Plotting the Universal Story

Dec 06 2011

A universal story

Although there are seven basic plots which have been the basis of storytelling for thousands of years (even if there have been some developments in recent years), the plots share many common trait. All the plots can ultimately be summarised as a single universal story, and share many common features such as a tension between light and dark and masculine and feminine, use of archetypal symbols, patterns and personalities, and an overarching theme of self realisation in their narrative structure and elements.All stories are built on a struggle between dark and light elements (or goodies versus baddies, heroes and villains), and the characters in all stories mix elements of more ‘masculine’ traits such as power and control and more ‘feminine’ traits such as intuition and holistic thinking. ¬†Ideal characters are always balanced between such traits as characters who show extreme behaviour are not yet fully developed as individuals. These characteristics are frequently demonstrated by archetypes (or stereotypes in modern language), such as the mother, father, child, anima and animus in psycholanalytic language (we will come back to the family connection shortly).

Psychological archetypes were most comprehensively developed by Carl Jung (although Freud also had something to say about this), and he outlined five main archetypes: the self (us), the shadow (in opposition to the self), the anima (feminine side), the animus (masculine side) and the persona (the image we show to the world). These archetypes manifest themselves in specific ways, according to the context and the sex and age of the individual, and there are a number of common and recurring forms which Jung discussed and which crop up in the seven plots – see if you can spot them in the previous articles:

  • The child
  • The hero
  • The great mother
  • The wise old man (sage)
  • The wise old woman
  • The trickster (or fox)
  • The devil (satan)
  • The scarecrow
  • The mentor
  • Rebirth (specifically one of the seven universal plots)

Fiction or non-fiction?

Although he lived more than three hundred years before Carl Jung, William Shakespeare made use of these archetypes in many of his plays such as Romeo and Juliet (‘the star crossed lovers’) and The Tempest with Prospero the wise old man (a prototype of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings). Some of Shakespeare’s greatest works are the history plays which are full of archetypes too, including heroes such as Richard II and Henry V and Henry V’s former drinking buddy Falstaff.

Shakespeare’s history plays teach us that the greatest stories, and the basis of the plots which recur across the centuries, are real human stories which follow predictable patterns and courses, and most commonly the pattern of growing up and self realisation. We come into the world and as children are ‘overshadowed’ by our parents or other adults, and as we grow up we start to venture into the outside world, exploring, socialising and learning until we are able to break free of our ‘shadow’ and become more and more independent. In the ‘Rags to riches‘ plot, perhaps the closest to the self realisation story, the end game is to receive a great reward or inherit a kingdom as the pay off for the struggle and sacrifice, although growing up can also be seen as the ultimate ‘Quest‘, or a story of ‘Rebirth‘ from a state of childhood to a state of maturity and wisdom. Many of the basic plots are essentially ‘family’ stories involving the mother, father and child with various combinations of light, dark, masculine and feminine traits.

The universal plot

The common thread of all seven of the basic plots revolving around the story of life can be summarised very simply:

  1. A hero(ine) feels constricted, setting up a tensions which must be resolved
  2. They open themselves to the world, and begin to feel a new state of being
  3. They are set back by a new and more serious constriction where a dark power becomes stronger
  4. There is a final confrontation between dark and light powers
  5. The dark powers are reversed and the hero(ine) liberated into a new (and more mature or knowledgeable) state of life

Or as a friend of mine put it, more succinctly than me, ‘a story is when we go from a a current situation, through an intervention, to a new situation’.

My favourite opera, The ¬†Magic Flute, is a great example of the universal story, containing elements of each of the seven basic plots in its magical storyline, revolving around the initially confused relations between a mother, father and their daughter (the Queen of the Night, Sarastro and Tamina) and a potential new addition to their family as son in law (Pamino). The course of the opera shows all the key stages of growing up from child through gradual enlightenment through to a point where an adult is consciously whole. [I can recommend Kenneth Branagh’s film of the opera!]

At the start of the tale, the young hero(Tamino) is chased onto the stage by a terrifying serpent and falls helpless and unconscious to the ground. From nowhere three ladies appear and kill the serpent, and then admire the man they have saved before heading off to tell their boss (the Queen of the Night). When Tamino wakes up he find himself in an unfamiliar world, which is made more strange when the bird catcher Papageno turns up, covered in feathers, who has no idea where he came from and lives day to day (Tamino reveals that his father is a great king who rules many lands). This is essentially Tamino’s ‘birth’ into the world of the story.

The three ladies return, revealing that the Queen is pleased to see him and would like him to perform a great task, revealing a picture of her beautiful daughter Pamina (and he falls in love). The Queen of the Night appears and tells Tamino that Pamina has been abducted by an evil ‘Monster’ (Sarastro) and Tamino must save her, leaving to allow the three ladies to present him with a ‘magic’ flute to guide him on his ‘Quest’. Thus, the Queen initially appears as a light figure in the story, although not everything is at it seems and she will eventually become a more ‘Tragic’ character.

Tamino sets off on his ‘Voyage’ to try and confront the ‘Monster’ in his lair, and at this point we see Pamina imprisoned and being attacked by one of Sarastro’s servants (Monostatos), before being saved in the nick of time by Papageno who is then able to tell Pamina about Tamino and his love for her. Tamino meanwhile asks for entry into Sarastro’s temple and is told that it is a ‘temple of wisdom’ but does not believe it, calling Sarastro a ‘tyrant’. This is the point of the longest shadow cast over the story, before the dramatic reversal in fortunes which reveals where the light and dark truly lie.

Voices from within the temple reveal that Pamina is still alive, and Tamino’s despair turns to relief and the awe inspired by the temple and then Sarastro’s presence sow the seeds of doubt. Despite Tamino’s protestations, Sarastro explains that he cannot release Pamina ‘for her own good’, and says that if had left her with her own mother, ‘what would have become of truth and right?’ (he is implying that there is a greater need for balance between masculine and feminine values). Sarastro is starting to become the ‘wise old man’ figure who will guide Tamino to his goal and the Queen begins to appear more dark and this shift continues throughout the second part of the story, which focuses on the contrast between Tamino and Papageno.

Sarastro sets Tamino and Papageno a series of tests to prove their steadfastness and self-control, with Tamino passing each test easily and Papageno failing miserably as his impulsive instincts overcome reason, showing his inability to achieve a higher state of consciousness (he will never be able to grow up). His only focus is on finding a partner and bringing children into the world. By contrast, Tamino represents the rising of man above nature into maturity and wisdom, and as the series of ordeals progresses we see him develop into a stronger, more disciplined and perhaps more austere human. He is eventually reunited with Pamina and they face the final ordeal of fire and water together showing a unity which transcends the differences between man and woman, masculine and feminine, and a state of wisdom and full ‘adulthood’.

The Queen makes her last assault on the Temple of Wisdom (with Monostatos) and is defeated, and Sarastro’s Temple of the Sun emerges from the storm and dark clouds to show the triumph of light over dark. Although the story can appear a comic frolic (pantomime perhaps), it has a deep symbolism about the family-based drama of growing up and the battle between the dark forces of nature and instinct and the light of rationality which is needed to achieve full maturity.

This is the universal plot of our lives.


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

2 responses so far

  1. Mozart’s Magic Flute has long been one of my three favorite operas, and I hope you’ve seen Ingmar Bergman’s film of it, as well as listening to good recordings of it. The German language, some say, is essential, so the Bergman film does lack that, being in Swedish. But the voices are magnificent, and I hope you listen and watch it.

    Your universal story explanations are excellent and helpful. Thank you so very much. Writing a romance novel does seem to be necessary nowadays and I needed this help. Best from Kathmandu, MAD

  2. Thanks for your feedback. Bergman’s version is great as is the recent film by Kenneth Branagh (set in the First World War) which is well worth seeing.

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