Might there only be a small number of plots in all the stories ever written? 

Last time we talked about the basic plots in stories. Might there only be a small number of plots in all the stories ever written? People have suggested this from time to time, but no one had ever seriously investigated it.

Until . . . Christopher Booker. He had been writing a book which focused on the Shakespeare play, Macbeth; Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita; a 1960s French film, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim; the Greek myth of Icarus; and the German legend of Faust. The stories did not seem to have that much in common on the surface, but Mr. Booker was struck by the fact that more deeply, they all seemed to conform to a very similar pattern.

At the beginning of each story, the hero, or heroes, was incomplete or lacking in some way. But soon, the feeling was one of hope and expectancy, as the hero looked forward to some great exploit. Initially, things go extraordinarily well. Macbeth becomes king. Humbert begins an affair with the captivating Lolita. Jules and Jim, in Paris before WWI, find the girl of their fancy. Icarus learns he can fly. Faust is introduced to miraculous things by the devil. But in each case, the story grows darker, the hero becomes more frustrated and the path he has chosen seems cursed. In the end, the hero’s initial dream becomes a nightmare which intensifies even further and ends in death.

The pattern Mr. Booker first noticed was not exclusive, thank goodness! Most stories have happy endings. But this initial experience moved him to the point he decided to read hundreds of stories of all types. Before long, he discovered there were, in fact, a small number of basic plots that were represented over and over, throughout history, and across all cultures.

Mr. Booker also discovered the truth was not so simple that every story fit perfectly into one category of plot or another. There was significant overlap between categories, and sometimes the story would somehow “go wrong” and fail to realize the basic plot behind it.

But as Mr. Booker continued (and he spent thirty years reading as much of the total literature of humanity as possible) two things became clear.

  • First, there were a small number of plots that were crucial to how we tell stories, and it  was essentially impossible for the storyteller to fully break away from them.
  • And second, the more we learn about “the nature of these shaping forms and forces lying  beneath the surface of stories,” the more we discover “a kind of hidden, universal  language: a nucleus of situations and figures which are the very stuff from which stories  are made.”1

If you read his book, you will learn Mr. Booker believed that the shaping forms and forces that have had such a stranglehold on the minds and hearts of storytellers, are archetypes, based on the theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. To be honest, I would have preferred Mr. Booker was a professing Christian who clearly held to a biblical worldview. But as I thought about it, it was even more significant he did not. The most important thing was that the researcher, whomever he was, attempted to be as objective and descriptive as possible in reporting the results, allowing the data to speak for itself. Any theory or explanation for the motivating forces behind the data was really a different question.

Is it possible that Christopher Booker’s beliefs about archetypes had some impact on the data that he ultimately reported? Of course.

Can any of us, as fallen as we are, ever be completely objective? Of course not.

Did Mr. Booker earnestly try to be as objective as humanly possible? I believe so.

As it turns out, Mr. Booker and I have different ideas about the origin of the underlying motivations in the hearts and minds of men and women who write stories and read them—but not what those motivations are.

Stay tuned. Next time we will learn the seven basic plots Christopher Booker discovered.

Sam

 

1 Booker, Christopher, The Seven Basic Plots (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2004), 6.

Welcome, I'm Sam!

A fellow traveler on this journey we call life and this path we call the Christian faith, wanting to speak to anyone who will listen about the incredible things that God (only because of His incredible grace) chose to reveal to me. Stories have always been a mirror in which we can see ourselves, if we only look more closely. We are all like the children of Israel in the wilderness, wanting and needing to establish ourselves in the promised land. Stories can help us to get there, and to flourish there.

I can't wait to get to know you!

Best,
Sam

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