Magazine article The Spectator

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

Magazine article The Spectator

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

Article excerpt

How sausages are made THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS: WHY WE TELL STORIES by Christopher Booker Continuum, £25, pp. 728, ISBN 0826452094

The seven stars are seven because they are not eight; for the same 'pretty reason' William Empson diverted us with his 'Seven Types of Ambiguity'. Such numbers are appropriately arbitrary, and I am sure that Christopher Booker would not disagree that we could have 10 or 12 or 16 basic plots if we felt like it. I remember my mother reciting to me when I was five or six a little rhyme whose potential in terms of plot and personality made a strong appeal to me:

Once, in the corner of a ham and beef shop,

Two little sausages sat.

One was a lady and the other was a gentleman.

Sausages are made like that.

I longed to know what was the story and the destiny of that couple, although it must have been, when one came to think of it, obvious enough.

Christopher Booker convoys us splendidly through a whole host of sausage stories, so to speak, and as with all the best literary criticism the narrative examples - and the enlightenment the author gives us with, and by means of, these - are much more important than his methodology. It used to be said of allegory in storytelling that if you don't bother it, it won't bite you, and although Booker's categories - 'Rags to Riches', 'The Divided Self', 'The Hero as Monster', etc. - can certainly be apt and illuminating, it is the brilliancy of Booker's accounts of what actually happens in the stories he chooses - from Carmen and The Picture of Dorian Gray to Bonnie and Clyde and Watership Down - which really sweeps the reader along. No critic could have a more penetrating sense of why the great and the good in literature have earned their classic status, or a better nose for detecting a comparable excellence in new or unexpected places.

It does one good to have it demonstrated, for example, that Shakespeare's King Lear has a great deal in common with Wagner's opera Tannhauser. In both cases, virtue is, as it were, beatifically ineffectual, but by a paradox of which only art could be capable the powers of virtue are proved more emphatically by failure than they could have been by success. …

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