Professor Chaos

Has My Idea Been Done Before?

This is a new piece for the Unthank School of Writing Blog…

When Professor Chaos first hit South Park, he was hampered in his evil schemes by the realisation, at every turn, that ‘The Simpsons already did it.’ And as any writer or criminal genius will tell you, the quest for originality routinely brings you to your knees. How many promising projects have you abandoned because the story reminded you of something else? And just to add insult to injury, something that has been done before then storms the Booker and the box office just to taunt you.

But when you strip away the individualities of character, setting, and style that form an ‘original’ plot, how many basic storylines are there? Take a minute to think about this.

How many did you come up with?

Never one to dodge a challenge, the controversial journalist Christopher Booker took this on in his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Drawing on narratology and Jungian theory, from Aristotle to The Terminator, Booker distilled all the stories of the world down to seven clearly identifiable archetypes.

So now we know.

Still worried about originality?

Anyway, these archetypes are, in no particular order:

  1. Overcoming the Monster

The protagonist sets out to defeat a antagonistic force. You can see the roots of this in Beowulf. Jaws is a great example, also The Exorcist (in fact most horror stories – Booker cites Dracula), thrillers in which the hero matches wits with an ingenious serial killer, alien invasions, and basically anything with a villain.

  1. Rags to Riches

The protagonist is plucked from obscurity to greatness, gaining high status and immense wealth, before losing it all and then winning it back after growing as a person, like Bill Murray in his Scrooged/Groundhog Day period and Q & A (Slumdog Millionaire) by Vikas Swarup.

  1. The Quest

The protagonist strives to meet a far-off goal, often the acquisition of a significant object, or the discovery of a lost world or a safe haven. The hero is supported by travelling companions, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. Chrétien de Troyes’s Conte del Graal (‘Story of the Grail’) is a key example. Then there’s Watership DownThe Aeniad with rabbits, brilliant.

To find out all seven archetypes, you can read the complete article here.

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