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June 05, 2006

Is Jaws really Beowulf the remake? The Seven Basic Plots - Christopher Booker

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories
by Christopher Booker
Pp. 728. London: Continuum, 2004
Hardback, 25; Paperback, 12.99

E. M. Forster once asked himself what a novel was. His answer was apologetic: "Oh dear, it's just a story." His embarrassment could be put down to the fact that there are only so many stories in the world and we, poor fools that we are, are compelled to tell them over and over again.

Whether we are professional storytellers or mere human beings we tell the same stories every day. Repetition of psychically charged narratives in novel or cinematic form, the priest's confessional, gossip, soaps, the news and the analyst's couch are all conduits of these stories. Christopher Booker goes to enormous lengths to argue that there are only seven. He isn't the first to try and exact a science out of storytelling. In The Art & Science of Screenwriting, Philip Parker suggests there are ten.

1. The Romance, in which a character is seen to be lacking something or someone. Barriers exist to fulfilment. The character overcomes these barriers. (Jack and the Beanpole is the classic example.)

2. The Unrecognised Virtue, in which our character's virtues go unrecognised. Barriers exist to that recognition. But finally he or she is rewarded. (Cinderella is the classic one here.)

I think you get the message. The others need no further delineation, just listing: 3. The Fatal Flaw; 4. The Debt that must be Re-Paid; 5. The Spider and the Fly; 6. The Gift Taken Away; 7. The Quest; 8. The Rites of Passage; 9. The Wanderer; 10. The Character who Cannot be Put Down.

It's all very straightforward, as E. M. Forster would tell you and as Parker maps it out. But Christopher Booker is a man obsessed. He has come up with a formula and, by God, he's going to explain it. He reminds this reader of the Ancient Mariner but is nowhere near as compelling. His researches consumed 34 years and in that time he devoured practically every book ever written.

He throws the basic elements of a thousand stories into a grid and classifies them according to his theory. In this way, Beowulf and Jaws are the same story. Yes, he is right. And so overcoming the monster is one of his plots. He takes several hundred pages (it seems) to name and summarise most of the instances where this plot occurs in Greek mythology, Norse sagas, Germanic and Celtic epics, the Gothic novel, science fiction and cinema.

Cape Fear is my favourite "monster" film. He doesn't mention it, which is a shame because it has some interesting twists that give this basic psychological dilemma the monster inside us all some welly. But he does elaborate that there is a hidden, universal language and a nucleus of situations and figures (evil stepmothers, innocents abroad, predatory males) which are the very stuff of which stories are made.

The mistake Booker makes is that, and even Forster would agree, there is more to a novel than its plot: there is characterisation, setting, tone, irony and a certain thing called prose. Of these, Booker has nothing to say.

He says nothing of the undermining of stories; of Jane Austen's use of irony, say, that makes her reader wonder about the future happiness of an Elizabeth Bennett who will have to watch what she says to Mr Darcy. He has nothing to say about a novelist's use of self-consciousness, of allusions to other stories, or of stories speaking to stories, if you like.

Anyway, his basic plots are: 1. Overcoming the Monster, 2. Rags to Riches, 3. The Quest, 4. Voyage and Return, 5. Comedy, 6. Tragedy and 7. Rebirth, and it soon becomes clear that the man's a Jungian, well into something called "the cosmic mind". Since I'm more of a post-Freudian, and language is my thing, and I believe that we are all subject to it, and that if I were to write a book I might call it I'm Awfully Sorry But There Is Only One Language, let alone Seven Plots, I find it hard to take Booker entirely seriously.

Still, here we go. There are two master-narratives, one inspirational and one cautionary: comedy and tragedy. In comedy, proportion is restored and the ego overcome; in tragedy, distortion becomes so severe that the ego that suffers it must be destroyed for the renewal of the higher order. The best stories end in marriage or death. The hero rescues or wins over the princess who represents his anima, the feminine principle which he must incorporate if he is to become whole. He never says what the princess has to do in order to overcome her ego, and become whole. But, as I've shown in the case of Jane Austen, he doesn't have much to say about women except how they complement men.

Art, according to Booker, has no function of witness. He should try reading Jean Rhys. Experience is her domain, and bleakness her view. Her own psyche speaks in stunted stories that do not follow any of his basic plots. That could be because they are not wholesome, and Mr Booker is into being "whole". The archetypes he enlarges on so fulsomely are indeed deeper than history, but history can sometimes twist them out of shape. With the Second World War, men were obliged to adopt masculine roles,

while women could again become feminine, courageously representing those values of heart and soul for which so much was now being risked.
Go boil an egg, Booker.

He never gets round to mentioning E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf (niether of whom were entirely heterosexual; and you know what that means: they're not whole! They haven't merged their animus with their anima!) And yet, these two authors were deeply concerned with the self and expressing it in all its perplexing wholeness. And aren't stories the more interesting when they expose lack of wholeness? When they explore and mitigate it?

Anyway, finally, we get to to the gist of the matter. What these seven basic plots do, you see, is engage us in a battle between Dark and Light. It's no surprise then that the dreary Star Wars is endlessly quoted by Booker. Even then, he gets it wrong, saying the story is set in the distant future, when the opening credits clearly state it was in the past. Once upon a time, indeed.

He at least has the sense to report Boswell in turn reporting that Dr Johnson had once intended to write a book on

how small a quantity of REAL FICTION there is in the world.
OK, but he never got round to it, and for a good reason. Everyone knows it to be true, there's no need to overstate it. More than anything, Booker reminds me of the tragic Casaubon in Middlemarch, retreating from the world (and his lovely anima, Dorothea) more and more in order to classify, order and enumerate the formulae implicit in his mind-bending theory of religion.

It's good fun to mix canonical classics with popular guff. I've already mentioned Jaws as being Beowulf the remake. But it's only fun up to a point. Dr Johnson was right to stick to his list of words. Stories, oh dear, yes, they are just stories, and plots, well they are just arcs of action, and there are only so many ways you can go. I'm sorry, but ultimately, it is the individuals, in all their variety, men, women, gay, straight, whole or unconstituted, ironic or deadly serious, who tell stories that recount plots that count.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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Art, according to Booker, has no function of witness

If that is what Booker says, then he is wrong. But where does witness become a fox that has lost its own tail trying to persuade others to cut off theirs, or turn into one of those complaining souls in The Great Divorce, wanting to suck others into their own pit of misery?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 5, 2006 10:09 PM
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