Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots is a long book. It's on the order of War and Peace for thickness. It also gets a bit repetitive at times, but if you can slog through the material, you're rewarded with a good understanding of the seven basic plots. You can also get a good dose of Jungian psychology to boot. Booker likes to talk about the symbolism of the masculine and feminine aspects of a character.Here are Booker's seven plots:
SummaryOvercoming the MonsterHero learns of a great evil threatening the land, and sets out to destroy it.Rags to RichesSurrounded by dark forces who suppress and ridicule him, the Hero slowly blossoms into a mature figure who ultimately gets riches, a kingdom, and the perfect mate.The QuestHero learns of a great MacGuffin that he desperately wants to find, and sets out to find it, often with companions.Voyage and ReturnHero heads off into a magic land with crazy rules, ultimately triumphs over the madness and returns home far more mature than when he set out.ComedyHero and Heroine are destined to get together, but a dark force is preventing them from doing so; the story conspires to make the dark force repent, and suddenly the Hero and Heroine are free to get together. This is part of a cascade of effects that shows everyone for who they really are, and allows two or more other relationships to correctly form.TragedyThe flip side of the Overcoming the Monster plot. Our protagonist character is the Villain, but we get to watch him slowly spiral down into darkness before he's finally defeated, freeing the land from his evil influence.RebirthAs with the Tragedy plot, but our protagonist manages to realize his error before it's too late, and does a Heel-Face Turn to avoid inevitable defeat.
The Plots in Detail
Overcoming the Monster
Anticipation Stage and CallThe fearsome Monster makes his presence known, often from "a great distance" although occasionally more up close and personal. Its nature is base and vile, a picture of the dark side of humanity. To drive this home, it is "highly alarming in its appearance and behaviour"... treacherous and deadly, ugly or ill-formed, and, often, "something about its nature [is] mysterious... hard to define" (elusive, shapeless, nightmarish).The Monster may be humanoid, animal, or a combination of both (e.g., the Minotaur). If it's humanoid, it will still have bestial qualities, as well as some deformity or abnormality that shows it as not quite human (abnormal size counts). If it's physically an animal, it will be "invested with attributes no animal in nature would possess, such as a peculiar cunning or malevolence" - thus partly human. As for combinations: We tend to imagine creatures composed of things we know, such as the dragon with "a reptilian body, a bat's wings and the head of a giant toad or lizard." (Hey, even when we craft eldritch abominations we give them a squid's tentacles, right?)During the course of the story, the Monster may take on any of three basic roles:
Dream StageThe Hero prepares for battle while moving closer to the Monster (either he's heading out, or the Monster's approaching his home). But the danger is still "comfortably remote" and everything seems to be working out okay.
Frustration StageThe Monster shows up and shows off, "in all his awesome power." There's no contest here: No way the Hero can beat a thing this strong! At this point, the Hero seems to be "slipping into the monster's power" and "may even fall helplessly into the monster's clutches."
Nightmare StageTime for the climactic battle. The odds seem to be against our Hero even surviving this fight. But, of course, we know how these things turn out, right?
The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the MonsterThe Monster's power is broken, and it dies; the people who had been under its power are liberated; the Hero emerges victorious.To symbolically complete the tale, the Hero receives three things:
Initial Wretchedness at Home and the CallFar more than any other story, this is a story whose backbone is the Hero's growth arc. We start with a very young Hero in a "lowly and unhappy state, usually at home." Antagonists of various sorts "scorn or maltreat" the Hero - though that is merely "the most obvious reason" for her unhappiness.This lasts until she receives The Call and either heads out, or is sent out, into the world.
Out into the World, Initial SuccessAfter a few minor ordeals, the Hero gets a quick but limited success, "some prevision of their eventual glorious destiny." She may even meet her Prince, may outshine her rivals - but she's not ready for this yet. It is pretty clear that she's got a long way to go toward maturity before she can truly succeed.
The Central Crisis"Everything suddenly goes wrong." Some of the dark figures from her past might reappear. The initial win is stripped away and the Hero is separated from that which she values most - especially her Prince. (Note: The separation may be physical, or it may be, for example, due to slander or other misinformation.) The Hero is "overwhelmed with despair" and this is clearly "their worst moment in the story."
Independence and the Final OrdealIn "Aladdin", the poor boy has lost his Princess and his palace, and on top of that his father-in-law has sentenced him to death if he can't bring them all back. More important to the story: He's lost his genie, the magical power that was letting him do all the cool stuff for the first half of the story. Now he's got to rely on his wits and his natural skills - no more easy outs. But in doing this on his own, he's developing his independence and proving that he is worthy of achieving his goal.After the ordeals that show off the Hero's newfound strength, the Hero must undergo one final test, one climactic battle against the Big Bad "who stands between them and their goal."
Final Union, Completion, and FulfillmentAt last the Hero emerges victorious, and lays claim to the treasure, the kingdom, and the Prince.
The QuestShow me a list of basic plots that doesn't have The Quest on it. (Don't worry, we'll wait.) Here it's the search for an object, a location or some information that requires our Hero to leave their (usually) everyday life to find. It's the basic plot most likely to include a party instead of a lone hero. Booker allows for four basic party types:
The CallThe Hero finds it impossible to remain at home. Often it's because The Quest is to find a MacGuffin that will save his hometown. Other times it's because he's already got a Doomed Hometown and is hoping to find a new home. It may be that he's escaping from slavery or trying to set others free. Whatever the case, Refusal of the Call just isn't an option.What helps matters is some level of "supernatural or visionary direction" explaining where to go, how to get there, what to do. And it's time for him to set off, his eyes set on that "distant, life-renewing goal."
The JourneyThe party heads out over hostile terrain. Here begins the episodic nature of The Quest: The heroes face an obstacle, the heroes overcome it, again and again and again. Obstacles tend to come in a few distinct flavors:
MonstersFight them. Kill them. (Or escape, at the very least.) It's like a miniature form of the Overcoming the Monster story, so play up the nature of the beast.
TemptationsBooker further divides these into the four categories found in The Odyssey:
Journey to the UnderworldThe climb down into the world of death, and the encounter with the spirits there, is a classic motif. Often the spirits can give the Hero some information about his journey that no living being could know, thus enabling him to head the right way or to avoid some upcoming danger.In between the various tests come periods of rest and succor, during which the party receives advice about the path ahead. (Booker claims this is often from a wise old man and a beautiful young (or ageless) girl.)
Arrival and FrustrationWe reach the halfway mark, and the journey part is over. But - gasp! - the story has a long way to go! The party is within sight of the goal, but now sees a series of obstacles yet to be overcome.In The Odyssey, this is when Odysseus arrives home but still has to deal with the suitors before he can claim his wife and home as his own again.
The Final OrdealsA "last series of tests," often following the Rule of Three (Booker's big on that). The final test - which is "the most threatening of all" - may be a test that only the Hero can pass.Then there's a "thrilling escape from death."
The GoalThe Hero has won it all: treasure, kingdom, and Princess. There is "an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future."
Voyage and Return
Anticipation Stage and 'Fall' into the Other WorldThe Hero's "consciousness is in some way restricted," most commonly because she's young, or because she has a serious flaw, or because she's "bored, or drowsy, or reckless." It is also commonly a blow to the head or some other injury. The character regains consciousness in an alternate reality.
Initial Fascination or Dream StageThis new world is "puzzling and unfamiliar" - hence, cool! The hero explores.Booker does note that, no matter how cool this whole setup might seem, "it is never a place in which they can feel at home."
Frustration StageThe "mood of the adventure" starts to darken. It's not as easy as before, and options are disappearing; the hero's starting to get hemmed in. "A shadow begins to intrude, which becomes increasingly alarming."
Nightmare StageThe shadow takes center stage, and it looks like the hero is doomed!
Thrilling Escape and ReturnJust when it looks like it's over, the hero makes a dramatic exit back to the world she came from.But the real question is: Was there any Character Development? "Have they been fundamentally changed, or was it all just a dream?"
ComedyComedy, for Booker, is the grand mesh of relationships among a large cast, rooted in miscommunication. The fog of misunderstanding is maintained by some dark figure, often the hero's parent but sometimes the hero himself; the focus of the dark energy is in keeping the hero apart from his other half.Unlike the other stories, the villain here is almost never just defeated; he is often redeemed, brought to a point where he admits wrongdoing and joyfully joins the party of the other characters released from the fog. The misunderstandings get cleared up, the relationships get properly aligned (eliminating any Love Dodecahedron problems), and everything gets brought to light.Basically, if there's three or more relationships being prevented mostly by misunderstanding or lack of acceptance, you're looking at Booker's definition of a Comedy, even if the tone is rather dark. William Shakespeare of course had several; George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man is another good example....will complete this later.death or destruction of the main character. The end, however tragic, is seen as just, even if we can sympathize with the villain and see some of his choices as right or forced.Booker's prime example for Tragedy is King Lear, in which the Tragic Hero realizes his fault at the end and repents - too late to be saved.Here are the stages for Tragedy:
Anticipation StageThe Hero gets focused on "some unusual gratification... object of desire or course of action." At this point, he is "incomplete or unfulfilled."
Dream StageLike in many other stories, the Tragic Hero gets "committed to his course of action" (Booker mentions Faust's Deal with the Devil as an example). There's no turning back now. However, at first "things go almost improbably well for the hero." Even if he's doing bad things, nobody seems to be catching on, or even if they catch on they seem unable or unwilling to stop him - he's "getting away with it."
Frustration StageThings start to go wrong... perhaps very slowly, "almost imperceptibly," but the Hero is starting to experience difficulties and annoyances. He may decide, at this point, to do "further dark acts which lock him into his course of action even more irrevocably."There may also appear some "shadow figure" which seems to threaten him (perhaps only in his imagination).
Nightmare StageBooker describes this stage better than I can: "...things are now slipping seriously out of the hero's control. He has a mounting sense of threat and despair. Forces of opposition and fate are closing in on him."
Destruction or Death Wish StageHe's about to go down, hard. This is caused by either "some final act of violence" or because of the various enemies he's made - the "forces he has aroused against him."The Tragic Hero's death or destruction releases the world around him from the darkness he had wrought, and the world without him rejoices.
RebirthRebirth is the more optimistic form of Tragedy, in which the villain spirals down into evil and then at the last second raises his head and gets pulled out of the mire by some redeeming figure, either his other half or a young child. The redeemer awakens the hero's ability to love (or feel compassion) and helps him also to see things as they are, including, sometimes, a reordering of priorities. Silas Marner is Booker's main example, in which a little girl helps the miser to stop caring so much about his lost gold.Booker doesn't give stages for this plot in the same fashion. However, it's mostly modeled on the Tragedy, with some Pet the Dog moments (to show the Hero is redeemable) and a different or extended ending. He does offer this "basic sequence" (quoted in full):
Of course, when you begin combining elements from the seven basic plots, you end up with a more complex tale, like, for example, JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which combines six (Tragedy for Saruman; Comedy the one absent); or The Hobbit (combining Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, and Voyage and Return).
Examples of Works Based on These Plots:Overcoming the Monster
Note: Booker has chosen to condense most of the world of literature into seven specific plots. Other authors have come up with other formulations, but this is not the page on which to discuss the work of other authors. Any book that discusses tropes can be summarized on its own page; see Books on Trope for links to many of them. If you would like to make a page discussing the distinctions between various authors, go make a page and do so; this is not the right page for that.