The one basic plot – ? Thoughts for writers

A few years ago, Christopher Booker, who writes for Private Eye, published a book entitled ‘The Seven Basic Plots’. His argument, which flows from a long series of discussions which I first became aware of in the Notes and Queries section of the Guardian newspaper in the late 1980s, is that all stories that actually work are based around seven basic plots, or combinations of these plots.

Some clever marketing and pre-release PR created quite a stir for the book before it was published. However, when I actually got as far as reading it, I (among a large number of other people) became less and less convinced the further I went. Booker promised us the key to all literature, past, present and future. But his particular list, Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth, is actually a mixed bag of story shapes, story aspirations, and broader genres. What’s more, aside from the need to get to the number 7, it’s not entirely clear why he decides on this particular list. After all, isn’t ‘The Quest’ (archetypes the Holy Grail and the Lord of the Rings) actually just a form of ‘Voyage and Return’?

A more serious — and, in fact, destructive — criticism is that, as his book goes on, Booker has to dismiss stories which are regarded as ‘great’ in favour of stories which are regarded as ‘minor’. Crocodile Dundee and Terminator 2 are successes, but the original Star Wars is, according to his criteria, a failure. He also dismisses a lot of literature as well, but it could be argued that great literature has other things in it than just plot. Star Wars, on the other hand, really stands head and shoulders above pretty much all other space fiction (and especially its own sequels) in what is often referred to as its ‘archetypal plot’.

Ultimately, there is a reason why Booker’s book has not become the foundational work for a new wave of literary criticism, and that reason is that he is simply wrong. Booker may have read a thousand stories in putting together his theory, but most serious literary critics have read not thousands but tens of thousands, and not just in the usual places. Stories crop up between the lines of Beowulf, in odd corners of OlafrTrygvassonssaga, in tiny narratives glimpsed through lyric poems. This is not to say that Booker is wrong because he has not read enough books, but merely to redress the balance: one of the main claims that Booker made for his theory was that it had taken him 34 years and so many books to compile.

All this is a digression, however. I’ve been reviewing books recently, and, in doing so, reading books that I wouldn’t normally read. The discipline of reviewing is an interesting one. Normally, if I think a book isn’t up to much, I’ll just forget about it. If it’s really poor, I won’t finish it (I try to give the author the benefit of the doubt, but some books, such as the Da Vinci Code, torture my artistic sense too much to continue). However, having accepted the free copy, I feel I have to not only complete the book, but say something intelligent about it. What I’ve been finding is that, when books fail, they fail on plot more than on anything else. A book can have entirely clichéed characters, be written in a generally poor style (or be badly translated), and be neither credible nor likeable, and yet still make a good read. But if the plot just doesn’t ‘work’, then the book fails.

But this begs the question, how am I judging this? Surely, somewhere, I have some kind of a touchstone of what is a great plot. I’m definitely not checking Christopher Booker’s list (I had to look it up to put it in this article). So what is it?

I got to thinking that maybe there weren’t seven basic plots, but just one: a basic criterion by which plots succeed or fail.

The first stop on any kind of journey of philosophy of literary criticism is always Aristotle’s Poetics. I suspect this is where Christopher Booker started, as Aristotle divides literature (there was only poetry to discuss as fictional literature) into tragedy, comedy and epic, and suggests that all forms reflect experience of life. Aristotle is not quite as directive as Booker, though — his comedy and tragedy are not kinds of plots, but rather represent the overall perspective as man as nobler than he is, and man as less noble than he is, respectively. Interestingly, for those who bemoan the rise of special effects films, he says ‘one essential part of a tragedy is the spectacular effect’.

Aristotle describes plot as ‘the arrangement of the incidents’, and, considers it key alongside character and thought, but, for tragedy, he considers plot to be pre-eminent. He also describes two of the most important elements of plot as ‘reversals’ and ‘discoveries’.

Moving on, Aristotle takes plot further. He suggests that tragedy is a representation of an action that is whole and complete and of a certain magnitude. As such, he states that it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This I feel is often misunderstood, as many people take it to mean a three part structure. But Aristotle’s notion is more analytic. The beginning is simply a place which doesn’t follow from something else in the story, and from which other things follow, and the end is simply that which follows from the story, and from which nothing else in the story follows. A middle follows something else, and something follows from it.

Aristotle goes on to describe the unity of plot, which is that it only contains the actions which are linked together as above, and contains nothing which could be removed without destroying the whole. He also points out that plots which are episodic are less good, and that events which follow from others, but which are unexpected, are preferable.

Ever the analyst, Aristotle divides plots into simple or complex. The complex are what interests us most, as they rely on reversals, which the change the situation, and discoveries, where there is a change from ignorance to knowledge. To these, Aristotle adds calamity — a destructive or painful occurrence. To these concepts he adds one more crucial element — that plot proceeds by complication and denouement, otherwise known as obstacle and resolution.

Up to this point, everything that Aristotle says applies to anything which we would call plot. From here he goes on to discuss specifically what makes a tragedy a tragedy, but before he does he makes one more crucial observation: the plot should be constructed that someone who merely hears the plot described will experience something of the thrills which seeing the play (he is talking about plays) would engender.

At this point I intend to leave Aristotle behind. What he is describing is in many ways a first stab at defining what plot is, and he does it only for tragedy. To some extent, the history of literature since Aristotle has been a history of people writing things which attempt to do perfectly what Aristotle suggests, and at the same time to get away from them and still create stories which really work. This is as true for people who have never read Aristotle as it is for those schooled in his tradition. The notion of ‘complication’ and ‘denouement’, or ‘obstacle’ and ‘resolution’ is something which comes back again and again in the pages of books and websites about how to write, and how to write about writing.

Back to my little quandary. Many of the stories which really do not work are, in a certain sense, Aristotelian. They have complication and denouement, reversals and discoveries, and the events follow on from the beginning to the end, without including extraneous events. Some of the novels I am reviewing fail because they are too experimental, playing with unreliable narrators to the point that the reader can no longer tell what they are actually reading. But, even those, when the actual plot is uncovered, can still be Aristotelian, and yet fail the basic test which he describes, which is that, when told outside of their original form, they fail to excite.

There is clearly a great deal of truth in Aristotle’s poetics — if there were not, then they would not have stood the test of many centuries. But the ‘beginning, middle, end’ is not the touchstone I am looking for.

So I’m left with identifying my own touchstone. And it is this. If I agree with Aristotle that there has to be a beginning, or put another way, a setup or a scenario, then I probably want to add that alongside this there must also be an aspiration — either in the mind of one (or more) of the characters, or at least in the mind of the audience. This is something Aristotle does not consider explicitly, perhaps because, by discussing tragedy, he has already declared an aspiration. In Aristotelian tragedy we, the audience, expect to see a man who is essentially good but has a fatal flaw lose what he has and end miserably. What’s more, most of the tragedies Aristotle discusses are plays of stories which were already well known. Construction, rather than originality, are the key as far as he is concerned. But very few modern writers write tragedies, as such, and very few give us stories which we already know. The very essence of the word ‘novel’ is that it gives us something new. Since we don’t know by virtue of the form of literature what we are supposed to expect, the author has to give us some kind of aspiration, and it needs to be one which we can both appreciate, and which fits with the beginning, as provided.

It’s only after we have established an aspiration that we can have Aristotle’s complication or obstacle. But if we go straight from complication to denouement, we still face a problem. Perhaps we’ve become so used to beginning – middle – end that we need something more to satisfy our tastebuds. Certainly, the kind of plots which work in Greek Tragedy generally don’t work for modern audiences — they are too simple for this complicated age.

Consider for a moment one of Christopher Booker’s archetype’s — the Quest. The hero promises to achieve the quest (the beginning) and then sets off to do so, facing numerous obstacles on the way (complication). Eventually he finds the object of the quest, does whatever he has to do, and receives whatever reward he is to receive. This is satisfactory from an Aristotelian point of view, but doesn’t in itself make a good story. There are lots of ‘Quest’ type adventures out there, of which three good popular examples are the first, third and fourth Indiana Jones films. In each of these films, there is an additional complication, what we might call ‘the clever bit’. In the first and third films, Jones attempts to retrieve an artefact — the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail respectively. He faces all kinds of obstacles, but at the point at which he is about to finally lose the Ark, or gain the Grail, he discovers that the objects which he believed he was retrieving in order to protect them, or keep them out of the hands of the Nazis, are much more powerful and dangerous than he imagined, and are in fact quite capable of looking after themselves. In the fourth film, Jones is on a quest to put an artefact back, with the promise that he will gain some extraordinary power or knowledge by doing so. In this case the ‘clever bit’ is when he realises that the knowledge is much too dangerous, and wisely exits, while the megalomaniac evil woman chooses to accept it, and is destroyed. The second film, the Temple of Doom, is widely regarded to be a failure by comparison with the others. This is partly a result of the extremely un-Politically Correct portrayal of India, but mainly because the storyline just isn’t very good. Having escaped death, Jones promises to retrieve some sacred stones for some villagers from some bad people who have stolen them. In doing so, he discovers that the bad people are much more bad than he thought (the complication), and much more dangerous, and he battles them pretty much to the death. Finally, at the point that Jones seems to have lost, the stones themselves glow red hot, falling out of the bag of the bad guy who has them, thereby going beyond his reach. This film fully satisfies the Aristotelian model, but it does not satisfy the audience: there is no ‘clever bit’ — the aspiration set up at the beginning is untransformed at the end. We get exactly the happy ending which we were hoping for — and that, in itself, is unsatisfying.

Perhaps if we had had Aristotle’s lost book on comedy, this would all have been explained better. To some extent, with a tragedy, we can be satisfied in that we are left unsatisfied at the end. Oedipus, the good king, is punished as a result of a sin he committed unwittingly, but entirely in accordance with the prophesy made about him in the beginning — the making of which causes the events which unfold to his downfall. We are satisfied in the sense that the story is complete, but we are left unsatisfied because we really hoped it would turn out well. Tragedy is satisfyingly unsatisfying, and it doesn’t have to work much harder to make us feel we got our money’s worth. True life stories of this kind are almost always worth telling. The story of Captain Scott, who found himself in an unsought race for the South Pole, came second, and returned in deteriorating weather, to die just 11 miles short of the depot which would have saved him and his companions, is a real life tragedy with great resonance for the British in the 20th century. The fact that Captain Oates sacrificed himself towards the end of the expedition to save the others, but still did not save them, only adds to its tragic qualities. But imagine for a second what the story would have been like if Scott had actually arrived back at the depot. Questions would have been asked about why he came second to the Pole, and — if it had turned out that Oates’s sacrifice had been futile — questions would have been asked about why they didn’t save Oates. The story of a man who failed to get to the Pole first, but got home safely anyway despite some tough times and losing his best friend would have been confined to the annals of the Royal Navy and otherwise forgotten.

It seems to me that, in order to make a happy ending satisfying — and most stories written these days are ‘happy ending’ stories — we have to be faced with either the apparent certainty that the ending is not going to be happy, or with a radical transformation of what we are expecting, or both. A complication in itself is not sufficient, because when we see the complication as first presented, we have seen or read enough stories to already figure out a way for the hero to overcome it. If the hero then goes ahead and overcomes it (even in a different way), then we say ‘I could see that coming’. Seeing it coming with a sense of dread is acceptable in a tragedy (or, the modern equivalent, the horror story), but it is not acceptable for a happy ending.

The heart of plot, as far as I can see, is paradox. The hero sets out to achieve the aspiration, overcomes obstacles, and, at the point when it seems that victory is in his grasp, his hopes are dashed, and then, in a way which we hadn’t spotted, but which seems inevitable (though still unexpected) on second reading, our aspirations are fulfilled anyway. This is not just ‘snatching victory from the jaws of defeat’, but requires — in a simple victory/defeat scenario — the very thing which set up the defeat to be the thing which enabled the victory. But the paradox doesn’t have to be ‘we were going to lose, then, extraordinarily, we won’, although this is the pattern of most sports films. It can equally be “we were going to achieve our goal, and then we realised that that wasn’t going to satisfy our aspirations at all, so we abandoned that and accepted the fulfilment of our true aspiration’. Or it could be a paradox of a different kind. In Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation and Empire’, one of the most satisfying and adventurous stories is eventually resolved not because of the actions of the heroes, but despite them: we discover that the Empire was inevitably going to lose to the Foundation (and it’s explained completely convincingly) for exactly the opposite reasons that the heroes believed, and that if their efforts had really been successful, they would have prevented this. The story is all the more effective because it does not rely at all on the jiggery-pokery of science-fiction, but on a fairly basic understanding of human nature.

I suppose the paradox I am referring to is that the resolution has to be both impossible and inevitable. It is, in Aristotle’s terms, both reversal and discovery rolled into one, or, in stories which are less intellectual than Asimov’s, at least a double reversal where our hopes are raised, dashed and finally raised again and fulfilled.

It appears to me — but I don’t want to get into the kind of didacticism of Christopher Booker — that the one basic plot is setup – aspiration – progress – paradox (at its simplest a double-reversal) – fulfilment (or unfulfilment, for a tragedy). I would be interested to hear from anyone who can come up with a counter example that worked for them in plot terms.

Making paradox the heart of plot is, I feel, also more useful than Booker’s seven basic plots. If there really were seven basic plots, then, when starting to write a play, a story, a film-script or a novel, I would have to begin by selecting the type I was going to work with, and then set about mechanically fulfilling my plot obligations. If paradox is the heart of plot, then the germ of the story is the conception of a paradox. Unlike Booker’s system, where only tried-and-true plots may be used, a paradox works best if it is entirely new.

To an extent with film and television — now the dominant form in which most people experience plot — the paradox can be a repeat of one we already know. Notting Hill and Down With Love may have given us some exciting twists on romance going wrong, but most romantic comedies, of the ilk of You’ve Got Mail and Two Weeks Notice play a fairly straight ‘will he, won’t he, he will!’, and the double reversal is predictable from the outset. In as much as they succeed, these films work because they are comfortable and predictable, with merely different personalities and actors applied to the key figures — akin to watching a variation on the same film. The same is true for most sports films: the plot follows the tradition of a discounted athlete who nonetheless makes his way into the big game (whatever that is) and looks set for a remarkable victory. Just as he is about to triumph, something happens which makes his triumph seemingly impossible. Nonetheless, he manages to get back into the game and, although his capacity is diminished, he still defeats his key antagonist. The sameness of this plot would almost seem to give support to Christopher Booker’s original thesis, although it isn’t on his list (rags to riches, perhaps?). However, in most cases there is still a novel twist, unique to the particular sport in question, which is well understood by aficionados, although often explained early in the film for the general audience.

Film and television’s ability to do this is partly because the pictures keep moving whether or not the viewer keeps concentrating, whereas in written fiction the author has to keep the reader interested all the way through, and, crucially for the book’s marketing, interested enough to tell other potential readers about the plot and thus interest them.

All this is, of course, moderately interesting for students of literature. That said, most literature degrees seem to have lost interest in plot (or simply lost the plot) some time ago, and prefer to consider the more esoteric areas of characterisation, symbol and audience reception. The people who are really interested in plot are budding writers. So what — if my theory is correct — can the writer do in preparing to construct a novel?

If plot is really about realising a narrative paradox, then it would seem sensible (though I’m not remotely suggesting that this is a method used by great writers) to begin by sorting out the paradox first. The great temptation is to launch into the story from the beginning, with a wonderful enthusiasm for situation and character, in the hope that it will blossom into an exciting plot by the time it needs to. But, for most would-be writers, it never does. Surely, then, far better to dream up a plot paradox, or crux, or a simple double-reversal, to which everything builds up, and from which the conclusion follows.

Some people suggest that writing begins with coming up with a ‘dramatic question’, which is then resolved in the climax. When I worked in the arts, I sat through far too many plays which began with a really challenging dramatic question, which was resolved only in the sense that there was a shouting match at the climax, after which everyone realised what awful people they were, and went back to lead changed lives. Perhaps people living in middle-class areas appreciated the release of tension which such shouting matches bring. For myself, I could just go and stand outside any pub in Stechford (or, now they’ve closed the pubs because of fire-arms offences, the off-license) and hear shouting matches between drunken couples without all of the trouble of going to the theatre.

What I am suggesting — and I would really like to read something written according to this theory — is that the author comes up with the dramatic answer, and plots it really carefully, extending it back to the logical starting place for the story to begin, and extending it forwards only to the point that the loose ends are tidied up.

Which returns us to Aristotle: the story is complete not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be removed.

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