There Are Only 7 Stories

The Seven Basic Plots

The meta-plot

The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to the adventure to come. This is followed by a dream stage, in which the adventure begins, the hero has some success, and has an illusion of invincibility. However, this is then followed by a frustration stage, in which the hero has his first confrontation with the enemy, and the illusion of invincibility is lost. This worsens in the nightmare stage, which is the climax of the plot, where hope is apparently lost. Finally, in the resolution, the hero overcomes his burden against the odds.

The key thesis of the book: “However many characters may appear in a story, its real concern is with just one: its hero. It is the one whose fate we identify with, as we see them gradually developing towards that state of self-realization which marks the end of the story. Ultimately it is in relation to this central figure that all other characters in a story take on their significance. What each of the other characters represents is really only some aspect of the inner state of the hero himself.”

The plots

Overcoming the Monster

Definition: The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.

Examples: PerseusTheseusBeowulfDraculaThe War of the WorldsNicholas NicklebyThe Guns of NavaroneSeven Samurai (and its Western remake The Magnificent Seven), James BondStar Wars.

Rags to Riches

Definition: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.

Examples: CinderellaAladdinJane EyreA Little PrincessGreat ExpectationsDavid CopperfieldThe Prince and the PauperBrewster’s Millions.

The Quest

Definition: The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.

Examples: The OdysseyThe Pilgrim’s ProgressThe Lord Of The RingsKing Solomon’s MinesSix of CrowsWatership DownLightning ThiefRaiders of the Lost ArkMonty Python and the Holy Grail.

Voyage and Return

Definition: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons unique to that location, they return with experience.

Examples: RamayanaAlice in WonderlandGoldilocks and the Three BearsOrpheusThe Time MachinePeter RabbitThe HobbitThe SpongeBob SquarePants MovieBrideshead RevisitedThe Rime of the Ancient MarinerGone with the WindThe Third ManThe Lion KingBack to the Future.

Comedy

Definition: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.[ Booker stresses that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. The majority of romance films fall into this category.

Examples: A Midsummer Night’s DreamMuch Ado About NothingTwelfth NightBridget Jones’s DiaryMusic and LyricsSliding DoorsFour Weddings and a FuneralThe Big Lebowski.

Tragedy

Definition: The protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.

Examples: MacbethThe Picture of Dorian GrayCarmenBonnie and ClydeJules et JimAnna KareninaMadame BovaryJohn DillingerRomeo and JulietJulius CaesarCitizen Kane.

Rebirth

Definition: An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better individual.

Examples: Pride and PrejudiceThe Frog PrinceBeauty and the BeastThe Snow QueenA Christmas CarolThe Secret GardenPeer GyntGroundhog Day.

The Rule of Three

“Again and again, things appear in threes . . .” There is rising tension and the third event becomes “the final trigger for something important to happen”. We are accustomed to this pattern from childhood stories such as Goldilocks and the Three BearsCinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. In adult stories, three can convey the gradual working out of a process that leads to transformation. This transformation can be downwards as well as upwards. Booker asserts that the Rule of Three is expressed in four ways:

  1. The simple, or cumulative three, for example, Cinderella’s three visits to the ball.
  2. The ascending three, where each event is of more significance than the preceding, for example, the hero must win first bronze, then silver, then gold objects.
  3. The contrasting three, where only the third has positive value, for example, The Three Little Pigs, two of whose houses are blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.
  4. The final or dialectical form of three, where, as with Goldilocks and her bowls of porridge, the first is wrong in one way, the second in an opposite way, and the third is “just right”.

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