Stories. They are how we all attach and portray meaning in our lives. They help us make sense of the world.
In the monumental book “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker, he explains that, just as there are archetypal characters in stories, there are also archetypal plot lines (or ‘meta-plots’).
He shows, using a stunning array of examples, that for thousands of years the stories we have told have been made up of components from seven plot lines. Obviously each story has different settings, characters and embellishments which make each unique. But what underpins each one and helps it hang together can be fitted into one of these seven plots.
In his book, Booker reviews these plot lines in depth, showing how they appear across cultures and time and are simply recycled.
Storytelling has been around for thousands of years, so it is unsurprising that we in effect, tell the same stories over and over again as we seek to make sense of the world around us. It is part of our human condition.
The Seven Basic Plots:
Rags to Riches
The main character begins the story in a wretched and destitute state, severely lacking in some aspect of their lives. As the story goes on, they have some initial successes, gaining and acquiring things which improves their situation. At some point however, they face crisis and lose everything they have gained so far. They then pull themselves back up and recover everything they lost. In this process they grow as a person and can focus on what is important in life (usually not the riches).
Overcoming the Monster
The main character is forced to overcome and destroy an evil monster (this could also be a system, person or circumstance) which threatens them or their world. After the monster is removed order is restored. Not only this but the main character has become well respected.
Jaws is a classic 'Overcoming the monster' story.
‘Quest’ plot-lines are focused on a search for a special item, place, or person that requires the main character to leave home in order to find it. Along the way many frustrations, obstacles and temptations are presented, before one final test is overcome against all the odds and the quest is completed and the item, place or person is found.
Voyage and Return
This plot involves the main character going to a strange and mystical land. Some evil enters this land which has to be overcome. Once this is done by the main character and the threat is removed, they return home having learned a valuable lesson.
Comedies do not follow a rigid structure and most romances fall into this category. These plot lines follow a pattern where the main character has to untangle an adverse circumstance resulting in a happy ending. Typically, along the way there is light hearted and cheerful humour brought about by the characters or circumstances which surround the plot, although it is important to recognise that ‘comedies’ do not need to be ‘funny’.
Tragedies tell of extremely difficult times and end in a bad way. The main character has to face horrible circumstances, usually has a huge flaw or makes a terrible mistake which becomes their downfall. Often this flaw is not recognised by the main character until it is too late and there is no going back. Typically, the foolishness of their mistake serves to teach a valuable lesson.
Rebirth plots are where the central character usually goes downhill morally. Due to a series of important events in the story they change their ways to redeem themselves. At the end, the previously morally bankrupt character has been revitalised and reborn into a noble or better person.
How you can use these plots:
Understanding these plot-lines will allow you to communicate better with any audience. You will be able to take them through a story, hold their attention and deliver your messages in a compelling and engaging way.
Here are a few ways I've used these:
Brand Stories: At some point in the lives a customers, they will experience, in some small way, one of these seven archetypal plot lines. They are a character in their own story. A brand can become their hero. Which plot line is being played out right now in your customer’s lives? Where is your brand in the story? Unlocking this allows you to tell a brand story effectively and produce amazing creative which attracts your desired audience.
Business Presentations: Presenting a project? Consider one of these plot-lines and hang your presentation around it. You'll be surprised at how people hang on until the end of a story. I've found using these can add energy and fun into any presentation breaking the 'death by powerpoint' culture which can prevail. Are these plot lines the answer to this problem?
Conversations: We all know those people who always have a story whenever you meet them. Usually (!) these people are fascinating. If you are stuck for things to say but you have these in your conversational arsenal you can pick one and use it to have great conversations. Use one to describe your your trip to work, a holiday you have been on, the last meeting with your boss, where you are in your career, how you are getting along with your partner, etc etc. You can se these to help convey meaning in any conversation. But obviously don't bleat on and on. Know your audience.
Leadership: Use these to inspire your team and discover suitable stories for situations. I recall once a team I ran had a huge amount of work on. With a glint in my eye I told them a story about a man in the mountains who had broken his legs and had to crawl miles back to basecamp. When he thought of the full journey he blanked out in pain. In the end he did it by only thinking about the next boulder he had to get down from. This typical "Quest" storyline was constantly referred to that week as we delivered a huge project on time by simply focusing on the next task in hand as opposed to the huge volume of work that ultimately needed to be delivered.
In the coming weeks I propose to explore each of these plots in depth and examine why it is we might be telling these stories to each other. I also hope to show examples of these plots, especially from a brand perspective to show how brands can effectively use these stories.
Watch this space.
Header image by Patrick Tomasso. Source: Unsplash.