Monday, 3 November 2014

Favourite Craft Books - Anne Hamilton

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker



My favourite craft book (apart from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water) is a superb book by Christopher Booker: The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories (Continuum Books, 2004). It’s a story about story, I guess, and comes across as a narrative in its own right, rather than an analysis of technique.

The structure is one of the most difficult aspects of a novel to get anywhere near ‘right’. Although there are general rules to help (such as the climax should occur about 85% of the way through), there are in fact so many variables to consider that formula should always bow before the reader’s intuitive sense of correct narrative flow.

And what’s that exactly? How do writers tell what ‘works’?

As Booker points out, satisfying structures are in fact remarkably unoriginal. He’s found identical structures in a twentieth century novel and a medieval Asiatic folktale. Perhaps the reason they are both memorable may well be to do with the way readers resonate with the rhythm and flow of the storytelling.

What doesn’t work doesn’t survive.

So, if we want our work to survive, it’s good to look at the structure of various works of classic literature and copy it.

Right.

So what are the seven basic plots?

According to Booker, they are:

1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
5. Comedy
6. Tragedy
7. Rebirth

Notice that romance, thriller, historical fiction and so on don’t make the list. That’s because they’re genre, not plot. The confusion in many writers’ minds—where sometimes genre equals plot—is a problem. When plots meander in many modern novels and fail to deepen into any of the above (or any combination thereof), it means emotional impact is lost.

There’s a good reason archetypes should be used in structure: because they satisfy the human longing for story.

Booker discusses everything from literary classics to popular film as he throws up examples of why great storytelling endures. His book gave me real insight as to why some books ‘work’ and stick in the imagination—as well as why others fail and fade.

He takes the reader through the principles by which, for instance, Gone with the Wind follows the same ‘Voyage and Return’ motif as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe! The book opens up a new way of thinking about how to shape a satisfying plot.

And the last reason it’s one of my favourite craft books is simply because its focus is so entirely on story narrative, not on formula.

Anne Hamilton is the author of eleven books. Her children’s books include Merlin’s Wood, Many Coloured Realm and Terry—The Adventures of a Terek Sandpiper.

You can find out more about Anne at her website: http://fire-of-roses.com/wp/


25 comments:

  1. Thanks for that Annie. Sounds like a book I need to read. Have just added it to my "to read" list.

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    1. Hi Nola - more than happy to loan it to you! It's almost a brick in size. One of those books that it's easy to dip into, rather than read in a single slab.

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    2. That would be great Annie. Maybe I can get it off you when you come up to the Toowoomba Writer's Festival? Or at the retreat.

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    3. Could one of you please please please bring it to the retreat?

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  2. Your favourite is also mine and I will be reviewing it later this month Annie. I hadn't heard of this one so thanks for telling us about it.

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    1. Hi Dale
      I noticed you were planning on reviewing Walking on Water. She who hesitates has to pick second favourite!

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    2. I agree, Dale and Annie! 'Walking on Water' is also my favourite! Now what does that say about us?

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    3. That we're all on the same wave length?

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  3. Wish I'd known about these books about 40 years ago, Annie. Fascinating and thank you for sharing. Interesting what you mentioned about genre and plot. As a romance writer and reader, over the years I think I've read all those 7 basic plots in romance novels. These are used to bring conflict between the hero and heroine who need to fight through all "obstacles' to reach their "Happy Ever After" together. So when the main plot is the developing romance, should I think of them as sub-plots? I wondered about the "rebirth" but then of course thought of couples separated, whose love relationships have died and need to be resurrected to reach their HEA. I used that in my Return to Baragula - well, kinda! LOL

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    1. The romance element fits into any one of these. I suspect many romances would be classed as Overcoming the Monster - which is the classic fairytale idea of the woman taming the male, after initially viewing him as something quite horrid.

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    3. Sorry about the deletion but I went to edit what I'd written and found I couldn't so I'll just leave it.

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    4. Hi Andrea, perhaps you were thinking that "Overcoming the monster" was not the best way to describe romance. However it's worth looking at From the Beast to the Blonde, a great analysis of fairytales - including the romantic ones - by Marina Warner.

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    5. There are also many romance novels on the theme "Beauty and the Beast" which fit that "Taming the Monster" plot line. This doesn't necessarily mean a badly scared or ugly hero but more an arrogant, what I think of as a horrid man who is "tamed" by the beauty of the heroine both outside and within.

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  4. This sounds like a marvellous addition to a writer's craft collection. Thanks, Annie, for sharing it with us.

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    1. It's a really absorbing book. Even if you haven't read most of the books it mentions, there are sufficient details to whet the appetite for them and to make sense of what Booker is talking about.

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  5. Annie, I especially loved the line 'there are in fact so many variables to consider that formula should always bow before the reader’s intuitive sense of correct narrative flow.' I still operate that way and then check things during the editing process.

    I think that if, as an aspiring writer, I'd known there were so many important principles to have in place I would have never begun. I'm so thankful you were there to tell me 'you can write'.

    Having said all that, I love reading books on writing craft now. This one sounds terrific.

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    1. Hi Andrea - note I said the "reader's sense", not the "author's sense". This is an extremely hard part to get right. Many authors confuse their own sense of flow with the reader's intuitive sense of what works. And of course, this varies from reader to reader. So the books on structure are really talking about what appeals to the "average" reader.

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    2. And this is where having someone besides the author to read those manuscripts for us is so important. But if it is another writer, I'm afraid being a writer can in sense "spoil" the reading for that person. I've noticed over the years I can get drawn out of the story by recognising mistake elements I have to try hard not to do myself. However if the story is powerful enough, in the end doesn't matter perhaps as much as it should?

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  6. Thanks, Annie. Another one to add to my 'Mum's list of desired books' that I make available to my family each Christmas!

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    1. I do that too Jo, but my list is getting so long, it will take the next 20 Christmases to get through them all :)

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    2. All the more reason to start now! ;)

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