I am trawling my way through Chris Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories. Booker has basically over a life-time gone through the massive mountain of storytelling from the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh to present day James Bond movies, comparing and cross referencing as he went along, until he managed to successfully distil the sum total of man's prolific storytelling through the ages into no more than 7 basic, but distinct plots. Obviously there are very interesting psychological reasons why these essentially same stories have occurred since the beginning of man's history. It is also very interesting and worthwhile to storytellers to note what happens, when you try to bend or disregard the rules governing storytelling, as you end up with a product sadly lacking in impact and satisfaction.
The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories weighs in at a hefty 700+ pages. Even so I am amazed at how there is absolutely no fluff or empty space in this gigantic work. As I am working my way through this huge treasure trove of storytelling insights, I will summarize my findings, or rather Christopher Booker's findings as told to me.
Without further ado, let me introduce you to the first plot of the seven master plots:
Overcoming the Monster
This is a type of story, which the human imagination is particularly fond of forming. As the title indicates this is a story in which a hero is called to face and overcome a terrible and deadly personification of evil. The story is usually presented as a long build-up to the final confrontation between the monster and the hero, and it will usually follow these 5 stages:
1. Anticipation Stage and 'Call'
At first we see the monster, or become aware of it, from a great distance. We gradually learn of its fearsome power and reputation, and how it is casting a threatening shadow over the community. The hero then experiences a 'Call' to confront it.
2. Dream Stage
The hero is now making preparations for battle. For a while things seem to be going reasonably well. The audience still feel comfortably remote from and immune to the danger presented by the monster.
3. Frustration Stage
We finally find ourselves face to face with the monster in all its awesome power. The hero now feels small and alone. He is slipping into the monster's power, and there seems to be only one possible outcome - the death of the hero.
4. Nightmare Stage
The final battle between the monster and the hero, where the odds are massively stacked in favour of the monster. And just at the climax, when all seems lost, comes the reversal.
5. The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
In the nick of time, the monster is miraculously dealt a fatal blow. This is a moment of fundamental significance to storytelling. In fact, 'the thrilling escape from death' is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling. The community is then liberated and our hero emerges to enjoy the prize: Usually some kind of treasure, a princess or a kingdom.
The monster is characterised by being heartless, egocentric (as opposed to the hero, who is selfless in his deed of risking his life for greater good or the community) and seemingly omnipotent. However the monster usually has a blind spot (often tied to its egocentricity), which renders it vulnerable.
The monster will have three distinct roles playing through the progression of the story: First an active role as a predator looking for victims; Secondly a passive role as holdfast, where it will sit in its lair jealously guarding its "treasure"; Thirdly the monster takes the role of avenger, lashing out viciously, when its guardianship is challenged.
Constriction and Release
As with all stories, the overcoming the monster plot, follows the general rhythm of tension and release in successively greater amounts leading up to the climax and final resolution; In a story well-constructed, these phases of tension and release alternate, in a rhythm like the heart beat of a story, which provides one of the greatest pleasures we get from stories.
At the climax of the story, we feel the final surge of liberation; and as it fades, we are left with the warming knowledge that the hero has now won a much deeper hold on life, which will last indefinitely into the future - or as the saying goes 'live happily ever after'...
Needless to say, this very straightforward plot has been used countless times in genres of all kinds:
Melodrama (Nicholas Nickleby); war stories (The Battle of Britain, The Sinking of the Bismarck, The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Guns of Navarone etc.); the Hollywood western (The Magnificent Seven - and its inspiration The Seven Samurai, High Noon etc.); thrillers (King Kong, The Three Musketeers, The Final Problem, The Thirty Nine Steps, all James Bond stories etc.); science fiction (War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, Star Wars); disaster movies (The Towering Inferno, Airport etc.); Gothic horror (Dracula, Canon Alberic's Scrap Book, Frankenstein, The Castle of Otranto etc.); myth (St. George and the Dragon, David and Goliath, Perseus and Andromeda, Beowulf, Theseus and the Minotaur, Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jack and the Beanstalk, Epic of Gilgamesh etc.) and many, many others.
The next of the seven basic plots also appeals massively to the human psyche; We'll look at Rags to Riches next.
Questions and comments are welcome.