Each, as you will see in the explanations and examples that follow, offers a reflection on life; a glimpse into what makes us human; a perception – sometimes wry, sometimes sad, sometimes good, sometimes bad – on the wonders of human nature and behaviour; the courage and cowardice, endeavour and despair, honour and betrayal – all the elements of mind and emotion that make life the fascinating journey that it is.
1. BEST KNOWN: THE RAGS TO RICHES STORY
Perhaps the best known of the seven plots is the Rags to Riches story. This, after all, is the basis of many of our favourite nursery rhymes, fairy stories and romances: Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance. In one the despised and downtrodden youngest sister gets her Prince Charming; in the other, the poverty-stricken Jack and his mother procure the goose that lays the golden egg. These Rags to Riches stories, like many of their kind, are centuries old.
Travelling further back in time, another rich source of stories is the Bible. One particular Old Testament tale, which I’ve used on many occasions to illustrate various aspects of story-telling, is that of a widow and a jug of oil. It depicts a woman – a mother – newly bereaved and fallen on hard times. Saddled with debt and threatened with the loss of her son as collateral, she follows the advice of her dead husband’s colleague. Borrowing flagons from her neighbours, she fills them with oil, which she then sells to pay off her debts. That, in itself, fulfils the Rags to Riches plot. However, the flow of oil is miraculously unending! And with her debts repaid, she finds she has more than enough to live on.
This story has trust as its theme: confidence in a person, which translates into action – the belief that doing something seemingly impossible, will redeem a seemingly unsolvable problem.
For a classic tale of a family whose fortunes have gone from Rags to Riches (and back again for some of them) we need look no further than Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit. A satire on the shortcomings of the government and society of the time, it shows the unremitting poverty of those whose circumstances have taken a bad turn. Because of her father’s history, the main character, Amy, has lived in a Victorian debtors’ prison from birth. Yet her kindness and humility make her a much-loved contender for a reversal of fortune which, in the Rags to Riches tradition, she eventually experiences.
The modern equivalent, the film Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts, is a typical, if amoral portrayal. A poor student, who becomes a prostitute to fund the education that is to improve her lot in life, she ultimately gets her man – and his millions!
2. OVERCOMING THE MONSTER
Sometimes, stories interweave more than one of the seven plot lines. Hence in Jack and the Beanstalk, above, the main plot may be a Rags to Riches story, but in accomplishing its denouement, it takes in the basic plot of Overcoming the Monster. Quite literally, the giant has to be slain before the golden egg-laying goose becomes Jack’s.
Overcoming the Monster in this case is literal and physical. There are, however, other ways of overcoming the monster, as in Oscar Wilde’s classical story The Selfish Giant. This was one of my favourite childhood bedtime stories, and is still guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes.
Refusing access to the underprivileged children who had played in his garden during his absence, the selfish giant rebuilds the fallen section of wall by which they had entered, and erects a notice declaring that ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’. Summer, which had previously blossomed in his garden whilst the children were present, is now replaced by unending winter. Desolation and despair descend upon the giant - but he is unable to see that he has brought this situation upon himself.
Until, one day, the birds and blossom return, brought by the children who have crept in through a hole in the wall. Only in one corner of the garden, winter remains. Softly, the giant hastens from his castle and there discovers a tiny child crying beneath a tree, which is still shrouded in frost and snow. Try as he might, the child cannot climb the tree.
Winter returns as the terrified children flee from the garden, leaving only the giant and the little boy. The giant’s heart melts; he acknowledges his selfishness, knocks down the wall and lifts the child into the tree. “And the little boy stretched out his two arms and flung them round the Giant’s neck and kissed him.” Years go by, the children and the seasons return, and the giant’s kindness and joy prevail. But the little boy is never seen again – until one winter’s day, when the giant is old and feeble, spring returns unseasonably to the far corner of the garden. Again, the giant hastens from his castle and finds the child once more. He draws closer, and his face grows red with anger.
“For on the palms of the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet. ‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ cried the Giant. ‘Tell me that I may slay him.’
‘Nay!’ answered the child; ‘but these are the wounds of Love.’
‘Who art thou?’ said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.
And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, ‘You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.’
And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.
This is Overcoming the Monster at its best! Wilde is writing about the human condition of selfishness, and it is this, rather than the giant, himself, which is the monster to be overcome. The giant’s self-centredness is not conquered by violence, however. The child, stretching out “his two arms” and his “wounds of love” symbolise the love of Christ on the cross, giving his life for the wrongs of the world. But his sacrifice, alone, cannot slay the monster of human selfishness; the giant’s response - his repentance as he knocks down the walls of his garden - is required to complete the Overcoming of the Monster.
Twentieth Century Monsters
Cancer, child abuse, poverty and injustice are the real-life monsters of our day. The 1980’s film Cry Freedom, portrayed the monster of apartheid, and showed Steve Biko’s part in the ultimately successful attempts to slay it. The plots of many WW2 stories revolve around overcoming the monster of battle on land, sea and air; or imprisonment in POW camps.
And, of course, sometimes, Overcoming the Monster means no more than simply living with it; managing it; overcoming prejudice and fear. Marti Leimbach’s wonderful novel Daniel Isn’t Talking, tells the story of a woman determined to overcome - first the refusal of her husband to admit that there is something wrong with their son, and then the refusal of the doctors to see what she sees as anything other than neurosis on her part. The eventual discovery that Daniel is autistic is, of course, the ultimate monster to be overcome. And as the mother works through the difficulties she faces, the reader learns, movingly, of her own state of mind if faced with a similar situation.
3. THE QUEST
In my article What Makes A Story A Plot I pointed out that cause, conflict and consequences are crucial to turning a story into a plot. In the two basic plot lines we’ve examined above, it should be abundantly clear that these elements are present. But what about The Quest?
The Quest is the third of the seven plots, and may be described as:
or a search for something.
This may take the form of an journey to find something lost – perhaps a search for the lost lands of Atlanta, a Will, or buried treasure. Alternatively, it may be a quest for the truth where, perhaps, an injustice has been done and only the uncovering of a lie or misconception will set things right.
I wrote, earlier, of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, and suggested that the plot was based on people who had gone from Rags to Riches. However, I also pointed out that sometimes a story is based on two or more interwoven plots. Little Dorrit is such a tale. Because we see not only the Rags to Riches story, but also The Quest.
Intent upon seeking the facts behind his father’s dying wish that he ‘put things right’, Arthur Clennam sets out on a road to discovery i.e. a mission, or a quest. Ultimately, that journey leads also to his own reversal of fortune – the Rags to Riches element.
The Quest may also be seen in at least two of the sub-plots. One of these involves Clennam’s partner, who has submitted some of his inventions for patenting to the notoriously, and aptly, named Circumlocution Office. His application goes round and round, from department to department, in an endless and tortuous circle of ‘appraisal’. His quest is, therefore, to secure the patents so that he can market his inventions and make some money! The other sub-plot in which The Quest may be seen, is in John Chivery’s unrequited pursuit of Amy Dorrit’s love.
The Quest For Truth
The plot of my own novel, A Painful Post Mortem, is an apt example of The Quest for truth. In the following excerpt, Claire comes – but only gradually – to a realisation of her quest to uncover the events that have led to the death of her daughter. Here, she has just taken a telephone call from her ex-husband, Mark, from whom she has received a copy of the Pathology Report.
‘WELL, DID YOU get it?’ There’s no preliminary, no small-talk to lead into conversation with Mark! As always, I have to stifle my frustration; to do otherwise would only provoke dissension.Rising from the breakfast table, I link the flex through my fingers, take a step to the window to steady my emotions. The dining room faces south, away from the canal, towards the unseen bow of the Thames. Below me is the empty expanse of the adjoining building plot, razed to the ground decades earlier and left that way because of some ownership dispute or other. But, as I often say to Richard, someone else’s loss is our gain. To the left, way, way in the distance, across the low-level sky-line of older buildings, a glimpse of the lower reaches of the river and the unmistakable monolith of Canary Wharf are clearly visible.
I draw air deep into my lungs to still the nervous pounding of my heart, a physical manifestation of the inner turmoil that seems, always, to accompany any encounter with Mark. ‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘And?’ Mark’s voice is brusque. ‘Thanks for sending it,’ I say, in an attempt to mollify him. ‘Is that all?’ he demands. ‘I – I’m sorry, Mark?’ ‘Have you read it? ‘Yes.’ ‘And?’ ‘And,’ I respond, slowly, clarification firing my voice as I go on, ‘I’m not having it!’ Mark swears. ‘Why do you have to be so ruddy aggressive all the time?’ ‘That’s rich!’ My fists clench.
I wince, annoyed with myself; flex my fingers in an attempt to dissipate my defensiveness. ‘Have you read it?’ I ask, more patiently. ‘Bottom of page one. Second line. A known drug addict, it says.’ My voice falters and my eyes sting with unshed tears. ‘She wasn’t, Mark! They’ll write her off at the Inquest as just that: a junkie. An open and shut case. Not worth the time or money –’ My tears are falling freely now, and a sob catches in my throat. ‘Don’t, Luney. Don’t cry.’ The old intimacy takes me by surprise. Mark’s private nickname for me: Luney, pronounced loony, a silly malapropism derived from his interpretation of the poem au clair de la lune (Oh Claire de la loony-bin!) that appeals as much to his embarrassment in showing affection as to his penchant for derogatory humour. He hasn’t called me that for years. I draw myself up; hold myself stiff so as to withstand the debilitating effects of the breach in my emotions.
‘I don’t know about you,’ I say, my tone of voice and choice of words deliberately formal and distancing, ‘but I can’t let that be the last word on Katya’s life. I have to do whatever I can to refute that allegation. To erase the slur on her memory.’
At the other end of the line, Mark clears his throat. ‘Are you sure – she wasn’t – using drugs?’ ‘Quite sure.’ ‘Even though it says – ’ ‘Whatever it says. It’s wrong. Categorically!’ ‘Then I agree. It can’t be allowed to stand. Clearing her name is the only thing – the last thing we can do to help her.’ Rigid behind my shell of self-preservation, I lean my forehead against the window pane. Down below, on the derelict building site, a stray Canada Goose – one of many that populate the canal – leads her family of fluffy goslings towards the chain-mesh perimeter fence. She picks her way carefully across the uneven ground, waddling extravagantly from side to side, head held high, seemingly oblivious to the plight of her offspring who, downy and, therefore, flightless, half-flutter and stumble in their comical attempt to keep up. Involuntarily, I draw a sharp intake of breath. From behind an abandoned supermarket trolley, a cat has appeared. It lies close to the ground, stealthy, steely-eyed in its observation of the little entourage. The race is on! Ambush seems certain. The perimeter fence lies only a few feet ahead of the avian procession, but progress is slow. The cat has the advantage of speed; the goose of strength and ferocity should they engage. ‘We could do it together –’ says Mark ‘– if that’s alright with you?’ His voice breaks, and my defensiveness with it. Down below, the goslings slip under the fence and the cat slinks away, disappointed.
I turn from the window. I feel, momentarily, a hint of hope. Perhaps Mark and I could work it through? Together! Perhaps, belatedly, we can behave as parents? Other thoughts crowd in: the years of futility, during which the children and I squandered our lives waiting on Mark while he indulged his fantasy of being the life and soul of the pub.
‘Daddy will be home soon, and then we’ll go to the park,’ I’d pledge. Or, ‘I know Daddy promised he’d take you to the pictures to see Bambi this Saturday, but he’s going to be away on business. Next week, perhaps . . .’ The darkness of evening would close in before Daddy’s arrival home deferred the trip to the park, and Bambi would be long gone from the local cinema before the latest series of business jaunts came to an end. How reliable is Mark’s word now, I wonder? Has Katya’s death changed him in ways that her life – our marriage and divorce – have failed to do? There is no more guarantee, I imagine, than there has ever been. But whatever Mark chooses to do, I realise that this telephone conversation with him has brought clarity to my own thinking. For the first time since Katya’s death and Post Mortem, the path ahead is clear. I shall have to pay a second visit to Molvelly Abbey and Compass Quay to talk first hand with those who knew and befriended Katya. That, I feel sure, offers the only chance of learning who and what she met with in the days leading up to her death. The sense of self-determination this insight imparts fills me with hope. This ‘sense of self-determination’ which Claire identifies, forms the plot for all that follows. And this quest for the truth is also the theme. It is what drives her into an unlikely alliance with Mark which, in turn, provides the conflict that drives the plot.
Note, as an aside, the first piece of description, when Claire moves to the window to steady her nerves. This serves not only to inform the reader of the setting but, more importantly, it heightens tension in the reader by delaying the action. What’s more, the wasteland described is also symbolic of Claire’s and Mark’s marriage, and their daughter’s life and death; just as the little scene with the cat and the Canada geese is a figurative portrayal of the ‘cat and mouse’ relationship Mark and Claire now have. You can read more of this type of description in my articles Descriptive Writing Styles: Conveying A Sense Of Place, Person, Personality & Mood and How To Write Description In Novel: Describing Location.
4. VOYAGE & RETURN
Voyage and Return is the fourth of the seven basic plots, and frequently follows not simply a physical journey, but an inner voyage of overcoming something that was previously alien. Thus, faced with something outside your main character’s normal experience, he or she may find that they are challenged in the following areas:
a commitment (like a love affair, or a marriage)
The point of the journey is that, however far your characters may stray from their morals, their belief system, culture or commitment, their return is the ultimate conclusion. This may demand a sacrifice on their part, because they’d prefer to stay. Or it may be a strengthening experience for each character as they realise the depth of their resolve. But Return MUST BE the inevitable outcome!
A Voyage With No Return
Having said that, there are always exceptions! In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn we see a young protagonist grappling with his conscience following his decision to free a slave. And we, the readers, are faced with the dilemma: is it always right to right a wrong? The story does not conform to a true Voyage and Return. Young Huckleberry Finn embraces his newfound values and does not Return.
A Physical And Cultural Voyage
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the classic story of a physical Voyage and Return. Shipwrecked and alone, Crusoe’s voyage is both a literal journey to an alien land – a deserted island - and an inner one of having to relearn a way of life which is utterly different to his previous experience. Battling alone for twenty years, he eventually finds a companion, in the form of Man Friday. Crusoe sets about teaching him the language and mores of his old life - and thus begins his own mental Return. However, when rescued from the island and returned to England, Crusoe discovers that he has, in fact, embarked on another journey. So much has changed during his twenty-seven year absence, that he is as much an alien in his own land as is Man Friday.
Other Voyage and Return stories include the much loved The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; Alice in Wonderland and, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit forms the basis of many a modern tale, as does The Biblical story of The Prodigal Son. In both there are elements of wilfulness; a straying beyond the boundaries imposed upon them; a craving for self-indulgence.
In the first, in an act of blatant disobedience to his mother, Peter Rabbit indulges his consumption of lettuces, nearly suffers the same demise as his father did at the hands of the fearsome Mr McGregor, escapes with the help of friends, and returns home in a sorry state, too sick to partake of the supper enjoyed by his siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail. The story is, of course, a reflection of human nature.
As is the parable of the Prodigal Son! In an apposite tale of the way in which twentieth century human beings have squandered the resources of the earth, the son demands his inheritance from his father – an inheritance which should not, rightfully, be his until his father’s death and which, even then, should have funded the estate on which the livelihood of the hired helpers depended. He then travels, literally, to a far off country, lavishes everything on himself without regard for the consequences for himself and others until, starving and reduced to eating pig swill, he returns to his father who – surprise, surprise - runs to him and welcomes him home with open arms.
Here, the father represents God, the creator of the wealth and resources squandered by the son, and the son represents mankind. The theme is one of unending love and forgiveness; a reminder that no matter how selfish we have been, the ever open arms of a loving God are there for those who choose to return home.
What these plots have in common is the page-turning technique of putting the main character in a world which is far removed from his comfort zone; a world which, to begin with, he fears; a world from which he seeks to flee and, by the very act of doing so, deepens his entrapment and dread. And as with all fear, the known responses are Flight, Fight or Facing up to one’s trials. Those who face them, who confront their fear and prejudice, fulfil the elements of another plot line: that of Overcoming the Monster. For in meeting the challenge of their ‘inner monster’ they are developing character and personal growth.
Perhaps, who knows, your own venture as an aspiring author may be a journey with an ultimate destination: a true Voyage and Return which will strengthen your resolve and deepen your reserves?
Writing a novel and acquiring readers has never been an easy matter. Charles Dickens achieved popularity by serialising his earlier works; William Shakespeare by being a playwright. And he, surely, above all writers, was the master of Tragedies and Comedy? Of the tragedies, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet are among the better known. Even now I can quote, from my schooldays:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, I come to bury Caesar not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” and the treachery of those words sends a shiver down my spine.
Why Is Romeo and Juliet A Tragedy?
Who could fail to weep at the ill-fated love of history’s best-loved lovers, kept apart by feuding families, and ultimately by misunderstanding and death? There seems to be something deep within the human psyche that is moved beyond measure by unrequited or unfulfilled love. When love is thwarted by wholly avoidable means, our sense of sorrow and outrage are augmented. Thus with Romeo, we grieve for the randomness and stupidity of the situation; had he realised that Juliet merely slept, he would never have taken his own life.
In modern times, Erich Segal’s novel and the subsequent, 1970’s film, Love Story, became the iconic love tragedy of our era. Starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, it tells the story of a couple of university students from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds. Here, it is not only familial culture that is in force, but illness and death that eventually parts the young lovers. Father-son love eventually triumphs, and the immortal – though dubious - line: Love means never having to say you're sorry, is coined.
Tragedy is not as easy to achieve as might be supposed! There is always the danger of falling into the trap of purple prose. Although every drop of anguish should be wrung from the creative writing process, sometimes the old axiom ‘less is more’ should be heeded. Less sobbing; more contrast, for instance!
This is where description in setting can come into play. Setting a sad scene in mist or drizzle may be the answer to heightening a sense of despair. However, originality may demand that you set it on a beautiful, sunny day on the beach, where the sound of children playing happily on the sands evokes pensive memories of your main character’s loss. There are examples of how to use description to induce mood under the Creative Writing section of my website.
Shakespeare’s comedies are more numerous than his tragedies and include The Taming Of The Shrew; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Chaucer, too, was adept at comedy, viz, The Canterbury Tales.
This type of plot needs no explanation, except to say that in my view comedy – good comedy – is probably the hardest for the aspiring author to achieve. It requires a certain sort of mind to perceive humour in ordinary, everyday life. As with all the seven plot lines, it is achieved, most successfully, by sharp, accurate and penetrating observation of the human condition. The foibles we believe to be our own. The secret, and sometimes shameful, little habits that we think are unique to us. The quirks and idiosyncrasies of human nature.
Lavatory slapstick – that visceral, gutter comedy that has us all sniggering – may have its place on stage, but it rarely, if ever, works in literature. And topical wit should be avoided, or your novel will rapidly be out of date. The best sort of comedy, to my mind, is the gentle humour of James Herriot, whose books on veterinary practice, set in North Yorkshire, became favourite TV viewing in Britain in the seventies and eighties.
7. THE SEVEN PLOT LINES: REBIRTH
An article by Kasia Body, who reviewed Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots in The Daily Telegraph (pb 2004) is titled: “Everything Ever Written Boiled Down To Seven Plots”.
“These seven plots are merely different perspectives on the same great basic drama," it continues. This “basic drama” is cited as the constriction of the hero or heroine, and their ultimate release into "a final opening out into life, with everything at last resolved." In other words, the denouement.
Is Rebirth The Conclusion Of All Plots?
The dictionary definition of Rebirth is “new incarnation; spiritual enlightenment; or revival”. Surely, then, this is the stuff of all happy endings? By this token, it would seem that all seven plots must end with a Rebirth.
Think, for instance, of the conclusion of a Rags to Riches plot. For all impoverished Cinderellas about to marry their Prince Charmings, this must be a Rebirth of epic proportion. Or think of the finale of the plot associated with Overcoming the Monster. If the monster is one of external circumstance, like debt, or internal attitude like that of Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant, then its overcoming must be a Rebirth like no other.
Rebirth As Tragedy
Both The Quest, andVoyage and Return, may also be said to be Rebirth plots. But Comedy and Tragedy fall less easily into the mould. A classic Tragedy, The Necklace,by Guy de Maupasant, could possibly be described, also, as a Rebirth. However, if so it serves only to show that enlightenment is not always a positive experience.
The story is that of a poor French woman who, dissatisfied with her lot in life, borrows a diamond necklace from a friend in order to attend a ball to advance her husband’s career. Ten long years after losing it – during which she has replaced it at great financial cost and loss of good health – she learns, in what is known as a ‘whip-crack’ ending, that the necklace was imitation only. Some might say she deserved it. I can only feel pity for her.
Healed Within: For Rebirth Of The Spirit
One of my earlier books published by Hodder & Stoughton some years ago, tells of the Rebirth of a young woman called Susan. Once a spoiled little rich girl, now severely disabled as a result of a brain tumour, in this excerpt, she recalls her self-pity. Newly mobilised with a motorised wheelchair, she takes herself off to a remote headland to indulge in a private, but tearful, rant, when she is confronted by a stranger who tells her of God’s love for her.
“The words came unexpectedly, as if from nowhere, disturbing my usual bitter contemplation. I looked up, feeling an unreasonable and unidentified surge of anger. An elderly, dark-haired man stood before me, dressed, in of all things, given the heat of the day, a smart city suit. In contrast to his surroundings, he looked utterly alien.
‘Go away!’ I rasped. ‘I don’t want to know. How dare you talk to me about things like that.’
A sudden flurry of gulls flew from the cliffs of St Mary’s Bay, and gave vent to a high, shrill screech. The man, whoever he was, turned and walked away.
Jesus! I thought. As if I need to hear about him!
But an inexplicable disquiet lay beneath my burning resentment. And, in the days ahead, I was to know no peace.”
Once again, the plot of this story is multi-faceted: a Tragedy, a Voyage and Return, and a Rebirth. The lack of peace which haunts the protagonist is, in the end, the very means by which she gains everlasting peace. A commitment to God; an acceptance of her condition; and an inner healing. All of which bring to her riches beyond compare (Rags to Riches). Her Rebirth is complete.
Christopher Booker’s book – with which I began this section - touches on some of the oldest stories as examples of the seven basic plots – among them Bible stories. When I first wrote about the seven plot lines as a series of five articles, this one on Rebirth appeared on 24th December, 2008. I said, then, that it seemed appropriate to be thinking of Rebirth on Christmas Eve, because the birth that we were due to celebrate the following day was one that’s meant to bring Rebirth to the human race.
The entire narrative of the nativity is based on the theme of redemption and regeneration. From the teenager, Mary, discovering herself to be pregnant out of wedlock; Joseph – about to reject her because of her supposed infidelity; and the flight to Egypt when King Herod murdered all new born babies, the story has all the makings of Rebirth, seen in the joyful response of the shepherds on the hillsides, the commitment and endurance of the three wise men travelling from afar; and, supremely, the gift of salvation offered to mankind.
I hope that this essay on the seven basic plots will bring you, aspiring author, Rebirth in the form of rededication to your art; only fictional Tragedies; Comedy aplenty as you being the Voyage and Return of writing and publishing a book; fulfilment of The Quest on which you’ve embarked to Overcome the Monster of failure and achieve the Rags to Riches success you undoubtedly deserve!