Only seven basic plots? Only seven golden rules of storytelling? Only six emotional arcs? Academics, critic, researchers, and reviewers, write nothing is original anymore? I beg to differ. Dear author, you are original; your work is a treasure; you are unique. In the following article, I would like to say why I came to this belief. I am so excited; I want to tell you why.
After some years as a published and Indie author, I can truly say that I really enjoy being an independent writer, free to follow my own ideas; present and future for my books. Of course, if a six figure was offered by a legitimate publisher, which would enable me to enrich the lives of my children and grandchildren, then I would jump at it.
However, this last year has been one of trauma, and experiences, which stopped any writing. Now, this last week or so, I feel like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a phoenix that felt and flew from the fury of the flames, soaring to the distant horizon where inspiration peace and joy beckoned, flying through the spray of thousands of words in the ocean of the mind.
I felt free to break the mould, write something new; to turn away from the usual popular genres to something utterly original. It may not please some readers but what mattered was I would follow the muse. As I began to write I realized I was following a certain structure, and above all, one of the familiar plots. Was I totally free to compose a plot with an original structure? I realize this may not be possible. For instance, the structure was hemming me in; it was not at all different from the usual form in which I wrote.
To my consternation, it appeared; I was forced to accept Aristotle’s dictum that there are only seven golden rules for structuring a story such as a plot; character; theme; dialogue; décor and spectacle (drama). As for the plot, to my consternation, it seemed Christopher Booker was right when he wrote centuries after Aristotle, ‘there are only seven basic plots to storytelling these being: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth.’ So was I really hemmed in, but aware there are spinoffs or addendums for each major rule.
I had Christopher Booker’s tome on the seven basic plots tucked away on my bookshelf in the furthest corner of my study. I was excited when I bought it some years ago, but on deeper reading of the initial sections, appeared to echo Carl Jung’s archetypes so it went on the back shelf. However, I decided to give it a second go and to my surprise or maybe because I had a few years of writing under my belt, I did find it intriguing, even if I did not adhere to the iron corseted reasoning of the seven basic plots.
In his argument for the theory of seven basic plots, Booker gives an example of the modern-day audiences seated in a luxurious cinema watching Steven Spielberg’s film, Jaws. In Booker’s words, ‘one of the most dramatic horror films ever made.’ Indeed at the time many of the viewers vowed never to paddle in the shallows of the seashore again, me among them. Booker writes that many of the audience wouldn’t think they had much in common with ‘an unkempt bunch of animal-skinned Saxon warriors, huddled around the fire of some draughty wattle-and-daub hall 1,200 years ago listening to the minstrel chanting out the verses of an epic poem.’ But the film proves otherwise.
Booker points out in the first part of his book, the first pages of Beowulf tell of a peaceful seaside community of Heorot shattered by the arrival of Grendel, a monster, of almost supernatural powers who lives in the depths of a nearby lake. He seizes victims in the night, as they sleep, tearing them from limb to limb.’ As the death toll mounts, Beowulf decides to do battle with this ferocious monster. However, as he slays Grendel, he is then faced with the monster’s horrific mother. The battles are fought, and the mother monster dispatched, whereupon a jubilant community celebrates a return to the peaceful little community by the seashore.
As Booker points out, one could think Spielberg was influenced by this ancient story, but then writes, it was impossible, ‘such a dramatic work sprang only from Spielberg’s imagination. This is in my opinion, rather lame as it does smack of an anaemic apology for instilling such an opinion in a reader’s mind. I would suggest, maybe the idea for the film sprang from the Universal Mind where authors would dip and come up with the familiar plot or structure.
Beowulf’s monster is a prime example of the seven plots, this one being the Monster. Yet is it really a case for nothing new under the sun outside of the seven basic plots? There are the spin-offs; for instance, in the present time, the appearance or makeup of the monster may change but the plot is the same. This is where the spin-off from the monster comes in, over time, the monster is changing, to become the hero, from the devil to angel, the criminal to the hero. For example, the monster is developing from the puppet zombies of the 1960’s to the ravenous cannibals of the Walking Dead of our present day. But even with this change, the plot and the character are still tightly enclosed within the seven rules. A century or so before the 1960’s, the monster began to change, to spin off from monster to the misunderstood monster; Frankenstein’s monster raises a love-hate emotion, twisting up the reader’s feelings. In the twentieth century King Kong is a terrifying monster and yet a victim who rouses compassion in the viewer. King Richard 111 can become the misinterpreted hero with a history poisoned with a writer’s skilled words. Then there’s Booker’s Divided Self as portrayed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even Dracula is turning into a hero, he and his vampires now save the girl. Yet all these themes are still within the seven golden plots. Recently the Computational Story lab in at the University of Vermont, USA has alleged there are only six emotional arcs, which are as near as dammit plots. So the argument goes on.
Laying in bed, reflecting on the article I’d written so far, I fought to free the author from these cast in stone rules and the belief that nothing is original anymore. There must be something in the author’s heart or mind that goes beyond these seven basic rules. When an author thinks of a new book, it is the story, the feelings, the need to write that comes first. I think the word creation is the best way, to view this conundrum. An author creates something that was not here before, something no-one can replicate. I suddenly realized that each story written is original. Forget the plot, the theme, the structure; those are laid down like white picket fencing around the trodden neural pathways of the brain. Think about the writing of the novel, the stringing together or free flow of words, how they formed a story; this came from the author’s mind, not the picketed pathways of the brain. Each novel has its very own uniqueness, dare I say DNA. No-one ever before wrote the words in such a way, such content, no-one can replicate it word-for-word; the very essence of the book was created in the ‘ether’ that place beyond reasoning; a place which has no name. Often when people ask me what I do, and I reply reluctantly, I am an author, they look at me as if I’ve just arrived from Mars and then begin questioning me; how do I do it? Where do my ideas came from, how long does it take to write, how do I have the time to write. Now and again people ask if I get upset writing a story, I have an answer to that one; I truly believe if the writer does not have the same emotions as the characters in the story, does not laugh or weep with them, they should delete their work and start again; their heart and soul must be in it.
Maybe that’s the secret, sharing the meaning of life, the feelings in life, joy and despair, the tears and the laughter. That is the true author. Those feelings have no rules.
In the world of creativity, dear author, you are unique, you brought something that did not exist before into our world, you created the book. It now exists through you, and your work is a treasure.
Christopher Booker, CONTINUUM, The Tower Building, ll York Road, London SE1 7NMX
80 Maiden Lane, Suite 704, New York, NY 10038. First published 2004. ISB N; 978-0-8264-5209-2
The Telegraph, Kasia Boddy reviews. Everything ever written boiled down to seven plots. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3632074/Everything-ever-written-boiled-down-to-seven-plots.html