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:
Overcoming the Monster
Hero learns of a great evil threatening the land, and sets out to destroy it.
Rags to Riches
Surrounded 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.
Hero learns of a great MacGuffin that he desperately wants to find, and sets out to find it, often with companions.
Voyage and Return
Hero 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.
Hero 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.
The 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.
As 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 first half of one of the oldest known stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is set in this form. So is the first James Bond movie Dr. No, and of course a wealth of stories in between. Also the base for many video games, e.g. any Super Mario jump’n’run. Here’s the gist of how the stages run:
The 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:
All three are found in the pattern story “Jack and the Beanstalk“: First it’s “Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” then it’s the sleeping giant guarding his treasures, and finally it’s the angry giant pursuing Jack across the clouds and down the beanstalk.
Anyway. So the Monster poses a grave threat. Who’s going to stop him? The Hero, who receives his Call to Adventure. If he’s smart, he heads out immediately (since The Call Knows Where You Live!) - and after all, who else is gonna kill that thing?
The 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.
The 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.”
Time 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 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:
And they all lived Happily Ever After.
A young child grows up surrounded by shadowy figures who suppress and ridicule her, but through great testing she slowly blossoms into a mature figure fully worthy of her happy ending.
The basic tale behind such gems as “Aladdin“ and “Cinderella“ (that one’s technically riches to rags to royalty and riches), this shows the character arc, from an impoverished beginning to a complete, Happily Ever After end. At the end the character should have status, riches, and a mate, and often a kingdom as well. (A more modern spin on the plot, the Coming of Age Story, may eschew the kingdom and downplay the initial “rags” aspect, as neither is something a modern reader would have much personal experience with, but the arc is otherwise the same.)
Key to this basic plot is the false ending, in which the hero appears to have gained her heart’s desire — but it is too early, and she is too immature, so she loses it all, usually through some fault of her own (though not necessarily matched to the enormity of the loss). This loss is the most devastating blow to the hero, prior to the story’s climax. In “Aladdin” it’s the moment when the evil wizard uses the genie to steal the princess (note that the genie was lost because Aladdin failed to either keep it with him or inform his wife of the importance of the lamp).
In another example (David Copperfield by Charles Dickens), the false ending is marriage to an immature wife, who soon dies - so the hero may actually lose the thing he wanted completely, only to get a better thing (a mature wife) by the end.
Anyway, here are the stages:
Far 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.
After 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.
“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.”
In “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.”
At last the Hero emerges victorious, and lays claim to the treasure, the kingdom, and the Prince.
Show us 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:
So here’s how this plot works out:
The 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 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:
Fight 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.
Booker further divides these into the four categories found in The Odyssey:
…So, we guess, the four divisions are Death, Captivity, Distraction, and Self-indulgence.
Anyway, temptations are to be resisted.
(Booker doesn’t explicitly include “Illusions” or “Trickery” but maybe they ought to go here. Falling prey to an illusion or buying into a false story seems to fit this general pattern.)
The Hero sees the road up ahead leading between two roaring lions. Or between a giant whirlpool and a giant sea monster. Or between two giant walls of crushing water. Maybe he has to balance on a thin ledge of rock without falling to one side or the other.
This can be a less literal path, of course, but Booker works with the most visual forms. Somehow or other, the Hero must tread a narrow path between two dangers, and any misstep will lead to certain doom. (So don’t ignore your tour guides!!)
The 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.)
We 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.
A “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 Hero has won it all: treasure, kingdom, and Princess. There is “an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future.”
The Hero enters a Magical Land where normal rules don’t apply, happily explores for a while, then encounters a darker side of things; he conquers or escapes, in the process overcoming a character flaw, and returns home far more mature than when he left.
It’s an obvious plot for dreams. Then again, it’s also one of the most common plots used in kiddie books, since it’s an easy way for a kid to explore an immaturity (e.g., fear of the dark) and symbolically conquer it - secure in the knowledge that when he finally gets home, everything will be just as he left it. Nothing has changed except the kid.
And, of course, there’s the wondrous realm of magic and monsters to explore. It’s a realm where intuition rules, rather than logic - common sense gets thrown out the window. The Hero has to rely on the advice of allies - unfortunately, most of them are Tricksters, and a few might even be leading him into danger. Then again, if he’s a good kid, he’ll probably be able to follow his heart - it’ll lead him into problems at times, but it’ll all work out in the long run. This is the way plenty of fairy tales run.
At any rate, the story stays pretty light at first - amusing, whimsical, fun - until suddenly things take a dark turn. The Hero has to pass some ordeals, then finally overcomes one final threat, makes a “thrilling escape from death,” and returns home mature but physically unchanged.
Generally speaking (according to Booker), at the end of the story, a hero who has failed to join himself to a suitable cross-gendered mate is symbolically immature or unfinished. However, in Voyage and Return, the presence of a mate is actually a problem, since the hero can take nothing back with him but experience - hence he must leave his mate behind. Some stories attempt to avoid this problem by providing a parallel version of the hero’s love when he returns home; see The One and The Forbidden Kingdom for two film examples. In other tales, they get by with a Your Universe or Mine? dilemma (see the movie Alice, where Hatter leaves his world to stay with Alice); sometimes this requires balance (if one person leaves the dream world, another must take their place), and other times it’s explicitly prevented (“by staying where you don’t belong, you’re ripping the worlds apart!”).
So here are the basic steps in the Voyage and Return plot:
The 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.
This 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.”
The “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.”
The shadow takes center stage, and it looks like the hero is doomed!
Just 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?”
Comedy, 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.
Tragedy is the flip side of Overcoming the Monster: It’s the tale of the villain spiraling down into evil and then being defeated by the hero. Here, release comes only with the 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.
Here are the stages for Tragedy:
The Hero gets focused on “some unusual gratification… object of desire or course of action.” At this point, he is “incomplete or unfulfilled.”
Like 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.”
Things 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).
Booker describes this stage better than we 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.”
He’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.
Rebirth 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
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return
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.
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#Campbell's Hero’s Journey
More elaborate taxonomies usually include the following stages, not all of which need be present: