05 February, 2006

Narrative causality and the seven basic plots

Not as catchy a title as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but never mind. I'm indebted to Sarah for the reminder of Christopher Booker's book The Seven Basic Plots. I confess I haven't read it, nor at 700+ pages of heavyweight philosophy am I likely to, but I remembered reading a review when it came out, so I went and found it (Three cheers for Google and the Guardian archive). The review helpfully listed the seven plots. They are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth.

Now, I don't know about you, but these seven 'plots' seem to me to be very generalised. They remind me of the statements in horoscopes (Something significant will happen to you this week. You should look for and seize an opportunity. You will experience conflicts and setbacks but you must persevere).

Apparently Booker then further distils these seven basic plots down to "master-narratives, one inspirational and one cautionary - comedy and tragedy. In comedy, proportion is restored and the ego overcome; in tragedy, distortion becomes so severe that the ego that suffers it must be destroyed for the renewal of the wider order. Proper stories end in marriage or death." The review is worth reading in its entirety because there are some interesting ideas in it, at least at the heady level of coffee-at-midnight student discussions when the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything feels almost within your grasp. I suspect that trying to apply it in practice would have the same sobering effect as a nine-o'clock lecture.

Perhaps Terry Pratchett's narrative causality and Booker's Seven Basic Plots are drawing on the same things in human psychology. The human brain is very good at finding patterns, and arguably a story is a kind of pattern. However, they don't seem quite the same to me. The concept of Seven Basic Plots (or three, or thirty, or whatever number) is about classifying and analysing. What plot(s) is this? Where does it fit? Does it follow the rules for that plot(s)? Whereas what I took from 'narrative causality' was the sense that a story can take on a 'life' of its own and find its own satisfactory shape. I couldn't begin to define that concept in any detail, but I recognised it.

It may be significant that Booker's title is 'Plots', whereas Pratchett talks about story. I interpret the two to mean slightly different things. Many books seem to me to have plot in abundance but not much story. Mechanical thrillers (and action films), for example, or plodding sub-Tolkien epic fantasies that have 600 pages of plot but no story. I'd guess that the mystery series The Toff (apparently an inferior imitation of The Saint) that Bernita was discussing recently had plenty of plot, whereas The Saint had story. Plot can be planned, organised and analysed. Story is some ill-defined but distinctive spark of narrative life, or some satisfying sense of rightness or completeness.

Needless to say, everyone has their own view of what counts as satisfying, so one person's plot is another's story, just as one person's cliche is another's classic and one person's life-changing book is another's empty read.

Does this make sense? Have you read books with 'plot' but no 'story'? Or the other way round?


Bernita said...

It makes perfect sense.
But it's like grabbing jello or silly putty, is it the characters that make a plot a story?

Carla said...

There's a saying over here 'It's like trying to nail jelly to the ceiling.' (I think jelly is British English for jello? Brightly coloured, wobbly stuff, natural habitat children's parties).
Characters, setting, what you call 'colour', theme, 'voice', style.....? Some combination of all of them? I honestly don't know. Which is perhaps why I was taken with the idea of stories being 'alive', because nobody's managed to define 'life' yet either, but we all know what we think it means.

Rick said...

TOR editor Teresa Nielson Hayden (www.nielsenhayden.com) has a quote somewhere on her blog that "plot is a literary convention; story is a force of nature."

So what makes a story "alive" in a way that mere plot is not? Characterization sounds like an answer - because it is usually the characers in a book that we really remember - but then, what makes a character come alive? Not psychological realism; that's just another literary convention.

Maybe the fact that we can't really define or explain story is why we keep reading them, and some of us writing them. Story is an attempt to explain something about the world that we feel is, or at any rate should be, but can't quite pin down.

Bernita said...

"Jello" is just the naturalized name of a brand of packaged jelly mix here, Carla.
"something about the world we feel is..." is as good a way as putting it as any, Rick.

Carla said...

Well said, Rick! And thanks for the quote from Teresa Nielsen Hayden. If a publishing luminary such as she differentiates between story and plot, there must be something in it.

Gabriele C. said...

There are books with no plot, but a great story. More in mainstream, I'd say, genre fiction needs something more 'visible' to follow, besides the characters. And often characters get part of their definition through their reaction to problems thrown at them by the plot.

Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is book where you can reduce the plot to: a young man visits a friend in a sanatorium in Davos, and stays for seven years (a summary which Mann gave himself). What keeps me rereading those 700 pages is the story (and the characters).

SoHW is a story about tolerance, but would you read it if the MCs where two philosophers getting involved in lots of discussions with each other and their respective compatriotes? Or do you prefer tormented Talorcan whipping his people into a frantic guerrilla war only to be betrayed, and Horatius striving to regain the lost honour of his family until the costs get too great, their meeting twice under different circumstances, and all the other fun I've come up with?

Carla said...

Thanks for that, Gabriele - I was trying to think of books that had story but no plot when I wrote the post but I couldn't come up with any. That made me wonder if plot was necessary for story but not sufficient. However, your example suggests that isn't so, as Magic Mountain sounds like a story without a plot (I haven't read it, so I'll take your word for it).

As for Storm over Hadrian's Wall, I'll read it as soon as it's available anywhere!

I think what I'm seeing out of all this is that story and plot are related but not identical, that 'story' is more memorable than 'plot', that 'story' is hard (impossible?) to define, and that it's possible for a book to have story but no plot (Magic Mountain) or plot with no story. Is that fair?

Gabriele C. said...

I think Ulysses is another one with no plot. Since I never managed to finish it, I don't know if it has a story. ;-)

I remember a Danish one I had to read during my studies that was about a man walking around a lot, spending times in pubs, talking to people, walking some more ... not exactly much of a plot there, either.

Different from Crime and Punishment. Sure, Raskolnikov walks around a lot, too, and spends time in pubs, but that book has a plot, the whole planning a murder, committing a murder, getting punished shenagian. Plus some subplots: Raskolnikov's sister Darja, and Sonja (if I remember correctly) and her family.

Books without a story? Don't remember one, even The da Vinci Code has something of a story.

Rick said...

Some contemporary literary fiction, I gather, has neither plot nor story to speak of. But a case could be made that these works aren't really fiction so much as a form of criticism, intended to explore the boundaries of what fiction is.

Me, I'd rather write (and read) stories, but then, I don't have an MFA.

Gabriele, it would be easy for a couple of philosophers to sit in a pub and discuss tolerance. I assume functional equivalents of pubs were around, though I don't know how many philosophers ever laid eyes on Hadrian's Wall - or had any wish to - nor how many Celts (or Picts, or whatever) would have qualified as "philosophers" by classical standards.

The point being that the discussion is more ... challenging ... when sharp pointy things are flying around, especially when the people having the discussion are in the business of using said sharp pointy things. :)

Alex Bordessa said...

I'm currently reading one of Massimo Manfredi's Roman adventure books. And to me, it seems all plot and no story (aka substance). There's very little human interest; I don't care about the characters. He's telling not showing for the most part, and the book is just going through the motions. The idea for the book undoubtedly came through 'what if the Romans did this ...' and not 'what happens if a particular Roman character is faced with ...'

Carla said...

I don't read enough contemporary literary fiction to comment, but the reason I don't read it is because it has the reputation you describe :-) I'm in your camp, and I don't have an MFA either. (These may be correlated?)

One could have fun defining a philosopher. Does a tribal wise man or shaman count? Discuss. Use both sides of the paper simultaneously.

I read one of Manfredi's books called, I think, 'The Last Legion' and it struck me exactly the same way. The most charitable thing I could think of to say about it was that perhaps it suffered in the translation. I haven't gone looking for his other books.

Gabriele C. said...

Well, if I can get a young man from a disgraced family to the Wall as officer, I could also get a disgraced philosopher who said a few things the emperor didn't want to hear, up there. And maybe invent a druid with an interest in Roman religion and philosophy.

But the sharp, pointy objects are a lot more fun, and throwing Horatius and Talorcan in with each other will elicit some more sparkles than the philospher and the druid.

Frankly, a MA in Literature doesn't make me want to read boring books any more than anyone else. I've had my share during the lectures.

Rick said...

I suspect that any philosopher ordered to Brittania would have begged for commutation to a death sentence. :) Anyway, Horatius and Talorcan sound more interesting.

Translation might spoil the style, but shouldn't really eviscerate characterization and story. Though I just read recently that the standard English translation of some (Russian?) author leaves out whole chapters, which could lose a lot.

Bernita said...

I made it a strict policy never to read more than 1/3 of the books in any given lit course.
Achieved minor celebrity for yelling "bullshit baffles brains" at inopportune moments.

Carla said...

I never did a literary course, unless O-level English counts. It was solid science from age 16 onwards.

Bernita, that sounds a little like standing up with one's Buzzword Bingo card and shouting 'House!' in a corporate strategy meeting.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Have you ever read Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster? He discusses some of the issues raised here. It's been years since I've read it, but as I recall, he defined "plot" as "The king died, and then the queen died," and "story" or "theme" as "The king died, and then the queen died of grief."

Rick said...

Susan - I recognize that, though from someone later who got it from Forster. And it does sort of capture the distinction between what happens and why.

Loved your blog remark on the welcome change from Good Yorkists! :)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, Rick! Turns out I got the Forster quote wrong, though. Plot is when the queen dies of grief; the other is a story. Forster defines a story as a "narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence" and a plot as "also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality." (Most of the book is livelier than those quotes would suggest; it's based on a series of lectures Forster delivered. It's fun to read, and useful to both readers and writers alike._

Rick said...

Ah. Then Forster is defining "story" in a much broader sense - and closer to the everyday usage - then the way we've been using it in this thread, where story seems to describe some hard to define quality (though we know it when we read it) that sticks in the mind as "mere plot" does not.

Alex Bordessa said...

I didn't do anything literary after O levels either. Sometimes I regret it. It certainly makes me avoid most literary historicals; I tried with Rathbone but knew I wasn't 'clever' enough to keep up for example ;-) However, I got on OK with 'As Meat Loves Salt' by McCann (literary by dint of the protagonist being entirely unsympathetic, I suppose).

My first Manfredi was Last Legion but I didn't finish it for the same reasons outlined above. This new one (Romans in China) I have to read for review. So it's all my fault for agreeing to do it!

Carla said...

Susan, thanks for stopping by. I hadn't seen the Forster quote, so thanks for that. Rick's right, it does sound as if Forster's distinction is the opposite way round to the one we've been discussing here.

"literary by dint of the protagonist being entirely unsympathetic, I suppose." Ha! Good definition!
Good luck with the Manfredi; will your review be in the HNS Review, or somewhere else?