How many plots are there?

I thought this mostly positive review by Denis Dutton in the Washington Post Book World was interesting. He's reviewing a book I hadn't heard of: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker. It took Mr. Booker 34 years to write it. Then I read this mostly negative review by Carolyne Larrington.

It seems (I don't know, I haven't read the thing) that Booker's contention, relying heavily on Jung, is that there are seven basic plots ("Rebirth," "Overcoming the Monster," etc.) and that these are hard-wired into our psyches. Something went wrong 200 years ago and we have "lost the plot." Larrington's criticisms that Booker ignores or dismisses women writers, modern writers, non-European and non-American writers are serious, so I don't think I'll be reading this in my struggle to understand just what the hell it is we think we're trying to do as writers. I'll stick to Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, which boils everything down to one plot and utilizes stories from every corner of the globe to do it.

The desire to categorize plotlines into a manageable number of manila folders -- as biologists have categorized life into kingdoms -- is one I share, I guess because it would make my job easier if it were really that basic and templateable. But I also wonder whether trying to bring such unconscious archetypes to the surface through study of their structural similarities might not defeat the whole purpose of allowing those unconscious archetypes to bubble up through the writing process. Notice the workshop has virtually nothing to say about "archetypes" or "mythological themes." To coin an analogy, that institution is much more concerned with the mundane details of carpentry than the lofty ideals of architecture.

I guess I'm saying I just realized it's much easier and more immediately satisfying to come up with a theory of X number of plots than to actually hammer away at one until you're fairly pulling out your hair in confusion and defeat (at least Booker finished his book). Come to think of it, it's easier to blog, too. It's easier to do just about freaking anything -- unless you're Joyce Carol Oates.


kclou said...

Do story plots come from "unconscious archetypes" or the "logic of what is possible"? Is this an answerable question? Are they mutually exclusive?

I have no idea. To paraphrase Whitman, in the mystery of story plots I dare not dally.

the plunge said...

Do people know of other well-known lists of character or plot archetypes? I'd love to get my hands on some. Here are a few of Jung's.

A writing teacher of mine once told me about a really good list, but I forgot who compiled it, and I've been trying to remember for like 5 years. Either Willa Cather or Eudora Welty, I think...?

Grendel said...

I'd love to see that list, too.

Here is Campbell's all-in-one "plot archetype." He argues that most stories contain most or all of these elements -- they just mix up the order, combine certain ones, leave a few out, and that makes for the apparent variation. The eamples he uses through his book are amazing. Very Tolkien, very Lucas, very Homer. The protagonist undergoes a dramatzation of the psychological transformations we all hunger for. That's what stories are for, to show the way... Anyway...

I. Departure (1st quarter)
1. Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold

II. Descent, Initiation, Transformation (middle half)
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. The Supreme Ideal
9. Seizing the Reward

III. Return (last quarter)
10. The Road Back
11. Resurrection
12. Return with Elixir