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Blog In Book Club

Why do we tell stories?

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By Steve Hayes
Posted Oct 8, 2012 in Arts
I recently read a book that should be of interest to everyone who loves stories and is curious as to why we devote so much time and effort to the telling of stories. Throughout history and across the globe every known society has produced stories and ensured a privileged position for story telling. In contemporary societies the resources devoted to the production of stories is astronomical. Think of how much money, time, effort and other resources are devoted to the creation and dissemination of films for example. Stories are truly central to our lives.
The Seven Basic Plots, which was written by Christopher Booker and originally published in 2004 by Continuum, attempts to answer the question of why we feel such a need to tell and be told stories. Mr Booker spent thirty-four years writing this book. I feel that fact alone suggests he might be worth listening to on this subject.
The first part of the book outlines the seven basic plots of the title. Mr Booker's argument is that all successful stories utilise one (or more) of these basic plots. The first of these is 'overcoming the monster'. He illustrates this plot by comparing Beowulf, the oldest story in English literature, with Jaws, the famous Steven Spielberg film of the 1970s. The outline plot in both stories is precisely the same. Booker goes on to offer many other examples of this basic plot found in myths, folklore, fairy tales, religion, literature and film; stories of war, westerns, thrillers and science fiction. Again and again, in different forms, genres, cultures and historical periods, the same elements inform these stories.
The second basic plot he identifies is the 'rags to riches' story. Again Booker shows how this simple plot informs stories through all known history and in the most diverse of cultures. His argument is illustrated with stories such as Cinderella, My Fair Lady, Jane Eyre and The Ugly Duckling.
The third of these fundamental plots is 'the quest'. Booker again shows how this basic plot has been used for thousands of years to create stories that are as fascinating to us as they were to our long departed ancestors. He brilliantly shows how this plot has shaped such superficially different stories as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pilgrim's Progress, The Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down.
'Voyage and return' is the fourth of these basic plots. Booker again uses a diverse variety of stories to illustrate how this plot has shaped stories across the globe and the millennia: from the Epic of Gilgamesh, through to Brideshead Revisited.
The fifth basic plot identified by Booker is 'comedy', stories characterised by misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and disguises, where only at the end are the true identities of the characters revealed. This plot is illustrated with works from Aristophanes through Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy to Noel Coward.
'Tragedy' provides the sixth of the basic plots. Again Booker illustrates this with works as diverse as the plays of the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare's Macbeth, Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Nabokov's Lolita, and the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.
The final basic plot is 'rebirth'. This is illustrated with the use of the folk tales Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, the novel A Christmas Carol by Dickens and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Having identified the basic plots, the first part of the book ends by showing what these all share in common and arguing, with a great deal of persuasive ability, that they are about human development, about what it means to be a person, and what is involved in becoming a mature person. For me, this first part of the book is by far the most persuasive, interesting and useful.
However, for Booker, this first part is but the preface, the foundation for what his book is all about. The following five hundred pages elaborate on these basic plots by showing how authors have created an infinite number of stories through interweaving elements of one plot with another, through the inversion of particular roles, and through producing negative versions. This allows him to explain why story telling has 'gone wrong' in the past two hundred years. What he means by gone wrong is that many stories have deviated from the seven basic plots.
For Mr Booker, this is not a sign of creativity, but a measure of how we have become estranged from our own fundamental nature. At this stage the book still remains interesting and useful to readers and writers alike (regardless of whether one accepts his value judgement or not). Yet this is simply the foundation for his real concern, which is to utilise Jungian psychoanalytic theorising to effectively reduce stories to a set of universal archetypes. By this process stories become little more than infinitely varied contemplations on a stereotypical family drama. Thus, for Mr Booker, the purpose of stories is to tell us how to grow up and this is what, he claims, the seven basic plots do.

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