Cracking the Story Code

Christopher Booker, founding editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, has just published "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories" (Continuum, 2005).

One of the greatest mysteries in our lives lies so close beneath our noses that we don’t even recognize it to be a mystery. Why do we tell stories? Why has evolution given us the ability to conjure up these sequences of imaginary happenings, on which, through movies, novels, plays, TV soaps and comic strips, we spend so much of our lives?

I have spent 34 years of my own life unraveling this riddle. And the starting point for an answer, I suggest, lies in that age-old notion that, all through the storytelling of the world, a handful of basic plots recur. Crack the code of why stories repeat and we see how fundamentally they reflect what human nature confronts us with.

The first and most basic of plots, for instance, is Overcoming the Monster. From Greek myths to “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and James Bond, we see a hero who, on behalf of a community, sets out to challenge and slay some monstrous deadly figure. The monster -- malevolent, blinkered, totally selfish -- personifies the dark power of the human ego. But in this respect, it is only the extreme version of the dark figures we see in stories of every kind.


Similarly selfish figures overshadow the disregarded little hero or heroine of the second plot, Rags to Riches -- Cinderella, David Copperfield, Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” But he or she is eventually revealed, like Superman, to be someone exceptional, and the story usually ends on the image of a man and woman united in perfect love.

A third plot, the Quest, centers on the battle of a hero and his companions to reach some far-off, priceless goal. From Homer’s “Odyssey” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” they must face all kinds of ordeals and enemies. But, in the end, the power of darkness is overcome, the treasure secured, the kingdom established. And often again, as Odysseus with his Penelope, we see the hero united with the woman he loves.

Fourth is another type of story based on a journey, Voyage and Return. The heroes or heroines drop out of their familiar world into an abnormal world. Its strangeness, at first exhilarating, gradually turns to nightmare until, in a final thrilling escape, they return to where they began, like Dorothy returning from Oz, Robinson Crusoe from his island, Scarlett O'Hara returning to Tara.

A fifth plot is that of Comedy. Usually, if not always, this is about the confusion that keeps a hero and heroine apart. Finally, all misunderstanding is resolved, darkness gives way to light, hero and heroine are united -- as we see in comedies from ancient Greece, through Shakespeare, Mozart, even “War and Peace,” to all those 20th century versions, from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

The essence of Tragedy as a basic plot is that it shows us what happens when heroes and heroines pass under the spell of the dark power of the ego. Initially they may enjoy dreamlike success, like Macbeth, or Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” or as in the movie version of Bonnie and Clyde. But gradually the dream turns to nightmare, until they are destroyed.

The seventh and last plot is Rebirth. A hero or heroine becomes imprisoned by the dark, egotistical power in some state of living death -- Snow White, Dickens’ Scrooge, Capt. Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” Finally, he or she is liberated by some redeeming figure, as Snow White is by her prince or as Von Trapp is by Maria, to end yet again on an image of light triumphing over darkness, life and love over death and separation.

Understanding how each of these plots work is only the gateway to unraveling the mystery of how stories work, and why we tell them. What happens, for example, when novels, plays and movies -- consider Kafka and Proust and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” -- “lose the plot”? In failing fully to realize one of the great archetypal patterns that shape our instinctive drive to create and follow stories, they can themselves turn extremely dark, as in “Moby-Dick,” a Quest that also shows its egocentric hero destroying himself. Or they can lose touch with a plot’s deeper message and become sentimentalized. Or they can just peter out in a “pseudo-ending” that resolves nothing.

The basic plots are the unconscious patterns that most obviously hold our interest in a story. Not the least reason why “The Lord of the Rings” was so popular is that it contains elements of all seven plots -- Quest, Overcoming the Monster, Voyage and Return, the lot -- ending, as it does, in that archetypal image of a man and a woman, masculine and feminine, brought together in perfect love, which is still the most completely resolved happy ending to a story we know. Isn’t it time we asked just why that should be?