Christina Patterson: A crash-course in the seven basic plots

More rip-roaring adventure than a league-topping billionaire could dream of

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:16

"If you've heard this story before," said Groucho Marx, "don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again." And so, it seems, would we all. Schoolboy wizard seeks revenge for murder of his parents. So popular, in its various incarnations, that it last year earned its author more than anyone on any Forbes list. Nocturnal cave-dweller in rubber cape seeks, er, revenge for murder of his parents. Two hundred million dollars in five days. Woman meets man and falls in love (in Verona, Bath, Manhattan and Hello!). Hardy perennial. Name your price.

Everyone, it seems, has a story to sell. The bishops marching across Lambeth bridge had a rags to (spiritual) riches tale of a baby born in poverty who became a great orator, offering hope. The skinny, mixed-race guy addressing the massed crowds in Berlin, had a rags to (campaigning) riches tale of a baby born in poverty who became a great orator, offering hope. "We must come together to save the planet," he said, and the crowds roared, and a seventysomething presidential candidate, and a British Prime Minister, grimaced.

The British Prime Minister's colleagues, who eschew words like "destiny", "struggle" and "freedom" in favour of words like "deliver", "issue" and "adult conversation", have, for months, been articulating the need for a new "narrative". A strategy which, on the evidence of Glasgow East, has not been hugely effective. And a new Ofsted report, addressing the under-achievement of working-class white boys, has echoed the demand. "In the most successful literacy activities," it says, "teachers tended to focus on action-packed narratives" where "the main characters had to overcome challenges."

Well, right now, you can take your pick. Switch on the news and there it is: more rip-roaring adventure, evil villains and adrenalin-inducing escapades than a league-topping billionaire could dream of, with more plot twists than the brand label author of a gold-embossed door-stopper would risk. If, as has been suggested, there are only seven basic plots – overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth – then here they all were.

It was the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher, Tzvetan Todorov who argued that narrative progresses through five stages. It starts, he said, with a state of equilibrium which is then disrupted. Once the disruption has been recognised, there's an attempt to repair it, followed by the restoration of a new equilibrium. More traditionally known, perhaps, as a happy ending.

So (to paraphrase the jargon of this one's central plot twist) story A: Son of man who loved a rally overcomes shame about embarrassing fascist background to become respected leader in field that loves a rally. Equilibrium disrupted by compulsion to soothe fractured soul (but not buttocks) in basement – and leak to News of the World. Legal case, plus ubiquitous coverage, disrupts it even more. Fascist father now tiny drop in ocean of mortification. Shock twist, case won, equilibrium restored. Comedy? Tragedy? Rebirth? Quest?

Story B: Not overly attractive white-haired fiftysomething seeks refuge from grief in Panama. Dead husband springs back to life. Tragic widow segues into abused wife, psycho-mum and ageing Myra Hindley. After six years behind bars (seven would have been more archetypal) she plans to seek refuge from grief, and hubby's hurtful fib, in Panama. Greed, betrayal, revenge, a rather impressive penchant for am dram, and a profoundly satisfying symmetry. Comedy? Tragedy? Rebirth? Quest?

Story C. There is not world enough, nor time, for the million tiny pieces in the crazy paving of the crazed life of the psychiatrist, poet, guru, columnist and war criminal whose hairstyles alone have had the world transfixed.

Shakespeare, to use the ghastly jargon of a publisher's blurb, meets Frederick Forsyth and Paulo Coelho. Hero seeks to save country. After hiccup, tries to heal it instead. Eggs broken in pursuit of Serbian national omelette.

This, of course, is the one that flies beyond the realms even of the silliest thriller. Here are all the plots in all the world, and all the genres – revenge tragedy, love story, war epic, Cold War caper, allegory, myth and farce – jumbled up into a single, mad, mesmerising mix.

I don't know what Anne Darwin read by that Panama pool. Perhaps Mills & Boon. Perhaps Macbeth. I don't know what Dragan Dabic read on those cosy nights in with Mila, or what Max Mosley read on his Chelsea chaise longue. I do know, however, that only one of this truly fascinating trio seems to have grasped the boundary between fiction and life. Whatever went on in that basement, in whatever language, and whatever outfit, was firmly in the realms of fantasy. It didn't harm anyone (Mosley argued and the judge agreed) except himself.

As morality tales go, it's not the most straightforward. Ofsted might not like it. On the other hand, they might suspect that stories in the classroom can limit the need to make an "action-packed narrative" of a life.

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