Archetypal Story Structures; or, Doing It By the Booker (Part One)
Stories are organized around a sequence of events that contain plot drivers that influence what happens in that section. Throughout time, storytellers have drawn upon common story structures that have evolved within their culture.
In Western literature, traditional storytelling formats are largely inherited from classical, or Greco-Roman structures, which evolved from theatre and mythology, or from Shakespearean drama. The standardized versions of these story structures are called archetypes, and they usually reflect a particular culture's world view and value systems.
7 Basic Plots
There are a number of models that categorize Western storytelling, but the best known is the 7 Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. Now, many people (including Booker himself) like to think of the 7 Basic Plots as universal and all-inclusive, but there are many archetypes around the world (and many competing models here in western literary theory) that don't fall into these groups. We'll cover those categories in future posts.
That said, the Booker archetypes are a handy way to look at many types of stories, especially those found on American television and film. Learning how they work can help you structure your own stories, if and when they fit the mold.
This week, we'll look at three of the Booker archetypes: Journey and Return, The Quest, and Rebirth.
Journey and Return
Also known as the "Voyage and Return" story structure. This format is commonly found among portal fantasies, where a character travels to a new and magical world and becomes equipped to handled their own troubled reality, while fixing the problems of the magical world.
Journey and Return is not restricted to the fantastical. Historically, it has been used to structure many classic stories about colonization as a way to frame the colonizers' experiences as something mystical and self-gratifying. This is because the Journey and Return archetype is based on the idea that the protagonist gains self-knowledge and often "saves" the unfamiliar world, gaining personal power in the process.
As a result, this structure can be deeply problematic when used as way to justify or glorify the main characters' culture over another. That said, it's entirely possible to write a Journey and Return story that doesn't involve cultural appropriation or evangelization, but it helps to be aware of the historical baggage associated with it.
Popular examples of the Journey and Return archetype are Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Gulliver's Travels.
Think of a popular story where the main character goes to an unfamiliar place where they learn or lead without giving back to the characters in that place. How might you rewrite the story to make the exchange less one-sided? How would that change affect the outcome of the story?
Exactly what it says on the tin, the Quest tells the story of a character or a set of characters setting out on a journey in search of a thing or common goal - perhaps an item, a place, a person, or even a philosophical idea. As an archetype, the Quest follows the challenges the characters might experience both externally and internally as they search for their goal; and, as such, the Quest is really more about the characters' growth than about the search. The act of going out and seeking is a framework that allows the main characters to learn about the world and about themselves.
This archetype appears frequently in mythology and legend (Arthurian legend, Jason and the Golden Fleece). Its most well-known fantasy version is The Lord of the Rings, and it is the basis of many Dungeons and Dragons and RPG games.
Think about the Quest examples given here and those for Journey and Return above. How are they different?
Unlike other archetypes in this series, the Rebirth story archetype is structured more as a character arc than around a particular sequence of events. This isn't to say that a character arc isn't a sound basis for a story, but that Rebirth focuses more on the development of a character's internal self than on the actions that influence them.
Rebirth nearly always describes a redemption arc. Essentially, a character (villainous or villain-adjacent) causes harm to many people in order to carry out or achieve their goals, and each action contributes to a downward spiral of decisions or events. As the story progresses, the main character is confronted with the individuals they have harmed and are forced to reckon with their actions, leading to a change of heart at the end where forgiveness (and sometimes salvation) awaits.
This is perhaps the most deeply Christian of these three archetypes, replaying a biblical pattern of fall and forgiveness, while similar archetypes from other cultures may be less interested in forgiveness or more interested in reparative justice.
You can find the Rebirth archetype in the perennial favorite A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Beauty and the Beast, and The Secret Garden.
While the main character in Rebirth stories repents by the end, sometimes their revelation comes too late to save them. Can you think of a story in which a main character's behavior is increasingly destructive, but when they realize the damage they've done, it's too late to undo the damage or save themself?
Our next post will discuss Conquering the Beast, Rags to Riches, Comedy, and Tragedy.