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A very short plot. [image credit: tomremington.com]

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories 
by Christopher Booker (Continuum, 2004)


In the early seventies, writer and journalist Christopher Booker started working on a book. Thirty years later, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories was released. It claimed that all plots—from the Bible to a catfood commercial—fall into one (or more) of seven elemental plotlines. But he went on to simplify it further, observing that all plotlines fit into one overall meta plot.

I decided to take a look at how well standard plots fare with this theory, so I plugged in Little Red Riding Hood—both as a fairy tale, and as all the young adult dystopian novels ever. Turns out Little Red nails it all.

META PLOTPOINT 1: The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to the adventure to come.

    • FAIRY TALE: Once upon a time, a little girl is given a wonderful basket full of goodies. We’re talking the really good stuff—macarons fresh from Paris, artisan goat cheeses, and a box of special edition Swiss Chocolate Truffles—all done up in a fussy wicker basket from Fortnum & Mason.

      Then they tell her she has to give it away.
    • YA: Red is an orphan, compelled to excel at martial arts by her Granny, who keeps hinting that Red is actually The Chosen One, and who even makes her a special red cape for her secret identity. But Red would say she’s only a completely average girl, who just happens to have long red hair, big green eyes, pouty lips, and a black hole of darkness within her very soul. And don’t even get her started on her ridiculously large rack! The way the twins bounce around when she’s doing her sword practice is just ridiculous.

META PLOTPOINT 2: This is followed by a dream stage, in which the adventure begins, the hero has some success, and has an illusion of invincibility

    • Fairy Tale: “Take these goodies to Granny,” Little Red’s mother tells her. “She lives in a cottage with wooded acreage, 3.2 bathrooms, four bedrooms, plus a spa room with a jacuzzi and home theater. It’s a long hike through the dark forest, though. And along the way you’ll have to watch out for wolves, real estate agents, and Joe the Woodsman who’s been sucking up to Granny lately. Granny’s old and ill, and she’s going to leave that cottage to someone. So you should definitely get your goodies in her door before Joe. They don’t call him the Woodsman for nothing! But whatever you do, look out for the wolf. Wolves are big and bad and spend a lot of time licking their private parts.”

      “Gross,” says Little Red. She promises her mother to stick to the straight and narrow path.
    • YA: Red lives with her stepmother (evil, of course, because there are only three kinds of parents in YA novels: evil, dysfunctional/addict, or dead), who plots to get rid of her by sending her on pointless tasks in the middle of the wolf-infested forest. All that changes the day Red accepts her true quest—to finally make it through those woods as The Prophecy predicts. She straps on her sword, packs a goody basket with some throwing stars and her favorite knives, and sets off. The fate of the world rests on the shoulders of one kickass red-caped heroine and her (snarky, possibly LGBTQ, undoubtedly racially-diverse) posse.

META PLOTPOINT 3: However, this is then followed by a frustration stage, in which the hero has his first confrontation with the enemy, and the illusion of invincibility is lost.

    • Fairy Tale: Red skips along the sunny path, surreptitiously munching on the odd macaron (which she’s sure Granny will never notice because she has to peer at everything through those teeny little Granny glasses). Red hasn’t gotten very far when her iPhone pings with a new friend request from ImaWulf. She checks as her mother taught her, and notices that Ima is already Facebook friends with some of her online BFFs including Goldilocks and all three Little Pigs. So she accepts the friend request and gets a private message.

      “Thanks for friending! Watcha doin Red? XOXO”
      “Goody run to Granny. You?”
      “Um…I’m doing a Meals-on-Wheels pickup myself. KetchUp later!”
    • YA: There’s a rumor that Wolf, the sexy new bad boy in Red’s algebra class,  has a devastating secret (of course). Red feels a strange attraction, although she’s never spoken to a boy with actual facial hair before, so she flicks her long red hair. To make things even more confusing, in her woodshop class there’s a tall blond guy named Joe—also with facial hair—who keeps trying to ask her to the Homecoming dance. What the heck? She flicks her hair at him too.

But Red doesn’t have time to worry about a dance date because The Test is coming, probably in Algebra Class. And then she has to save the world, of course.

Meanwhile Wolf keeps popping out of the woods to chat up Red. But every time he’s about to make his move, Red’s phone beeps with texts from Red’s LGBTQ posse to say that Granny, the only sympathetic adult in the novel, has been captured by Them.You could cut the frustration with a knife.

META PLOTPOINT 4: This worsens in the nightmare stage, which is the climax of the plot, where hope is apparently lost.

    • Fairy Tale: Sadly, what Red doesn’t know is that her new FB friend is none other than the Big Bad Wolf of song, legend, and several Public Service Announcements (which Red actually kind of enjoys because each one stars some sexy fairy tale guy, usually with some seriously great background rap).

      Despite the fact that several of the PSAs had specifically warned about Granny-grabbing, Red skips along happily unaware that BBW has raced ahead and…there’s no other way to say this…eaten Granny. And not in the good way.

      Little Red arrives at Granny’s house at last. She spends a few minutes taking some outside measurements and mentally restocking the garden. Still, she has to admit there’s a lot of curb appeal in the old place. She’s a little sorry about eating so many of the macarons, but knocks anyway.

Inside, however, it’s surprisingly dark, and Red wonders if she’ll have to redo all the lighting and replace some windows. She can barely make out Granny, but politely mentions the size and amount of Granny’s teeth, hair, etc. Then she pulls out her Glock—it’s easy access under her cape, thanks to her concealed carry permit—and plugs Granny between the eyes because even in bad light you can tell the difference between a little old lady and a big bad wolf.

    • YA: Wolf is still trying to get into Red’s goodie basket when Joe shows up waving his axe from woodshop class. (Luckily, it’s a fairly dull axe because with all their emphasis on college prep classes, their school doesn’t really have a budget for new shop equipment.) Joe attacks from behind, and as Wolf lays bleeding, Red is forced to fight for both of their lives. Luckily she’s able to defeat him because— thanks to her three weeks of training with Granny—she’s become the world’s leading Wing Chun martial arts master.

META PLOTPOINT 5: Finally, in the resolution, the hero overcomes his burden against the odds.

    • Fairy Tale: Just then, Joe the Woodsman comes in as he does every afternoon to show Granny his wood. Red points to the bulge in the Wolf’s tummy, and before she can stop him, Joe cuts open the wolf. So yeah, that’s pretty gross. Like Granny could survive being eaten by a wolf! To their surprise, however, that tummy bulge is actually a baby wolf. Joe the Woodsman delivers the baby wolf and decides to devote the rest of his life to reintroducing wolves into natural habitats such as local zoos and Disney films where they won’t be killed at the end of each fairy tale.

      Little Red slaps a coat of paint over Granny’s cottage and flips it for a healthy profit, allowing her to move to Paris and set herself up with her own shop, Macarons du Petite Rouge, where she lives happily ever after.
    • YA: Because Red is a Good Girl, she of course ends up with Wolf, the Bad Boy. After The Kiss—which Red has been thinking about for the past 17 chapters, and which takes an entire chapter to describe including what everybody is smelling—Red ends up going to Homecoming Dance with Wolf, who it turns out, has a Heart of Gold (which was actually very uncomfortable and led to a number of regrettable medical issues as time went on).

      But that’s a story for the sequels. All 28 of them.

Lately, I’ve been reading some fabulous books from Rosie’s Book Review Team, but not really getting to the reviews. So, with apologies to all the wonderful authors, the examples listed in these Genre Notes will be reviewed in my next posts, starting with Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone. Because… women motorcycle vigilante gangs, lots of leather, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quotes, New York City, and serious amounts of world-class snark. Hell, yeah!


Genre notes

  • If Little Red is actually a young-looking undercover police officer who has an idiosyncratic reputation for ignoring direct orders from her superiors but gets away with it because she can blend in with teenagers, it is a police procedural and the writer will have to drop the “idiosyncratic” bit because that’s way too long a word for police dramas.
  • If—despite intervention led by boyfriend Joe Woodsman—Red’s borderline goodies-dependency issues are the result of childhood trauma and she’s secretly padding her day-to-day detecting with a relentless search for the Big Bad Wolf who ate her Granny, this is a damaged detective police procedural. Bonus points if Red is from a Scandinavian country and/or is lead character in a series set someplace with a long winter days and unnerving amounts of snow. [Example #1:  See my upcoming review of Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone in next post here)
  • If Joe Woodsman is actually an eco-terrorist who imprisons Granny in a darkened movie theater as he goes into a detailed explanation of climate change—there may be flowcharts and a power point presentation because his evil knows no bounds—it is Gadget SciFi. (Probably written as fanfiction by a 34-year-old computer programmer still living in his mother’s basement. He will have a long ponytail.)
  • If Little Red and the Wolf stop in the dark forest for some interesting mushrooms they find, which leads to a shared vision of climate change danger facing the planet which only their quick action (and possible supernatural/alien assistance) can avert, then it’s Fern Gully SciFi. (After Roger Ebert, who said: “I am in favor of saving the rain forests and I am appalled by their wanton destruction, but is it not true that Man is the only animal to which it has ever occurred that murder is wrong?” [Example #2: See my upcoming review of The Latecomers by Richard Marcello in upcoming posts]
  • If Red is a wacky, sexy professional woman with extremely high (red, of course) stilettos and a designer red statement hooded cape who is fighting for her big break in the City, Wolf is a smoking hot iBanker, and one of them has a gay friend with a small dog who gives good advice on clothes and relationships while the other one has a granny who just wants them to find The One and move to Brooklyn and make babies, but there are multiple triangles involving Wolf and Joe the Deceptively Perfect Potential Love Interest and possibly his wood (whew!), then it’s Chick Lit
  • If everything happens too fast for you to keep up with clues but there’s blood everywhere and probably several explosions and chase scenes and Red has a knife to her throat at least once, it’s a thriller. If the knife turns out to actually be teeth, and the teeth turn out to belong to Wolf during the full moon, while granny is technically dead and slightly transparent, it’s a paranormal chick lit thriller. [Example #3: See my upcoming review of Madam Tulip and the Serpent’s Tree by David Ahern in upcoming posts].