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The Seven Basic Plotlines


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A book came out awhile back, contending that there are only seven basic plot lines in Western literature. I don't remember if this theory included all branches of world literature, but my question to you is, do you think this is also true of movies?

The seven categories consist of: Overcoming the Master, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth.

Apparently the author, in a rather Cosmic Consciousness Carl Jungian way developed this exegesis over many years, though some critics find it not feasible or with sufficient proofs. I think the author also had some ideas about a plot being only able to encompass one hero or heroine at a time, which was also debated by many.

Can you add to the categories, based on your knowledge of film, and do you agree or disagree with this concept?
 

Please submit your answers in essay form, and extra credit if you can do a brief book report on the said tome.

 

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Certainly its a valid --if very generic--theory. And such theories are increasing lately; there are notions out there now which boil drama down variously to twenty-five, thirteen, or even a bare 'seven master plots'. I've even seen the total number given as low as just three (but at that point the gist becomes little more than an aphorism).

I've also seen the principle applied to westerns, with either five (or six) basic western plots being identified.

And of course there's the famous Aarne-Thompson Folklore classification system, which covers fables and other vernacular forms of narrative.

Anyway to answer your question, yes--I see no reason why cinema (a form of theater) would be exempt from any of this. If anything, it is more prone to it than many other mediums. In fact, such theories are booming in today's numbskull, benighted West Coast, where producers are frenzied for success-formulas.

Oh well. The original proposition (as far as I have ever heard) was called 'The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations' written by Georges Polti sometime in the 1800s; receiving its definitive printing in 1916. (Polti generously claimed he was merely furthering the thought of one Carlos Gozzi, a very courteous gesture, this!)

In any case,  the knack of understanding what the book implies is in realizing that while there may be only thirty-six archetypes, the sub-variations on this dramatic 'anatomy' is practically infinite. There's a myriad of ways in which character alters the emotional catharsis of a plot.

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35 minutes ago, CaveGirl said:

A book came out awhile back, contending that there are only seven basic plot lines in Western literature. I don't remember if this theory included all branches of world literature, but my question to you is, do you think this is also true of movies?

The seven categories consist of: Overcoming the Master, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth.

I think this is way TOO simplistic. Plots today are often hybrids of those categories with new concepts thrown in. 

Primarily the author did not account for feminist stories or stories of other marginalized groups. So it's an outmoded approach, at best. At worst, it's just an ignorant way to look at storytelling.

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Extra points awarded for mentioning the "Aarne-Thompson Folklore classification system" whose rules I revere and live by, Sgt. Markoff!

Okay, I lied, since I didn't really know about the A-TFCS but don't mind admitting my nescience and I like to learn new things, so shall be immediately researching the above word of mouth folklore connection!

A lot of the criticism of this author's contention, lies within the proposition of the earlier theories about dramatic situations utilized in plays and such. With the usage of the archetypes as a basis to categorize such, I can see why there was such emphasis on the works of Jung, who did some pioneering efforts in such things with his dream analysis.

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7 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

I think this is way TOO simplistic. Plots today are often hybrids of those categories with new concepts thrown in. 

Primarily the author did not account for feminist stories or stories of other marginalized groups. So it's an outmoded approach, at best. At worst, it's just an ignorant way to look at storytelling.

Thanks, TopBilled!

I wonder if all things can just be boiled down to three categories, Envy, Love, Revenge?

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I gotta disagree with ya, TB. I would suggest there's very little which is new under the sun, especially in an art as ancient as drama.

At the top of the dramatic taxonomy, at the top branches of dramatic hierarchy, social norms which change from era to era don't make much difference. These are merely  interchangeable parts which fit within the structure of a story.

There's hybridization today, sure--rather 'desperate' hybridization thanks to commercialization of theater--but all that happens much farther down in the lower branches of narrative form.

Its similar to the way you can have a 'noir western' which is really not a structural hybridization at all; just a stylistic mashup. A space opera and a camel opera, are still 'horse operas'. This is a truism which Uncle Joe (on this forum has stubbornly resisted).

Socially-sensitive dramas: being 'ignorant' of today's PC whitewashing doesn't mean yesterday's experts in theater were short at all on savvy in their craft. Remember, the stage was the primary entertainment for millennia; and there were men which certainly knew it well.

Feminism--there is an entire branch of feminist film criticism, as I'm sure you're aware. Laura Mulvey broke it open, if anyone did. However, feminist film theory is more reactive and defensive, rather than prescriptive. They can't yet say "here is how to make new drama". Meanwhile, let's not overlook the fact that Aristophanes was doing feminist-themed stage plays in Ancient Greece ('The Birds') as was Euripides ('The Trojan Women').

When it comes down to it, it would be highly odd to accuse centuries of playwrights to have been unable to recognize disenfranchised groups in their society, or to fail to see dramatic possibilities in them. Not being up-to-date never hindered dramatic construction.

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p.s. Blake Snyder's 'Save the Cat' theory of plotting, currently dominates Hollywood, both in terms of in-house staff writers and the spec script market. At the bottom of it all, Snyder's too, is merely another one of these classification systems. Its just an updated version of Polti. But its as modern as today's recent-release flicks.

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41 minutes ago, Sgt_Markoff said:

I gotta disagree with ya, TB. I would suggest there's very little which is new under the sun, especially in an art as ancient as drama.

At the top of the dramatic taxonomy, at the top branches of dramatic hierarchy, social norms which change from era to era don't make much difference. These are merely  interchangeable parts which fit within the structure of a story.

There's hybridization today, sure--rather 'desperate' hybridization thanks to commercialization of theater--but all that happens much farther down in the lower branches of narrative form.

Its similar to the way you can have a 'noir western' which is really not a structural hybridization at all; just a stylistic mashup. A space opera and a camel opera, are still 'horse operas'. This is a truism which Uncle Joe (on this forum has stubbornly resisted).

Socially-sensitive dramas: being 'ignorant' of today's PC whitewashing doesn't mean yesterday's experts in theater were short at all on savvy in their craft. Remember, the stage was the primary entertainment for millennia; and there were men which certainly knew it well.

Feminism--there is an entire branch of feminist film criticism, as I'm sure you're aware. But Aristophanes was doing feminist stage plays in Ancient Greece ('The Birds') as was Euripides ('The Trojan Women').

When it comes down to it, it would be highly odd to accuse centuries of playwrights to have been unable to recognize disenfranchised groups in their society, or to fail to see dramatic possibilities in them. Not being up-to-date never hindered dramatic construction.

I've never bought into the old adage 'there's nothing new under the sun.' That's because my sun and my interpretation of my sun is not the same as anyone else's. And all artists know this. We'd be defeated as creators if we felt we weren't progressing or doing anything different.

So I really think that phrase was coined to stifle creativity or by someone who had given up on being creative. But it's a meaningless phrase to me and I don't pay any attention to it.

Also, it's a stretch to say Greek dramatists were feminists. They weren't feminists in the way feminists are now defined. Again, because we've progressed and are still progressing.

To say there are only seven plots is absurdly limited. Intelligent people know there are infinite ways to present the human experience in a story.

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1 hour ago, Sgt_Markoff said:

Feminism--there is an entire branch of feminist film criticism, as I'm sure you're aware. Laura Mulvey broke it open, if anyone did. However, feminist film theory is more reactive and defensive, rather than prescriptive. They can't yet say "here is how to make new drama". Meanwhile, let's not overlook the fact that Aristophanes was doing feminist-themed stage plays in Ancient Greece ('The Birds') as was Euripides ('The Trojan Women').

 

Speaking of feminist film criticism, I remember thinking once while viewing Rubens' "Rape of the Sabine Women" at the National Gallery in London, that none of the ladies seemed to be singing or dancing as they were in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers".

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