fiction: the quest

8 February, 2010

I almost feel a little bit guilty about how much I’m enjoying my optional module this term; it’s as though I’m betraying my first love (poetry) by having a bit on the side with her younger, cooler, better-paid brother (fiction). But it’s so exciting! And so new!

This week we’re looking at stories, plots and narratives, and it’s my turn, along with another student, to give a presentation to the rest of the class. I think I managed to swipe the easy stuff: I’ll be talking about the difference between story and plot according to E. M. Forster, whose thoughts on both in Aspects of the Novel are, I think, pretty hilarious; (tragic) plot according to Aristotle in his Poetics, which of course I read last term; and finally the seven stories that make up all literature according to Christopher Booker in his magnificent The Seven Basic Plots. This last is an absolutely fascinating read. The seven basic plots, according to his taxonomy, are:

  • overcoming the monster (Beowulf, Jaws)
  • rags to riches (Cinderella, David Copperfield)
  • the quest (The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings)
  • voyage and return (Alice in Wonderland, Brideshead Revisited)
  • comedy (Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice)
  • tragedy (Dr Faustus, Madame Bovary)
  • rebirth (A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden)

Of course not all stories fit neatly into just one of these categories: there’s lots of overlap between them, and many stories draw from more than one; The Lord of the Rings, for example, contains elements of all seven. And then there are the stories that show one or more of the plots ‘going wrong’ – not because they’re badly written, but because in the last couple of centuries ‘dark’ versions of each of these plots have developed; they still obey the same rules, they just don’t come to the same satisfactory endings. (At this stage I’m just taking Booker’s word for all this, as I haven’t got that far into the book. But I’m convinced by his summary so far.)

In terms of the book I’m writing, it’s very definitely a quest, with a little rags to riches and comedy thrown in. It’s so interesting thinking about all this stuff, because for Booker (and Freud, and Jung, and Northrop Frye etc etc) the fact that all the stories we tell as humans fit into such similar shapes gets right to the heart of why we tell them.

And of course it’s this question of plot – what comes next, and why – that differentiates fiction from poetry on a very basic level. As our tutor last term said, in fiction, the question is ‘what happens next?’ In poetry, the question is ‘what is this?’ Both compelling questions, but despite my dallying with fiction this term, I think it’s the latter question that haunts me…

3 Responses to “fiction: the quest”

  1. Saf said

    My lecturer for adaptation and interpretation, likes to whittle it down to even less than seven plots. He quotes:

    “There are two plots in fiction, someone goes on a trip, or a stranger comes to town.”

    and the even more brutal

    “Someone wants something, they have trouble getting it.”

  2. pupski said

    that reminds me of something our poetry lecturer said which was something like all poems are about sex, death or the making of art – although then someone else said they are only about either sex or death…

  3. Ben W said

    Did Chris Booker come up with that first? I always thought it was Joseph Campbell with his classic “Hero with a thousand faces” who came up with the 7 basic plots first.

    In an aside (which I found interesting) Jeanette Winterson was talking on the bookclub programme on the lovely Radio 4 about how there may be 7 basic plots but there’s really only four basic endings. She dismisses the “Hollywood happy ending” as being a false ending. Then very briefly outlines that the other three are:
    1) Revenge
    2) Tragedy
    3) Forgiveness

    It really resonated with me.

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