Rags to riches - Storytelling plot 2/7


An ordinary insignificant person. Usually an orphan. Usually dressed in rags. A humble little figure of a human, ignored and dejected. They are somehow maltreated and regarded by those around as being of little worth. This tiny person suddenly comes centre stage. They have to go out into the world to face adventures. In the course of the story it is dramatically shown that they are not actually "normal" at all. They have been hiding extraordinary talent. Given the chance to shine through the circumstances they find themselves in they go on to do amazing things. However just when all is going to plan things go wrong and they have to use their talents to overcome these challenges. Eventually they emerge from the shadows of obscurity into dazzling splendour. They receive great riches and the girl or guy of their dreams They are transformed.

Meta Plots

This is an example of a 'meta-plot'. And this one is perhaps the most cheesiest of all! Humans have been telling stories for a very long time and we use the same basic plot-lines to do this. Characters, scenes, tools and endings are different but the basic plots stay the same. We tell these stories to help convey meaning, to learn and to entertain.



​​​​​​As a creative designer I'm interested in how to swiftly create meaning in an audiences mind through the work I do. These meta plot-lines, uncovered by Christopher Booker in his book 'The Seven Basic Plots', fascinate me. What can designers and brands learn from these powerful 'meaning generating' stories-lines which they could use to convey deep meaning in their work?

Introduction to '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).

Examples of rags to riches

The Biblical story of Joseph - A boy who is despised by his eleven brothers eventually is hated so much by them that they fake his death and they sell him to be a slave in Egypt. There, through God's help he goes from being a slave to becoming next in position to Pharaoh so that when a great famine comes over the land he can save his family.

King Arthur - An ordinary squire accompanies his master to London. The occasion is the discussion and ceremony around appointing a new King. A mysterious stone with a sword in it has appeared and rumour has it that whoever pulls out the sword will be the rightful king. All the warriors of the land try. Mysteriously the obscure squire tries and pulls it out effortlessly. He is the rightful King.He is king Arthur and goes on to be the greatest king England has ever known.


Clarke Kent transforms into Superman - Credit DC Comics

Superman - Clarke Kent. A normal, glasses wearing journalist secretly is an all powerful alien who just looks like a human. When needed he tears off his normal cloths and transforms into a superhero. He flys off to right the wrongs of the world. Due to his heroic acts he gets to be with Lois Lane, the woman of his dreams.

Cinderella - A little orphan has to go and live with her step mother. The step mother treats her cruelly, dressing her in rags and making her into a maid in her household. She has to serve her step sisters who also treat her unkindly. A fairy godmother appears one day and magically transforms Cinderella so she can go to a ball where she meets her prince. Eventually they get married and live happily ever after.

Other examples: Harry Potter, Dick Whittington, Pinocchio, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Aladdin, David Copperfield, Game of Thrones, The Prince and the Pauper, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The ugly duckling, Popeye the Sailor Man.

Why do we tell 'rags to riches' stories?

As humans we love this plot line. It tells us, the normal people, that there is a 'greater self' hidden within the 'normal self'. That just around the corner things can change. That our special talents can eventually lift us out of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

This story helps us believe we can change things. That we can succeed. That we are extraordinary.

It also helps us to focus in on what is truly important in life. Usually its not the riches we end up with. Its the relationships we make along the way. This story reminds us of this.

We all have challenges. We all want to marry the prince/princess against all the odds. This plot-line helps us feel the excitement of overcoming so that we continue to strive on towards our goals. It feeds our need for believing it will all be worth it in the end.

How can this be used in branding, advertising and creative storytelling?

This plot-line is massively helpful for constructing and telling brand stories.

It's ideal for brands who help customers show their natural talents to the world so they can improve and enrich their lives. Brands that are helping with social mobility or help people feel more sophisticated or above their station in life. Aspirational brands.

Think of the journey your customer is on and what is motivating them to buy your product or service. Are they seeking to transform their lives - even in a small way? Are they seeking to use their talent to shine? To get to a better place? To overcome a challenge? To be more loved and appreciated?

If so you might want to position your brand in a way that it becomes the transforming element in the story. The fairy godmother that helps to get Cinderella ready for the ball. Through your brand the customer's talents can be amplified helping them to succeed.

You can either tell the story from the end showing the final success of joining the brand. Alternatively you could tell the story from the point of view of the journey. Of how your product or service his helping customers overcome challenge so they can begin to move towards their goal.

How can this be used for personal story telling?

For personal storytelling think about where you began in life. These are your rags. What were you void of? Who despised you? What made you have to go out into the world to discover your true talent? How is that helping you to get to where you want to go? What are the riches you are trying to achieve?

All of the above show how powerful and useful this story is when trying to communicate meaning and when trying to inspire people. When using this storyline remember the key human appeal: it says we can all succeed whoever we are.


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