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The Seven Basic Plots

Posted by on May 19, 2011

From Gilgamesh to Snow White, from Beowulf to the Pink Panther, every culture has had its myths and legends.  But while the props and settings may change, the spirit remains the same, because the spirit is imprinted on our very souls (according to the fossil record, the soul evolved into its present form sometime between 200,000 B.C. and Descartes’s pronouncement “Cogito ergo sum”).  Now, for the first time ever, renowned scientist and author Robert Pritchard goes deep undercover to bring you the secrets of narrative hard-wired into every human brain.  In his forthcoming tome, he reveals the seven basic plots to which all stories, no matter how outré, must conform.  So come, Mesdames et Messieurs, on a magic carpet ride to find the secrets behind “Once upon a time. . .” 

1) The Hero’s Quest.  The Hero—strong, honest, and with magnificent cuticles—is summoned to a great adventure and must leave his cozy home (a metaphor for the womb), swim across a river (a metaphor for the uterine channel), and use a pair of comically oversized scissors to perform the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the grand opening of a new Jiffy Lube (a metaphor for the cutting of the umbilical cord).  The Hero confronts a villain, or sometimes a nefarious city council.  He overthrows the villain by crushing him in a game of Connect Four, and finally wins the love of a fair maiden, who is usually revealed to have been a robot all along.

2) Overcoming Pauly Shore.  The Hero learns that Pauly Shore is terrorizing the kingdom, devastating cities, leaving millions dead and maimed in his wake, and sets out to stop him.  After much struggle, Pauly Shore’s rampage is ended, but Shore himself proves impossible to kill.  Instead, the Hero traps Shore inside a magic lamp from which he cannot escape. . . that is, unless some unfortunate wanderer should find it and accidentally unleash the deadly evil, thus repeating a cycle as old as time itself.  This is one of the most popular plots, forming the basis for such films as Encino Man, Son-in-Law, and Bio-Dome.  Sometimes Pauly Shore is disguised as a killer shark (Jaws), a killer snake (Anaconda), killer spiders (Arachnophobia), killer rats (Ratatouille), killer tomatoes (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), or killer pastry (American Pie).

3) Rags to Riches.  With pluck and spunk (in a 3 to 1 ratio), a Hero in possession of some rags trades them for a huge amount of gold or, in some cultures, 50,000 shares of Google Series A preferred stock.  The End.  Examples include Cinderella, Risky Business, Taxi Driver, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, My Dinner with Andre, Le Chien Andalou, In the Realm of the Senses, and Porky’s.

4) Voyage and Return.  The Hero enters a magical land where normal rules of reality and logic don’t apply, leading to the Hero ordering a Teriyaki Whopper at a Burger King and receive an elaborate Nouvelle Cuisine meal, including a salmon salad in croustades amuse-bouché, chilled cucumber soup, a scallop and organic kale arrangement with an orange-infused reduction, and, inexplicably, a shoe horn for dessert.  The Hero swaggers from the Burger King, guzzling a bottle of V-8 juice, a big sloppy grin on his face.  Life as he knows it will never be the same.  This plot provides an opportunity for the protagonist to explore his fears and symbolically conquer them, but, unfortunately, the protagonist is usually too traumatized and psychologically scarred to function in normal society after returning from the fairy tale land.  Up to 15% of them end up committing suicide, and another 20% are institutionalized until such time as they are no longer a danger to themselves or others.  For instance, in later life most of the Pevensie kids bounced around between various mental hospitals and prisons, and one eventually became famous under the moniker “The Finchley Strangler” (Lucy).

5) Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.  After the death of Spock, Kirk learns that Spock’s spirit, or katra, is held in the mind of Dr. McCoy, so Kirk and company steal the Enterprise to return Spock’s body to his home planet. The crew must also contend with hostile Klingons, led by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), bent on stealing the secrets of a powerful terraforming device.  I think the universal applications of this one are self-explanatory.

6) Tragedy.  Something about a king who is real bad, but then he receives a new Xbox.

7) Stories that involve Seth Rogen.  From time immemorial, stories have attained resonance by following the ancient laws that are hard-wired into our brains.  We identify with Hamlet because he’s a snappy dresser, or with Victor Frankenstein because he stole corpses from graveyards and sewed their parts together into a grotesque ogre, then brought the hideous abomination to life.  But starting in 1912, a revolutionary new form of story emerged.  It was a violation, a perversion of everything we held dear.  It deconstructed the old certainties, reflecting, some said, the doubt and bewilderment of a generation adrift in a vast, Godless universe full of horror and degradation.  We are speaking, of course, of stories that involve Seth Rogen.  This mutant, this homunculus, has warped and twisted our very DNA, spawning a race of monsters.  The Seth Rogen era began slowly, with no stories that involve Seth Rogen being produced between 1912 and 1982.  Still, the seeds were there.  In 1982 the first stories that involve Seth Rogen appeared in the world, in the form of Polaroids too unspeakable to describe.  The prevalence of stories that involve Seth Rogen gradually increased, until, in 2007, there occurred an explosion of stories that involve Seth Rogen.  If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Rogen.  Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Rogen. I pay no attention to all this. . .

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