Not so long ago some Internet friends discussed a fantasy book on Twitter. They mentioned that other readers have criticized it for being roughly the same as other books of this genre. It made me think of a problem of repeatability in literature. Is it really a problem though?
Let’s face it – there is nothing new under the sun (nihil novi sub solum) and no author, no matter how they strain their imaginative powers, can claim they’ve used an original idea. Not really. How they use it is quite another story, though and that’s why writing and reading still make sense.
Ok., so how many plots available are there? Is their number somehow limited?
An IPL (Internet Public Library) list includes just these fairly expansive and universal plot concepts:
- man/woman vs nature
- man/woman vs man/woman
- man/woman vs the environment
- man/woman vs machines/technology
- man/woman vs the supernatural
- man/woman vs self
- man/woman vs God/religion
You can find the other version described in “The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories” by Christopher Booker. According to that author the seven basic plots are: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. Christopher Booker establishes the endurance of these plots in works ranging from the Bible and Greek drama through 19th-century opera to the latest Hollywood films.
There are plenty of other lists, some of them pretty old, other quite contemporary and the numbers of plots vary greatly too. I will try to present some of them very shortly. To tell you the truth I think not all of them deserve a full description anyway.
Sixty-nine. Attributed to Rudyard Kipling by Ronald Tobias . Tobias doesn’t explain what the 69 plots were. Perhaps it was a wise decision.
Twenty. From 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them) by Ronald Tobias (1993). Tobias doesn’t claim these are the only plots, merely 20 the most serviceable ones.
Three. From The Basic Patterns of Plot by William Foster-Harris (1959). Not one to be distracted by unnecessary detail, F-H divines three basic plots: (1) happy ending, (2) unhappy ending, and (3) the “literary” plot, “in which the whole plot is done backwards [and] the story winds up in futility and unhappiness.”
Two. Of course plots can always be broken down to simply comedy- and tragedy-based, as Shakespeare did. In tragedies, everybody dies; and, in comedies, at least the protagonist lives. So simple it makes you wonder why bother with other classifications at all…
Two again. Also Tobias, mentioned before several times, concedes that his 20 plots boil down to 2, “plots of the body” and “plots of the mind.” Plots of the body are your action flicks, full of sound and fury, not necessarily signifying anything. Plots of the mind are more cerebral and often involve “searching for some kind of meaning”. Hmmm, sometimes I get the feeling no meaning is found throughout the whole book…
One. All stories can be summed up as Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement or to simplify it even further, Stuff Happens, although even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust.
In a monomyth, the hero begins in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unknown world of strange powers and events. The hero who accepts the call must face tasks and trials, either alone or with assistance. In the most intense versions of the narrative, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help. If the hero survives, he may achieve a great gift or “boon.” The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon. If the hero does decide to return, he or she often faces challenges on the return journey. If the hero returns successfully, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world. The stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Buddha, for example, follow this structure closely.
Campbell describes 17 stages or steps along this journey. These 17 stages may be organized in a number of ways, including division into three sections: Departure (sometimes called Separation), Initiation, and Return. “Departure” deals with the hero’s adventure prior to the quest; “Initiation” deals with the hero’s many adventures along the way; and “Return” deals with the hero’s return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.
The Call to Adventure
The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.
Refusal of the Call
Often when the call is given, the future hero first refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.
Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.
The Crossing of the First Threshold
Belly of The Whale
The belly of the whale, a biblical metaphor, represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a major metamorphosis.
The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.
The Meeting With the Goddess
This is the point when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely.
Woman as Temptress
In this step, the hero faces those temptations that may lead him or her to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.
Atonement with the Father
In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power.
When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.
The Ultimate Boon
The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.
Refusal of the Return
Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man. Why should he/she?
The Magic Flight
Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding.
Rescue from Without
Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.
Master of Two Worlds
This step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.
Freedom to Live
Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.
As usual, when somebody thinks of a theory, plenty of sharks…I mean critics try to take the shine off it and earn a decent living by publishing their negative opinions. Accordingly scholars have questioned the very validity of the monomyth, its usefulness as a tool for critical investigation and interpretation of narrative, and its male bias. Donald J. Consentino remarks, “It is just as important to stress differences as similarities, to avoid creating a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor.” Marta Weigle rejects the idea of a “monomyth” in which women appear only exceptionally, and then as indistinguishable from men. Others have found the categories Campbell works with so vague as to be meaningless, and lacking the support required of scholarly argument. Right…
You can start wondering of course whether any taxonomy can encompass everything in literature, and secondly, there is no theory that would tell you anything beyond the obvious. A more useful approach would be to focus on what works today. By this light it seems to me that the most useful divide is: Everybody Gets Killed (or at least the hero[ine] does, e.g., Hamlet, Thelma & Louise, Romeo and Juliet, American Beauty, etc.) versus Only the Bad Guys Get Killed (the collected works of Spielberg, Lucas, Peter Jackson et al.). The former can be called a realistic apporach as it leaves you thinking life sucks and you are more or less right, whereas the latter is an optimistically pink approach as it has everybody walking out of the cinema with one big smile (or one big smirk). Naturally any avid reader can come up with numerous subdivisions, such as the one exemplified by Disney animated fairy tales, i.e., The Bad Guy Gets Killed but by Accident Only so The Good Guy Has Still A Pair of Clean Hands. In the odd case no one gets killed, but this is mostly in works by sensitive lady writers that seldom earn back the advance and which books’ cover art usually includes people’s bodies without heads. Indicating what their potential readers/buyers might be missing as well…