Why We Tell Stories

Throughout history and across the globe every known society has produced stories. Whether it is told around a campfire in a primeval jungle or in a bus bound for Cleveland, we have told tales to keep our culture strong. In contemporary society the resources dedicated to storytelling is astronomical. Think of how much time, money and effort is spent on movies alone. Tales are truly central to our lives. In the book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker outlines seven basic plots of a story. Booker suggests that all successful stories utilize at least one of these basic plots.

Overcoming The Monster – One great example of this is Jaws, the famous Steven Spielberg film of the 1970s. Spielberg’s enduring shark-tale tour de force addresses many of the key factors that make monsters, well, monsters. Numerous other examples of this basic plot type are found in myths, folklore, fairy tales, religion and film. Again and again, in different forms man is forced to face his demons and overcome the odds to kill beast.

The Rags to Riches Tale – This one really needs no explanation. However, if you think about it this is very similar to the overcoming the monster. The lack of money is the beast and it is killed when the main character makes good. This simple plot is used through all known history and in the most diverse of cultures. After all who did not cheer for Cinderella when she finally got her prince charming?

The Quest – This is my personal favorite. The best example I can come up is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The idea of man searching for answers and doing what it takes makes for great storytelling. We see this being used for thousands of years to create stories that are as fascinating to us as they were to our ancestors.

Voyage and Return – While almost Identical to the quest it differs in one very important way. The quest takes you from point A to point B and resolves itself. In this plot type the main character makes a journey only to find out that he must return to beginning and face whatever it was he was running from. Homer’s Odyssey is a prime example of this and gives credence to the ageless ability of tales to be told, retold and kept for generations. The poem mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy.

Comedy – Stories of this type are highlighted by misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and disguises. Only in the end are the true identities of the characters and their intentions revealed. I have never been a big fan of the comedy. I will admit though in literature it does have its place. Finding examples of this is not hard to do at all. I guess if I had to pick a favorite I would have to go with a movie that I watched quite recently. Mel Brook’s smash hit, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, fits the bill. Very funny stuff and it follows the characteristics of this plot type to a T.

Tragedy – Who doesn’t love a good tear jerker once in awhile? Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet are two of the best examples of this. We see this plot type being used again and again in so many different ways. I think we like to hear about the trials and troubles of others so we can say, “Well at least I didn’t get poisoned or run trough with a saber”.

Rebirth – Again this is one of my favorites. This plot type is best illustrated in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. An evil man gets a second chance in life and makes the most of it. Stories of hope, change and rebirth are a cornerstone in all great tales.

What these fundamental plot types share in common is that it’s all about human development and what is involved in becoming a mature person. Needing to tell a story is not a sign of creativity, but a measure of how we have become estranged from our own basic nature and what we need to do to go back. The purpose of stories is to tell us how to grow up and this is what these seven simple plots do.


About Ron

Host and producer of Ron's Amazing Stories since 2011.
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