Christopher Booker asserts in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that there are (can you guess where I’m going with this yet?) only seven basic plots:
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- A journey – the quest
- A journey – the voyage and return
His rather large tome asserts that all stories can be boiled down to these seven and that they all contain Jungian archetypes. I’m curious how he settled on the number seven.
I’m not sure that I believe that all the stories that ever have been written can be reduced to just seven, but I agree that there are limited plots, and many variations on just a few themes. I’m sure Booker could have picked almost any number and then made a sound argument for it. Looking at his list you can see that the bones of his plots are very spare indeed, which means quite a lot of meat can be added to that bone to make each one look very different from one another, much as one human looks very different from any other while sharing a basic biological blueprint.
Even allowing for the great variation and apparent complexity of most stories we will get quite a short list of plot devices, and then within these plot devices there will always be a set of stock character types as well as a set of recognized tropes. I could, like Booker, spend thirty-for years analyzing all the books and movies I have enjoyed (or not as the case may be) and dissect these for you, but I think everyone understands story tropes. For example the hero and heroine get into a misunderstanding and so much comedy and action ensues: in Mr. & Mrs. Smith from 2005 they are assassins that get sent on the same hit and each thinks the other is out to get them and so they battle each other with guns, knives, and incendiary devices, but they end up back together again in the end, in love stronger than ever. In the 1941 version, one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, a loving couple with decidedly oddball rules of engagement gets into a Battle Royale of loyalties and deceptions until they make up again at the end, more in love than they started. It’s the same basic storyline (though the 2005 version is not technically a remake of the 1941 version), but they vary in important details from what the couples do for a living, how they relate to each other, even the genre of the movies themselves.
It’s the details that make each one a unique experience, but at the same time our recurring themes are important in our storytelling experience. As a writer you are going to be confronted with telling the same story over and over again (there are only seven or eight or whatever after all) but it’s how you tell it – if you avoid the pitfalls of cliché and over-used tropes. Looking at another form of storytelling let’s consider briefly the Legend of Zelda franchise for the Nintendo gaming systems. In each episode there are at least some of the same features: the boy hero Link, the princess Zelda, the villain Ganondorf, the Master Sword, the Kingdom of Hyrule, the Triforce, etc. While each adventure seems to be an open-ended exploration of the setting with various dungeons, monsters to defeat, treasures, and side games to divert, the basic storyline is pushed through with a series of recognizable tropes such as can be found in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. These same recurring themes, or markers, can be found in such successful stories such as the Star Wars movies, or the ancient myths, or tales like King Arthur. These archetypes disguised can be discerned on analysis in many contemporary tales, movie or on the page.
On examination of the best loved stories of all time it is the combination of familiarity and archetypes that help to make a story engaging and universal so that many people can relate. It’s the details, the flesh you put on the bone that makes your story unique and fresh. You can never hope to avoid tropes – they are as essential to storytelling as having a beginning, middle, and end (even if you like to mess up the order you tell them in) – but you can make sure that your tropes aren’t clichés.