Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Should we categorise literature into Booker’s Seven Plots?

When you have sat down to read a book, have you ever felt like you had read it before even though you hadn’t? If this has happened to you, you might not be surprised to hear that Christopher Booker, an English journalist and author, has found what he believes to be the seven basic plots which all books conform to:

Overcoming the Monster

The protagonist must overcome an evil force that is threatening themselves, their way of life or their homeland. Some of the most famous and recognisable pieces of literature fall into this category including James Bond, Star Wars, Dracula and War of the Worlds.

Rags to Riches

As you would expect the rags to riches story sees the protagonist, who leads a poor or hard lifestyle, acquire power, wealth only to subsequently lose it, making them realise the true value of what they did have. It typically ends with the protagonist gaining back their newfound wealth and power but appreciate it more than they did before.

Stories that fall into this category include those adapted by Disney like Cinderella and Aladdin but also include Victorian classics such as Jane Eyre and Great Expectations.

In his book, which took him around 34 years to complete, Booker emphasises that comedy means more than humour 

The Quest

A self-explanatory title: the protagonist and their companions set out to find an important object or reach a special location with challenges along the way, like in The Odyssey.

Voyage and Return

Books in this category see the protagonist go to an unfamiliar and unusual land and, despite facing challenges, manage to return to where they are from. The classic example in this category is Alice in Wonderland but also includes The Hobbit, Gone With the Wind and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Comedy

Comic literature typically has a happy ending, however, the characters can be faced with a challenge. In his book, which took him around 34 years to complete, Booker emphasises that comedy means more than humour.

Examples which conform to this include Shakespeare’s comedy plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. Contemporary literature also offers examples like Bridget Jones’ Diary and Four Weddings and a Funeral.  

Tragedy

Much like the title of the category suggests, the ending of novels in this category are not happy ones, ending with the protagonist’s flaw or great mistake leading to their undoing.

Novels and plays which fit into this category include Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary. 

Rebirth

In some cases, this can mean a literal rebirth like in the traditional stories The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast, but more generally includes an event which forces a character to change their ways and become a better person. Other examples of this include A Christmas Carol and The Snow Queen.

Trying to place millions of literary pieces into seven plots is very restrictive; the opposite to what literature means to so many people

What are the implications of Booker’s categories?

Although it is hard to find an exception to this rule unless the novel is very abstract, there are implications to reducing all books down to seven categories.

Booker’s approach is very clinical and scientific, and whilst it appears his approach has worked in categorising novels and plays, it isn’t an approach I believe is appropriate for literature.

I have always seen literature as the opposite of science and mathematics, which has been what has always drawn me to literature because it has no limitations. Trying to place millions of literary pieces into seven plots is very restrictive; the opposite to what literature means to so many people.

The ‘tragedy’ category include the likes of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Romeo and Juliet, making it a very broad category containing very contrasting pieces. Taking the two examples above, although the flaws of the main characters led to their undoing, it is hard to compare beyond that with more noticeable differences: one is a play, one is a novel; one was written in the 17th century and one in the late 19th century; each author has its own unique style.

Ultimately, I believe Booker is clever to have found seven plots that seemingly fit all books. However, the implications and limitations of examining literature in this way should be appreciated. When we look at literature through such a clinical lens, it reduces the individuality of books, putting the readers at risk of losing sight of the uniqueness each piece of literature has to offer. 

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