The Seven Archetypal Stories
The British columnist Christopher Booker is known for writing about the history of storytelling, and specifically for his 700-page book, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” (2004).
Booker’s ideas were strongly influenced by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theories about archetypal storytelling. According to Jung archetypal stories revealed universal symbolic scenarios that were passed from one generation to the next through the collective unconscious.
As such, these stories were thought to be buried beneath the conscious level where they resonated with people all over the world and across time. These stories hold deep meaning for all of us in that they reflect journeys everyone can relate to.
Jung felt universal symbols were all around us in the form of archetypal characters (The Seeker, The Magician, The Warrior, etc.), and that these characters could be seen again and again throughout storytelling history. The Seeker generally looked to improve his lot in life and gained personal insights in the process. The Warrior confronted any obstacle that stood in his way, and in the process generally brought meaning to their struggle. The Magician’s drive was to transform or change someone or something in a significant way. This character’s ultimate goal was to transform himself, thereby achieving a higher plane of existence.
Booker discovered in his exhaustive 34 years of research that there were archetypal stories as well as characters.
The seven stories he found to be universal involved different types of heroes. One was an “everyman” type, another was downtrodden and poor, and yet another was tragically flawed.
What he proposed was that we all relate to these seven stories on a deeper level because they have always rested in our collective unconscious. So, when we read or watch these storylines unfold they involve us at a primal level.
According to Booker, these are the classic seven storylines that appear throughout the history of storytelling.
Number 1) Overcoming the Monster.
Simply stated, the protagonist in these stories goes up against a powerful or dangerous monster in the form of a creature, an alien, or a human villain who threatens his world in some way. Examples include Jaws, Braveheart, Dracula, The Hunger Games, Alien, Godzilla, Seven Samurai, Schindler’s List (including pretty much every Nazi movie) and the entire James Bond franchise.
Number 2) The Quest.
In these stories the protagonist travels in search of a treasure (for example, The Golden Fleece, The Ark of the Covenant) and must fight against the formidable force of evil. The hero generally ends up with the treasure and gets the girl. Examples include The Lord of the Rings, Stand by Me, Indiana Jones, and Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
Number 3) Rags to Riches.
The hero in these scenarios is generally a poor and humble soul who overcomes obstacles to acquire wealth and love. In the process, his hidden talents are revealed and/or put to use. These protagonists may get the treasure and the girl only to lose it all and regain it while showing growth in character. Examples include Great Expectations, Cinderella, Harry Potter and Aladdin.
Number 4) Voyage and Return.
These are tales of average protagonists who find themselves following paths or being pushed out into strange new world where they must find their way back. Along the way they discover something about themselves. Examples include Apollo 13, Gone With The Wind, Back to the Future, Alice In Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Labyrinth and The Wizard of Oz.
Number 5) Comedy.
Booker described comedies as stories that had a light tone with a happy ending. The hero in these stories had to resolve a confusing series of events before he could win over his mate. (By confusing he mean characters who wear disguises and pose as someone they’re not.) Examples include Twelfth Night, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Music and Lyrics, When Harry Met Sally, Bridget Jones Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Number 6) Tragedy.
In tragedies, the protagonist is a basically good character who unfortunately has a major character flaw. As the word “tragedy” implies, as his story unfolds he makes errors which turn out to ruin his life or the lives of others around him. Examples include Macbeth, Bonnie and Clyde, Hamlet, Breaking Bad, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Dillinger and Citizen Kane.
Number 7) Rebirth.
The protagonist in these stories heads down a near-tragic path and is almost overcome by his darker self when a series of fortunate events lead him to change, experience character growth and eventually redemption. Examples include Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Secret Garden, and The Snow Queen.
Booker is not the only researcher to come up with a list of the (fill in the number here) basic plotlines. Arthur-Quiller Couch came up with another list of seven stories that’s completely different.
His list includes Human vs. Human, Human vs. Nature, Human Against God, Human vs. Society, Human in the Middle, Woman and Man and Human vs. Himself.
Wiliam Foster-Harris decided in his book, “The Basic Patterns of Plot,” that there were only three plots.
Ronald Tobias theorized there were twenty stories in his book, “Twenty Master Plots.”
Georges Polti came up with thirty-six plots in his book, “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.”
Will any of this information help screenwriters write great scripts? Anything’s possible. Maybe reading this post will give some writers a new idea for a movie or spark a new approach to a story they’re currently writing.
You could make a case that stories based on these basic plots are generic or clichéd. That could happen, but it doesn’t have to. Just because you follow one of these templates doesn’t mean you can’t think about original approaches to each one.
David Silverman, M.A., LMFT, treats creative and highly sensitive individuals in private practice in LA. He received training at Stanford University and Antioch University. Having experienced the rejection, stress, creative blocks, paralyzing perfectionism and career reversals over a twenty-five year career as a writer in Film/TV, he’s uniquely suited to work with gifted, creative and sensitive clients experiencing anxiety, addiction or depression. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310.850.4707.
The Psych Central link: