Posted by: aboutalbion | November 14, 2012

More about hero(ine) stories (2)

Christopher Booker spent over thirty years writing his impressive book.  In it, he reports his research into the plots of all the major stories in the western world.

He begins with his classification of the seven basic plot lines in all the stories he reviewed.

1 Overcoming the Monster  In this basic plot, the hero(ine) must confront a “terrifying, life-threatening, seemingly all-powerful monster … in a fight to the death”. (p22)

Rags to Riches  This basic plot line has “an ordinary, insignificant person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps to the centre of the stage, revealed to be someone quite exceptional”. (p51)

The Quest  Here, the basic plot involves “some priceless goal, worth any effort to achieve: a treasure; a promised land; something of infinite value”.  As soon as the hero(ine) “learns of this prize, the need to set out on the long hazardous journey to reach it becomes the most important thing to [her/him] in the world”. (p69)

Voyage and Return  At the core of this basic plot is a hero(ine) who travels “out of their familiar, everyday ‘normal’ surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first … gradually a shadow intrudes … the [hero(ine)] feels … trapped: until eventually (usually by way of a ‘thrilling escape’) they are  released from the abnormal world, and can return to the safety of the familiar world where they began”. (p87)

Comedy  This basic plot line does not refer to “any story which is funny”.  Rather, it refers to a story which begins to narrate a “general chaos of misunderstanding which is likely only to get worse, until the knot the characters have tied themselves and each other up into seems almost unbearable.  But, finally, and to universal relief, everyone and everything will get miraculously sorted out, bringing a deliriously happy ending”. (p107)

Tragedy  The basic plot line here is a hero(ine) “being tempted or impelled into a course of action which is in some way dark or forbidden.  For a time … [s/he] enjoys almost unbelievable, dreamlike success.  …  As [s/he] still pursues the dream … [s/he] begins to feel more and more threatened – things have got out of control.  …  This eventually culminates in the hero(ine)’s violent destruction”. (p155)

Rebirth  The final basic plot line sees “the hero(ine) first falling under the shadow of the dark power when [s/he] is very young.  …  Then there is a mounting sense of threat as the dark power approaches, until it emerges in full force, freezing the hero(ine) in its deadly grip.  Only after a long time … does the reversal take place; when the hero(ine) is miraculously redeemed from [her/his] imprisonment by the life-giving power of love”. (p194f)

Booker refers to these seven basic plot lines as ‘the seven gateways to the underworld’ which converge towards “the same central preoccupation which lies at the heart of storytelling”. (p7)

In over 700 pages of fine, tightly argued writing, Booker describes this “central preoccupation” as the ego/Self split in the human psyche, “and the need to reconnect the two”. (p707)

The human preference for a story with a “happy ending” represents a desire for the masculine (ego) and feminine (Self) values to “be brought into perfect balance.  This is supremely symbolised by the image of a man and a woman being brought together in loving union, representing integration [within the psyche]”. (p 709)

I am in sympathy with Booker’s approach because it follows Freud’s suggestion that most of our psychic activity lies in our unconscious.  Add to that the evidence that, “wherever men and women have told stories, … the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways”. (p3)  And then Jung’s claim that “we are all psychologically constructed in the same essential way” appears credible. (p12)

[Booker, Christopher (2004) The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories.  London: Continuum.]


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