It's the same old story

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Is all the world's literature based on just a handful of themes? This author's quest to convince strikes a chord with Adele Geras

The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories

By Christopher Booker

Continuum pound;25

Christopher Booker, one of the founding editors of Private Eye magazine, has spent the past 34 years putting together this book. It weighs in at an impressive 705 pages and it's a tribute to the ease and fluency of his writing that at no point does it seem impenetrable or unwelcoming. Quite the reverse: what at first looks like a tome suitable only for the drier end of academia turns out to be a work the general reader will enjoy and which would also be of enormous interest to teachers, sixth-form students, and anyone who wants to write or tell stories. At pound;25 it is excellent value for money.

The book evolved from a lecture Booker gave at Shrewsbury, his old school, about the pattern of tragedy in Hamlet. I studied the play for A-level and would have been delighted to have had this volume around at the time.

From Hamlet, Booker began to think of what it was that was common to stories, and why the same themes and subjects occur all over the world. The "seven basic plots" idea is not a new one. Indeed, at the start of this work, Booker quotes Dr Johnson: "The same images, with very little variation, have served all the authors who have ever written."

This must be because we are all human, and Booker is at pains to show that Jungian archetypes appear in fiction because stories are a kind of mirror of our lives and of our selves. Certain topics preoccupy human beings: the family, progress in the world, love, relationships, fear of death and so on. The seven basic plots he puts forward cover, with variations, every kind of story you could think of. The work is divided into four parts and an epilogue, which readers would do well to read immediately after the introduction because it explains a great deal about how what they are about to read came to be written.

Booker is careful not to be exclusive or elitist. In these pages you will find discussions not only of such works as The Odyssey, Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment and many Shakespeare plays, but also films including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Brief Encounter. The author lives in the modern world and constantly refers to it, so students will be led with no difficulty to the more esoteric and complicated ideas they encounter later on.

We all know, at an anecdotal level, that the Cinderella story, for instance, occurs in many cultures. That's the rags-to-riches plot; one of the joys of this volume is finding your own examples of the seven plots as you go along. Lovers of soap opera will have great fun matching developing storylines in their favourites to the categories here. It's constantly amazing to see how durable and adaptable these plots are. So, a palpable hit, as Shakespeare said, not meaning quite the same thing as do the denizens of Top of the Pops.

I must, though, mention three minor points that should have been picked up by the editor. The Clouzot movie is called La Salaire de la Peur (not du Peur); Francoise has a cedilla under the "c" (Francoise), and Boheme has a grave accent on the first "e" (Boh me). I'm sure all this can be easily corrected in the paperback edition and it is only a nitpick, but it's the kind of detail that snags the eye, at least the eye of this one-time French teacher.

I also disagree with some of the author's views about Proust, but love always clouds one's judgment, and my relationship with A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (no grave accent on capital A) goes back 40 years.

The seven basic plots are: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. Comedy and tragedy have variations within them and, of course, other plots are often subsumed in them. Booker is fascinating about such topics as the "rule of three" (think of the three daughters of the merchant in Beauty and the Beast) and the "dark" mothers and fathers in fiction, who contrast with the "light" parents and who must be overcome in the search for order, family unity and the extension of the narrative through to the next generation.

The book could have been shorter. At times, information is repeated. I would also argue with the way in which Booker applies the "seven basic plots" to recent history, but, on the whole, it's difficult not to fall in with his account. Nevertheless, the mystery remains: if we all have these plots at our disposal, why is it that some film-makers and writers combine the elements well and others are useless? Booker does not aim to tackle this question, but it proves there's something at the heart of good literature that can't easily be analysed. For this reason, every book you open is an adventure.

Fiction writers are returning to the idea of plot-centred narrative, which is good news for readers, and full marks to Christopher Booker for recognising that genre fiction (detective stories, horror stories, romances) can be written about in the same breath, as it were, as the great masterpieces of world literature.

Adle Geras's second adult novel, Hester's Story, will be published in January next year by Orion. The plot is rags to riches, with elements of rebirth and comedy as Booker defines them

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