The Seven Story Plots: Parts 1 & 2

Posted at 08:00am on 14th December 2008

It is said that there are only seven basic plots, to which all storylines adhere. Of these seven plot lines perhaps the best known is the rags to riches story. This, after all, is the basis of many of our favourite nursery rhymes and fairy stories. Think Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. In one the despised and downtrodden youngest sister gets her Prince Charming; in the other, the poverty-stricken Jack and his mother procure the goose that lays the golden egg.

BEST KNOWN: THE RAGS TO RICHES STORY

This rags to riches plot dates back many thousands of years. An Old Testament Bible story I have used on many occasions to illustrate various aspects of story-telling, depicts a woman – a mother – newly widowed and saddled with debt. Following the advice of her dead husband’s colleague, she learns to trust as she borrows flagons from her neighbours, and fills them with a miraculous flow of oil, which she then sells. With her debts repaid, she finds she has more than enough to live on.

For a classic tale of a family whose fortunes have gone from rags to riches (and back again for some of them) we need look no further than the recently televised adaptation of Charles Dickens Little Dorrit. Stuck in a Victorian debtors’ prison from birth, the protagonist, Amy’s, unrivalled kindness and humility makes her a much-loved contender for a reversal of luck. And for modern times, the film Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts, is a typical, if amoral depiction. A poor student financing, by prostitution, the education that is to improve her lot in life, the heroine ultimately getting her man – and his millions!

OVERCOMING THE MONSTER

Sometimes, stories interweave more than one of the seven plot lines. Hence in Jack and the Beanstalk, above, the main plot may be a rags to riches story, but in accomplishing its denouement, it takes in the basic plot of ‘overcoming the monster’. Quite literally, the giant has to be slain before the golden egg-laying goose becomes Jack’s.

But there are other ways of overcoming the monster, as in Oscar Wilde’s classical story The Selfish Giant – one of my favourite childhood bedtime stories, and still guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes. Refusing access to the underprivileged children who had played in his garden during his absence, he erected a notice declaring that ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ and rebuilt the fallen section of wall by which they had entered. In his garden, Summer, which had blossomed in the children’s presence, was replaced by unending Winter.

Here, selfishness, rather than the giant, is the monster to be conquered. Yet his self-centredness is not overcome by violence, but by the sacrifice of a child. ‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ roared the giant as he surveyed the bleeding nail-torn hands and feet of the orphan who had crept in to the garden. ‘Tell me that I may slay him.’
“Nay!" answered the child; "but these are the wounds of Love."
"Who art thou?" said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.
And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, "You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise."
And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.

MODERN MONSTERS

Cancer, child abuse, poverty and injustice are the real-life monsters of our day. The 1980’s film Cry Freedom, portrayed the monster of apartheid, and showed Steve Biko’s part in the ultimately successful attempts to slay it. The plots of many WW2 stories revolve around overcoming the monster of battle on land, sea and air; or imprisonment in POW camps.

And, of course, sometimes overcoming the monster means no more than simply living with it; managing it. Marti Leimbach’s wonderful novel Daniel Isn’t Talking, tells the story of a woman determined to overcome first the refusal of her husband to admit that there is something wrong with their son, and then the refusal of the doctors to see what she sees as anything other than neurosis. The eventual discovery that Daniel is autistic is, of course, the ultimate monster to be overcome.

In my article What Makes A Story A Plot I pointed out that conflict and causality are crucial to turning a story into a plot. In the two basic plots we’ve examined above, it should be clear that these elements are present. We’ll look at this in more detail on a future occasion.

But for now, there must be many more books and films that fall into the category of either rags to riches stories, or overcoming the monster. Do let me know what else you can come up with. Leave your comments at the end of this Post and then we’ll all benefit from your input.

NEXT TIME

We'll look at the third of the Seven Basic Plots: The Quest

The photograph is of 'overcoming a monster' by building a house over a lava flow.

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