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Friday, July 13, 2007

The Seven Basic Story Plots

I came across this interesting viral the other day (click on the image below to enlarge).

Although some believe that there is only one story and just many different versions, Christopher Booker in his brilliant book, “The Seven Basic Plots” whittles down the archetypal motifs to a more substantial seven basic story outlines that have been present with us since cavemen began scrawling pictures on their cave walls.

These are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Each of these stories in their most powerful forms, he argues, has an integral purpose of trying to convey to the subconscious mind of the audience the importance of integrating the ego with the self. Booker, as you can see, is an unapologetic Jungian but his argument still is very strong. If we look at the fables and fairytales that we tell our children when they are young, it easy to spot the archetypal messages and symbols that subconsciously equips them for the trials of adult life.

Carl Jung

Take a simple tale like “Jack and the Beanstalk”: the impoverished Jack is sent by his mother to the market to sell their last cow. On his way, he is tricked by a Traveling salesman into swapping his cow for a handful of “magic” beans. On his return, his irate mother throws the beans out the window. The next day, much to Jack’s amazement, he awakes to find a large beanstalk which towers up into the sky. Climbing the beanstalk, he endures three trials before confronting the ominous Giant. Fleeing from the Giant with a new found treasure – a Goose that lays golden eggs – Jack chops down the beanstalk and the Giant falls to his death. Jack and his Mother live happily ever after.

Booker points out in his book a number of interpretations of this story. Firstly, there is the Freudian reading which leans heavily on the “Oedipal complex” theory: A mother-fixation, a barren cow, a phallic-beanstalk and the murder of a large over-bearing father figure. Enough said. Another interpretation is the Marxist interpretation which sees Jack as representative of the down-trodden proletariat being exploited by the free market, rising up and bringing down the capitalist apparatus and stealing back “the means of production”. Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that these stories run deep and resonate in our culture and that is why they have lasted the test of time.

Jack and the Beanstalk

So what does this have to do with Digital Media? Well, Booker raises an interesting point about what he perceives as a paradigm shift that has taken place during the last 200 years in terms of popular storytelling. In keeping with his Jungian standpoint, he argues that the majority of popular stories over the last two centuries have become fixated with the ego and increasingly have moved away from the standard archetype which inevitably seeks the happy communion of the masculine and feminine. Hollywood comes in for the most scathing criticism in this regard where Booker critically assesses the “sentimentalization” of the archetype by the dream machine in Los Angeles. When compared to Shakespearian plays – probably the most powerful canon of archetypal stories – Hollywood has manufactured stories that pander to the ego and often fail to provide the necessary tools of self-fulfillment for the protagonist so that they might rightfully earn their reward. Thus we have the constant push for a “happy ending” which often draws yawns from an audience but seems to be a staple of the modern blockbuster from Top Gun to Armageddon. A tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, where both hero and heroine die for love, just simply would never be made in Hollywood – unless, of course, it was a re-make of the original story.

Now as we enter an age of profound technological advancement, highly realistic interactive storytelling has become ever more possible. This, of course, puts the storytelling firmly in the hands of the ego (the user) and potentially erodes further the real power of storytelling – i.e. to convey to the audience the underlying “truisms” of life. The great storytellers – and the great stories – have stayed with us because they powerfully communicate a fundamental “truth” that is common to all human existence. So does interactive storytelling – whether through games or virtual worlds – remove the authorial voice? Will it simply allow the ego to run riot in an orgy of wish-fulfillment? Yes and no is the answer. All narratives – whether linear or interactive – are constructed and thus all have some sort of authoring to them. Even the word “author” is a term uncomfortably shared between literature and computer-programming. Kingsley Amis, I am sure, would think that one of his novels had little in common with the source code of a game, but both can be described as being “authored” none the less.

The challenge for the new medium is how to construct interactive environments that emotionally engage with users on a deeper level – just as linear stories have done for generations.

The more common first person shoot ‘em up or racing games on Games Consoles hardly engage with the user emotionally. Instead they become test grounds for skill, agility and hand-eye co-ordination – in much the same way as aircraft simulators help to train pilots. It is perhaps the Role Playing Games – especially the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games - which will truly bring about a revolution in narrative as they become more mainstream. Games like World of Warcraft, Lineage and Star Wars Galaxies carefully craft over-all storylines that engage and draw their users into a larger tapestry of event through an interactive narrative where each users action and re-action has a “butterfly” effect on the overall story. It is the collective users that become the overall “authors” in tandem with the creators.

Valltorta gorge in Catellón province
In many ways it is a much more pluralistic and democratic approach to storytelling which neither negates user input nor the creator’s input. In a way, the creator makes the rules and the user gets to operate “free will” within the constraints of those overall rules. Much like life really, if you believe in God! So whether these kinds of narratives can re-engage with the archetypes will be interesting to see. In some ways they are like a giant cave painting with each painting being an individual expression while also being an intricate part of an overall story. Technology merely becomes the cave wall against which we project our own fears and anxieties in an attempt to engage with a deeper truth. Perhaps then everything has changed and nothing has changed.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 11:37 a.m. 4 comments