should be served (Cruella De vil), and sometimes they may not realise they’re the monster (Macbeth).
Yep, a story can have more than one plot!
3. Voyage & Return
The character finds themselves in an alien world. One they have never seen before. Clear examples of this is Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, The Matrix, Percy Jackson and any other story you can think of where the character leaves their known world for another. There’s a lot!
It’s a story of survival, a story of knowledge, of experience. At first the character may be happy they are in the new world. I’m sure taking those first steps into Diagon Ally was amazing, but after awhile, being isolated and casted away on an island can get very repetitive and lonely. Right Wilson?
But all voyages must come to an end. Sometimes, like in Cast Away, the point of the voyage is to return. Sometimes it is about gaining knowledge and experience before returning to the world you once knew, which is the case for Harry Potter in each book, the Pevensie children in Narnia and Dorothy in Wizard of Oz.
There is another reason too. Survival. Chuck survives by creating Wilson until he can be rescued, Neo needs to survive the Matrix, Harry Voldemort, Percy whatever monster is his quest this time, Dorothy the witch.
These stories are often filled with drama and mishaps.
This is one that is kind of hard to define. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a comedy. It is the one that comes to mind when I think about this plot. Although Booker doesn’t mention Twelfth Night he does mention other Shakespearian plays: Measure for Measure, Alls Well that Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing are some examples he gives.
He also defines this type of plot as:
- Characters swapping Identities – so the Pauper and the Prince/ss
- Characters dressing as reverse characters – I’m not sure on this one personally, I mean it can be a trop used for comedy, but then you have Mulan which doesn’t come off as a comedy to me.
- secret assassinations when ‘the wrong person turns up’
- Characters trapped and hiding in confined spaces only to be discovered in embarrassing Situations
I’ll be honest, comedy is not my fortè but I’ll try make sense of it. Booker says that comedy comprises of
…a little world in which people have passed under the shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustraition…
Hmmm, if Aristotle’s theory that story is an imitation of life is something to go by, then I want out of our current comedy! 2016-2020, what a state of affairs!
He then goes on to say that the confusion gets worse until it eventually peaks… (anyone else have panic buyers in mind). Lastly, as things calm down, perceptions are changed.
All of this sounds like satire to me.
He goes into detail saying that there are two states in comedy, twilight or mist, in which everything and everyone is obscured, from each other and their selves, to a sort of dawn where the mist clears and the truth is seen.
So, it’s not all about the laughs! What do you guys think? Any comedy writers?
Ok, this is probably more my cup of tea. Apparently, there is 5 stages of tragedy:
- Destruction or death wish
So what does that all mean?
At first, there is anticipation. The hero is what I would call, full of greed. He wants a reward for something. Someone comes along and others him that reward.
Next, they set out to get the reward… killing King Duncan, or selling their sister into slavery (Game of Thrones). Everything looks like it’ll be good and the hero is temporarily happy. It’s like a dream come true.
But, they want more, or they fear they’ll lose what they quickly got. So they start to get frustrated. In Game of Thrones, one of the character reminds his business partner about their arrangement, fearing it’s taking a long time. He decides he isn’t going to get help from his business partner and so tries to steal tools that will help him get the bigger prize.
Suddenly, this game of thrones hero realises that he has no power. People detest him, and his sister has more power than he does. It’s a nightmare he didn’t see.
Finally, caught trying to once again harm his sister, his sister takes no mercy and kills him.
So, the hero wants something. Someone offers it, almost on a plate, they are happy. But then they fear that they will lose it, or they want more. They cannot get more and all of their attempts leave them to fall.
What else can this be applied to? Breaking Bad is one, as is Macbeth. I assume Dexter but never watched it. Any story where the character falls because of their actions… oh and Thelma and Louise.
The Divided Self
I think Bookner also liked tragedy because he has another section on it called the divided self. He also has one as the hero as the monster, but I think I accidently covered that pre this.
So it’s semi Seven basic plots. Seven basic plots with subsections.
This is when:
- The character, knowing it is wrong, is tempted to get their prize at any cost. They are tempted and the temptation is winning. Examples of this are the three witches in Macbeth, as well as Lady Macbeth. Macbeth knows it is wrong, he initially says no, but the temptation is too great
- Another way is that they know that they have dark in them but they want to hide it. Again, I’d imagine Dexter is a good example. The guy from the new TV series YOU, Walter White, Peter Balish. The temptation wasn’t something they wanted to refuse, they just did not want to show who they are.
But not all tragedies are evil villains.
Romeo and Juliet were both tempted by one another. They loved each other, which was forbidden. They were together for a short time, their dream state, but their need for each other caused their own deaths.
I’m getting tired but we’re on 6 now.
Like many of the other plot points, this one has a dark shadow or threat looming over it. The hero gives into this power. The threat seems to take a long time that the hero tends to ignore it on large. Then it comes at great strength that it seems all of the world is destroyed.
Hmmm seeing a lot of similarities with real life.
Anyway, some kind of miracle happens, the hero gets rid of the darkness either because something happened to enlighten them, because of a child, or both; and the hero is redeemed despite their sins.
This applies to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, The Snow Queen and even The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Alright, this one is my favourite. It is why I left it to last! The Never-Ending Story, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Star Wars, Percy Jackson (and similar)… what are they all? Quests!
You have the hero’s call to adventure, such as Gandalf telling Bilbo that they need his help. The hero first refuses the offer and is either pushed into it, encouraged into it, or tempted into it.
You have the companions, such as the Fellowship of the Ring, or The Golden Trio who mostly stick together until a crucial point. The point in which most depart and the hero goes the rest of the way by themselves. They may have a helper here or there.
The split up is most likely to do with monsters such as massive spiders, and temptation that can hurt the quest, from greed to sirens. There is no limit here… sometimes, the group split as sacrifice so the hero does what they need to do.
Then you have the long journey, and on this journey, they are bound to learn something about themselves that they didn’t know. Especially as they’ll have to go through a lot of trauma… like losing their favourite horse in quick sand.
Look, I told you this was my favourite bit. I live and breathe this type of story!
They’ll travel a path of opposites. A path where there is a danger on both sides, whirlpool on one side and a three-headed beast on another. They may visit an underworldisk place, like the Marsh in Lord of the Rings…
Spotting a Quest
And here is how I spot a quest… the hero needs to travel through identical . An archway with two lions facing each other, for example. The place they can only pass if they are true about themselves… watch the Never-ending story and look for that archway. The archway will be one of three tests.
There are other tests to also prove their worth, like looking at their own inner reflection. But the arch with identical figures either end fascinates me because it is the most visible and maybe the least noticed.
One they pass this step, they are near the prize and they have survived. Just another step or two and everything returns to normal.
Seven Basic Plot Thoughts
Let me know your thoughts? Do you know any story that does not fit in the seven basic plots? Do let me know.
Also, if this is basic, what do you think the complex plots are like?
What other writing topics would you love to see? Do have a look at my other writing-related posts