Saturday, November 13, 2004

How Many Plots? the parlor game

It's fun to reduce the number of plot-lines that underlie most stories to as few as possible. There's the quest and homecoming theme of Odysseus and the Mosaic Jews, the temptation and moral growth theme of Gowain and Jesus, and the coming-of-age theme of the ugly duckling, Cinderella, and half a million novels. There is the contest theme of all battle stories from The Illiad onward and also the Tortoise and the Hare and the theme of innocence redeemed of Little Red Riding Hood. How many others? Love of course, revenge, mistaken identity, mistaken motives...... Here's a review of a new book and some links at the end.

From the Telegraph (UK):
World of books
By A N Wilson
(Filed: 08/11/2004)

The simple magic of storytelling


MY OLD English teacher, Timothy Tosswill, was the first person to open my eyes to the fact that there is a limited number of stories in the world. One term we read Chaucer's The Clerk's Tale together with Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale and noted many points of resemblance between these stories of tormented wives being put through unreasonable ordeals by tyrant husbands.

When we turned to King Lear the next term, Tosswill asked us if the story reminded us of another. There was the usual gormless silence, allowing the master to smile-sneer, "None of you, I take it, were read to when you were little boys a story about two ugly sisters and their patient, good little sister, Cinderella."

Christopher Booker has just published the magisterial treatment of this sort of theme – a book called The Seven Basic Plots, subtitled Why We Tell Stories. (Published by continuum, which annoyingly seems to have no capital C).

He thinks that there is one, monist explanation to the question why we tell stories. Ultimately, it is to bring us back to God, who is our home. But in psychological terms, it is to reconcile the conflicts within ourselves. The many stories which have the number three in them reflect the fact that three is the basic number – mother, father and child. But the child will be imprisoned in its ego if it remains only the child of its parents, so it looks for the eternal fourth. Hence the happy ending when comedies and quests end with a marriage, and another pairing.

There is a great pleasure, for me, in monist, catch-all theories of everything, whether they stem from Hegel or Jung or Aquinas or Booker. But one of the pleasures, having absorbed the theory, is to think of the many exceptions which can be found to the dogma.

On some future reading of Booker, I might be converted completely to his Jungian viewpoint. Meanwhile, I shall be buying his compendium as Christmas presents. It is a jolly useful reminder, for one thing, of far more than seven plots – he summarises what must be hundreds of films, novels, folk tales, plays from Sophocles to Chekhov (another hate of his), from Goldilocks to Godot. Some of his clumsier sideswipes against feminism and the like simply miss the mark. But I salute his hatred of soap operas, and the many sloppy films and TV shows and novels which have lost touch with the fascinating and emotionally satisfying business of story.

Basic plot-lines links:

The "Basic" Plots in Literature
What are the seven basic literary plots?
The 36 Basic Plots
The Magic of Making Stories, Basic Plots You Can Use

Some links to other reviews of the Booker book:

Times (of London)
Times Educational Supplement
Amazon UK
Review Index

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