The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories – Christopher Booker

“Imagine we are about to be plunged into a story – any story in the world.”

Somewhere in this brick of a tome, there is a moderately good book on the ‘seven basic plots’: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. If you fancy reading it, it’s helpfully at the beginning, as part 1. Then you can put the book down and not suffer the rest of it o.O

There are so many not-huge issues with this book, but added together it became an exercise in masochism and self-restraint at not throwing the book out of a window (it’s a library borrow; I probably shouldn’t!) at yet another not-quite-subtle undertone of sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, or just over-inflated self-importance. The message about stories is lost in repetitive waffle – and yet, there’s enough in there to be somewhat interesting, and to think that the author really might have something worth saying. Overall, though, I don’t think there’s enough, he misses a lot of point, and it’s definitely not worth the pain to get there.

My main problem – well, a couple. First, the only stories that the author accepts as ‘worth while’ are those that follow one of his seven archetypes. There is a LOT of whining through the middle sections about how stories went wrong, how awful things became from the 18thC onwards, etc etc.

Urm, just no. You cannot suggest that only the Odyssey or Shakespeare is any ‘good’ without sounding like the worst pompous… grr!

The tangent off into psychology (and movies and music) and how human civilisation changed at the same time as storytelling did promised to be hugely interesting, but it really doesn’t reach any conclusion. Except, perhaps, that society has gone to hell (except, perhaps, during the World Wars when men got to be manly men again…!) so of course stories are all ‘cardboard characters’ and ‘sentimentality’.

And there’s a good chunk of the hideous sexism. Stories ‘only work’ if they end with a man getting the girl – and yes, girl: a pure virgin ‘anima’, natch. Women are losing their way – in stories and reality – by abandoning their ‘proper feminine values’. Those ‘below the line’ (homosexuals, PoC, lower classes, etc etc) are daring to have thoughts and opinions of their own – how dare they spoil the perfect story, right? Oh, oh hell no!!!

If I missed the point, if the author’s over-use of apostrophising words and phrases was supposed to suggest he doesn’t actually think these things, then an overt statement to that effect was needed.

I am amazed I suffered through all of this, but sometimes wanting to rip a book to shreds makes me determined to finish despite the seething rage. I should learn.

But yeah. Seven archetypal plots. Interesting – and there to tear up. Because the author is wrong that stories should follow these paths, never trying to break the cliches, never allowing writers to show any of themselves without huge scorn and judgement. Some stories are just entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. And some ‘entertainment’ is more profound than a privileged white guy (looking at you, Hamlet) musing about the state of self.

Bleh.

Hardback: 728 pages / 34 chapters
First published: 2004
Series: none
Read from 27th July – 4th December 2019

My rating: 4/10 – all of those for the first section

3 thoughts on “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories – Christopher Booker

  1. That sounds horrendous!

    I enjoyed “Twenty Master Plots – and how to build them” by Ronald B Tobias.
    It’s an oldie, but interesting – and full of good examples.

    Liked by 1 person

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