According to the British journalist and author Christopher Booker, there are only seven ‘storylines’ in the world. In his book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a work that took over forty years to write, Booker surveys world literature, outlining commonalities and showing that, although there are a multitude of tales and endless variety in the telling, all narratives are really variations of the basic seven.
Booker’s work is detailed, interesting, and very long—over 700 pages—but his message is simple. Whether they represent the deep psychological structures of human experience or whether they are merely constructs of tradition, no matter what the story, you’ll find one or more of these basic plotlines:
- Overcoming the Monster A terrifying, all-powerful, life-threatening monster whom the hero must confront in a fight to the death. An example of this plot is seen in Beowulf, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Dracula.
- Rags to Riches Someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is shown to have been hiding a second, more exceptional self within. Think the ugly duckling, Jane Eyre and Clark Kent.
- The Quest From the moment the hero learns of the priceless goal, he sets out on a hazardous journey to reach it. Examples are seen in The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- Voyage and Return The hero or heroine and a few companions travel out of the familiar surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first. While it is at first marvellous, there is a sense of increasing peril. After a dramatic escape, they return to the familiar world where they began. Alice in Wonderland and The Time Machine are obvious examples; but Brideshead Revisited and Gone with the Wind also embody this basic plotline.
- Comedy Following a general chaos of misunderstanding, the characters tie themselves and each other into a knot that seems almost unbearable; however, to universal relief, everyone and everything gets sorted out, bringing about the happy ending. Shakespeare’s comedies come to mind, as do Jane Austen’s perfect novels.
- Tragedy A character through some flaw or lack of self-understanding is increasingly drawn into a fatal course of action which leads inexorably to disaster. King Lear, Madame Bovary, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bonnie and Clyde—all flagrantly tragic.
- Rebirth There is a mounting sense of threat as a dark force approaches the hero until it emerges completely, holding the hero in its deadly grip. Only after a time, when it seems that the dark force has triumphed, does the reversal take place. The hero is redeemed, usually through the life-giving power of love. Many fairy tales take this shape; also, works like Silas Marner and It’s a Wonderful Life.