Denis Dutton edits the journal Philosophy and Literature and the website Arts & Letters Daily.
Beowulf and Jaws follow the first and most basic of his plots, “Overcoming the Monster.” It is found in countless stories from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Little Red Riding Hood to James Bond films such as Dr. No. This tale of conflict typically recounts the hero’s ordeals, an escape from death, and ends with a community or the world itself saved from evil.
Booker’s second plot is “Rags to Riches.” He places in this category Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, David Copperfield, and other stories that tell of modest, downtrodden characters whose special talents or beauty are at last revealed to the world for a happy ending.
Next in Booker’s taxonomy is the “Quest,” which features a hero, normally joined by sidekicks, traveling the world and fighting to overcome evil and secure a priceless treasure (or in the case of Odysseus, wife and hearth). The hero not only gains the treasure he seeks, but also the girl, and they end as King and Queen. Related to this is Booker’s fourth category, “Voyage and Return,” exemplified by Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland, and The Time Machine. The protagonist leaves normal experience to enter an alien world, returning after what often amounts to a thrilling escape.
In “Comedy,” Booker suggests, confusion reigns until at last the hero and heroine are united in love. “Tragedy” portrays human overreaching and its terrible consequences. The last of the plots of his initial list is “Rebirth,” which centers on characters such as Dickens’s Scrooge, Snow White, and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. To this useful system he unexpectedly adds at the end of his book two more plots: “Rebellion” to cover the likes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and “Mystery” for the recent invention of the detective novel.
In tragedy, for instance, either bad things will happen to a good person (unjust and repugnant) or bad things happen to a bad person (just, but boring). Or good things happen to a bad person (unjust again). Tragedy needs bad things to happen to a basically good but flawed person: Though he may not have deserved his awful fate, Oedipus was asking for it.
In the same rational spirit, Aristotle works out dramatic relations. A conflict between strangers or natural enemies is of little concern to us. What arouses interest is a hate-filled struggle between people who ought to love each other — the mother who murders her children to punish her husband, or two brothers who fight to the death. Aristotle knew this for the drama of his age as much as soap-opera writers know it today.