The Seven Basic Plots and the Bible

The Seven Basic Plot: Why We Tell Stories is a book by Christopher Booker that was first published in 2004. You can tell by the title alone that there’s more to it than outlining seven main plotlines. This takes up the first of four parts. Booker calls these plots ‘The Seven Gateways to the Underworld’. The other three parts deal with endings, conflict and motivations. But it is this first part that receives most of the attention.

Like Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Booker believes in a universal plot that consists of a beginning, a middle and an ending (pp. 216-219). Like Campbell, Booker’s approach is strongly influenced by the archetypal psychology of Jung. And, like Campbell, Booker places the hero at the centre of each story, whose real quest is one of self-realisation, and whose life gives all other characters their meaning within the plot.

Rather than summarise or review the book, I want to focus on those seven basic plots. First, I’ll define each plot. Then, I’ll provide examples of that plot in the novels and films cited by Booker. Finally, I want to provide example of each from the Bible, some of which are provided by Booker and some of which are from me.

Plot #1 – Overcoming the Monster

Definition: The hero is called to face and overcome a terrible and deadly personification of evil that is heartless, egotistical and seemingly all-powerful, although it usually has a blind spot that renders it vulnerable (p. 48).

Booker’s examples: Nicholas Nickleby. The Longest Day. The Magnificent Seven. The Three Musketeers. The Final Problem. Casino Royale. The War of the Worlds. The Day of the Triffids. The Quatermass Experiment. Star Wars. High Noon. The Pit and the Pendulum. The Towering Inferno. Airport. Jack and the Beanstalk.

Biblical Examples: David and Goliath (pp. 24-5). Jonah and the Whale (pp. 47-48). Daniel and the Lions. Moses and Pharaoh. Samson and the Philistines. Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. Yahweh and Leviathan. Jesus and Satan.

Plot #2 – Rages to Riches

Definition: The young, unrecognised hero is eventually lifted out of obscurity, poverty and misery to a state of great splendour and happiness (p. 46).

Booker’s examples: Superman. Puss in Boots. King Arthur. My Fair Lady. David Copperfield. Cinderella. The Ugly Duckling. Dick Whittington. The Gold Rush. Aladdin. Jayne Eyre.

Biblical examples: Joseph in Egypt (ps. 53, 58-9). Daniel in the Babylonian and Persian courts. Esther in the court of king Ahasuerus. Ruth the Moabitess in Judah. David, from youngest son to king. The Prodigal Son.

Plot #3 – The Quest

Definition: The hero is pulled towards some distant, all-important goal, and although he experiences particular episodes along the way, these are always subordinate to his overriding purpose, so the story cannot be satisfactorily resolved until the goal is reached and properly secured (p. 83).

Booker’s examples: Odyssey. Divine Comedy. Pilgrim’s Progress. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Treasure Island. King Solomon’s Mines. Watership Down. The Aeneid. The Grail Quest. Jason and the Argonauts. The Lord of the Rings.

Biblical examples: Moses/Joshua to the Promised Land (ps. 70, 72, 80, 247). Israel itself in the wilderness. The original promise made to Abraham and confirmed with Jacob, both described and sojourners and pilgrims. The preacher in Ecclesiastes looking for meaning. The beloved in Song of Songs looking for her lover. Job searching for answers to suffering.

Plot #4 – Voyage and Return

Definition: The hero is abruptly transported out of his ‘normal’ world into an abnormal world, and then eventually back to where he began (p. 105).

Booker’s examples: Alice in Wonderland. Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Time Machine. Peter Rabbit. Brideshead Revisited. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Parodical Son. Orpheus in the Underworld. Gone with the Wind. The Wizard of Oz. Peter Pan. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Admirable Crichton. The Lord of the Flies. Robinson Crusoe. Gulliver’s Travels. The Lost World. Lost Horizon. Journey to the Centre of the Earth. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Time Machine. Decline and Fall. The Third Man. The Golden Ass. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Biblical examples: The Prodigal Son (p. 87). Noah and the Ark. The Three Wise Men. Naomi, mother-in-law of Ruth. The Judean exiles returning from Babylonian captivity. Jesus returning to Nazareth. Jesus coming from heaven (the Incarnation) and returning to it (the Ascension). Jesus leaving the earth and returning to it (the Second Coming).

Plot #5 – Comedy

Definition: The hero’s world is under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, which gets worse with the pressure of darkness, until it is at its most acute, nightmarish and tangled, at which point things not previously recognised come to light that dramatically change perceptions so that shadows are dispelled and the situation is miraculously transformed (p. 150).

Booker’s examples: The School for Scandal. Tom Jones. Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility. Northanger Abbey. Emma. Persuasion. Middlemarch. War and Peace. The Gypsy Baron. The Pirates of Penzance. HMS Pinafore. The Importance of Being Earnest. The Sheikh. South Pacific. Guys and Dolls. A Night at The Opera. The Inimitable Jeeves. Some Like it Hot. Four Weddings and a Funeral. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Biblical examples: The laughter of Sarah at the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21). The surprises of Jacob (Genesis 29:25) and Boaz (Ruth 3:8). Timid Gideon called brave (Judges 6:11-12). The laughter of the retuning exiles (Psalm 126). The feast ordered by the Father of the Parodical Son. The joy in the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-45), the Lost Sheep (18:10-14), and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10).

Plot #6 – Tragedy

Definition: The hero is tempted or impelled into a course of action which is dark and forbidden, initially enjoying unbelievable, dreamlike success but without satisfaction, so frustration increases, as does the sense of threat and loss of control, until the dream sours and everything goes wrong, culminating in the hero’s violent destruction (p. 155).

Booker’s examples: Icarus. Faust. Macbeth. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Lolita. The Picture of Dorian Grey. Carmen. Bonnie and Clyde. Anna Karenina. Madam Bovary. Julius Caesar. Antony and Cleopatra. Don Giovanni. The Devils. Richard III. King Lear. Tannhäuser. Romeo and Juliet. The Snow Goose.

Biblical examples: Samson (pp. 186-7). Cain. Achan. The rebels Korah and Dathan. Mad king Saul. David’s falls into sin. The foolish end of wise king Solomon. The rich young ruler. The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen. The Parable of the Rich Fool. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The older brother of the parodical son.

Plot #7 – Rebirth

Definition: The hero falls under the shadow of a dark power that seems to recede but eventually approaches again until the hero is imprisoned in a state of living death, which continues long and seemingly in complete triumph, until a miraculous redemption.

Booker’s examples: Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. The Frog Prince. Beauty and the Beast. Cinderella. The Snow Queen. A Christmas Carol. It’s a Wonderful Life. Crime and Punishment. Silas Mariner. The Secret Garden. Peer Gynt.

Biblical examples: Jacob changed to Israel. Naaman changed from leper after washing. The dry bones of Ezekiel became alive. Joseph changed from slave and prisoner to ruler. Jonah on dry land again. Joseph after each imprisonment. Nicodemus was ‘born again’ (John 3:4, 9). Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) the sinners welcomed Jesus. Saul changed to Paul after meeting Jesus. (Acts 9:1-9). Jesus himself as transfigured and resurrected. The Prodigal Son coming to his senses and turning around (Luke 15:17, 32).

A Few Conclusions

It’s possible to classify the gospel message of Christianity into at least two of these plots – tragedy and comedy. On this, see my review on Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner. However, as you can see from all the examples above, there are different stories in Bible that fit into all of the plot types.

Some would go further and plot the entire shape of the Bible, when considered as one long story from Genesis to Revelation, as a U-shaped comedy (Dante) or a series of U-shaped peaks and troughs. On latter view is that of the literary critic Northrop Frye. You can watch him map of the plots in his online lecite on The Bible and English Literature – Northrop Frye – Lecture 2 of 25.

Finally, it’s worth noticing that The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien contains elements of all seven basic plots too. This isn’t just my opinion. Booker mentions this explicitly in p. 316.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

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