We all live these seven basic plots (or we don’t)

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There is a story about stories. It takes a form of a book called The Seven Basic Plots. Why We Tell Stories. Written by ChristopherBooker, it examines… well quite accordingly the seven basic plots. From The Epic of Gilgemesh to Jaws and Schindler’s List, Christopher Booker examines in detail the stories that underlie literature and the plots that are basic to story telling through the ages. In this magisterial work he examines the plots of films, opera libretti and the contemporary novel and short story.

Critics called Booker’s work reductionist. I say t’s rather interesting and useful. The seven basic plots he explores are: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. Christopher Booker begins by establishing the endurance of these plots in works ranging from the Bible and Greek drama through 19th-century opera to the latest Hollywood films. With Booker’s exploration, there is literally no story in the world which cannot be seen in a new light: we have come to the heart of what stories are about and why we tell them. Working with startups I’ve learned one thing – we tell stories to help people understand the world we live in and the world we create.

Booker’s work reminds me of course of a more elaborate oeuvre – the work of Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. Since publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell’s theory has been consciously applied by a wide variety of modern writers and artists. I apply both his and Booker’s comprehensive templates when working on a pitch.

Both Booker and Campbell urge a storyteller to base the story on the meta-plot or as Campbell calls it a mono myth.

The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to the adventure to come. This is followed by a dream stage, in which the adventure begins, the hero has some success, and has an illusion of invincibility. 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. This worsens in the nightmare stage, which is the climax of the plot, where hope is apparently lost. Finally, in the resolution, the hero overcomes his burden against the odds. Your pitch intro can and should be based upon this useful pattern. After  all that is what entrepreneurs do – they save the world as real heroes or heroines.

When telling the story you become the central character. And as Booker states “However many characters may appear in a story, its real concern is with just one: its hero or heroine. It is he with whose fate we identify, as we see him gradually developing towards that state of self-realization which marks the end of the story. Ultimately it is in relation to this central figure that all other characters in a story take on their significance. What each of the other characters represents is really only some aspect of the inner state of the hero or heroine themselves.”

When crafting the pitch you should never loose the focus and keep you mind on presenting clearly the hero, their motivation, the conflicts and challenges they meet, the opponents and of course the resolution.

All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. So says Tolstoy. And I think we could all agree. However if you want some more details The Seven Basic Plots can become a useful tool when crafting a pitch.

As an exercise I’d like you to try to find out how your startup’s story fits into the seven basic plots Booker mentions. The Seven Basic Plots are the basics of plot-writing but also can become the templates for your next pitch or brand story.

The first type of the plot is Overcoming the Monster. In it the protagonist (you, the CEO or the mad scientist) sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. In your story it should be the greatest customers pain or the daily challenges. It can be a disease, world poverty or any other problem your startup is solving. I’d say the story behind Vismedic – the startup I worked with quite recently can be good example of the Overcoming the Monster plot. In Jovan’s – the CEO case it was overcoming the monster of cancer. I call this type of story a survivor’s tale. This story is a good one as it shows the motivation of the main protagonist clearly:

My name is Jovan and some time ago I started experiencing intense headaches. They were excruciating. I could not sleep. I could not work. I lost the energy to go on. Looking for the right diagnosis I spent countless hours banging on the wrong doors, waiting the lines and loosing hope. Finally with the help of friends and family and needless to say, private connections, I was diagnosed. I had a rare case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I survived. The many friends and acquaintances I met during the road through hell of medical services did not. 

He survived – others did not, so his mission has become to help them with their struggles.

Other type of plot is Rags to Riches. This is basically the story we all know (sometimes too well). The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. The story of Morten Lund who had it all and then lost it all because of the bad investment after selling his shares of Skype to Microsoft is this type of story. I remember listening to him one day at EVM Berlin. I was captured as he vigorously painted the vivid images of literally losing everything (he said that I remember the xbox taken from my kids hands and I will never forget the ‘why dad’ look on their faces).

The Quest is another type of the plot examined by Booker. The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. You and your buddies very often are on a quest to get that important object – the code line that solves it all, the solution, the ingredient.

Another – very similar type of the story is Voyage and ReturnThe protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with nothing but experience.

Booker also mentioned a lighter type of a story – Comedy. Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. I rarely see pitches crafted with humour and I must say that I would love to see more of that. After all – joy is one emotion that we all love and as science shows – we share them more willingly.

Another type of the story I do NOT wish to see often in pitch is Tragedy. Why? Because the protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and whose death is a happy ending (or s/he gets away with their deeds as with “Cask of Amontillado”). The Rebirth plot, on the other hand, is something you can use. During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. Or a more mindful one. The startup stories that circulate round a life event that change everything and make you want to do something with your life are good ones.

I can say that I somehow share the view of the critics. I like Bookers approach but I think it is either to simplistic or… too elaborate. But I can definitely see the potential there – when working on you pitch it’s best you select the type of the story and keep it that way. I can add two more stories to the list of The Seven Basic Plots. They are The Curious Scientist and the Champagne Story.

I have described the first one here – when discussing the pitch as a hero’s journey. It is the story of Miha – restless and curious mind obsessed with finding new solutions. It follows the rules of the mono myth loosely but it shows how you can say a lot about the business mind and the motivation behind your ideas in a form of a story.

The second type of story is not a drunk tale. It is a sort of Newton’s apple type of thing. In short – you come up with the solution by accident. I discussed this type of story here when writing about a polish startup High5. I call this a Champagne story as the discovery of this fine drink was also (as legend has it) made by chance. The High5 story would go like this.

Let me tell you a story. Some time ago two guys started working on an app that was meant to become the best messenger for the hip-hop crowd. Yes, you’ve heard it. A messenger for the hip-hop community. As if they needed a separate one. The messenger was based on simple gestures. The international hip-hop language that is based around the F-words and stuff. Those two guys were a bit like Bilbo Baggins. They wanted to do their stuff and be left alone. They’ve launched the app. Nothing happened in the hip-hop world but to their surprise they’ve started receiving calls and great feedback from the audience they were not expecting. The deaf people. So what started as a totally insane idea – a messenger app for the hip-hop community, has become an app that can help 360 million people worldwide communicate.

I like this story – however it has to be true to touch people. Remember a storyteller tells stories to help people understand. A lier tells lies (untrue stories) to help himself. No matter which pattern you follow. Remember that stories are a universal way to communicate. Even our brain loves them. And it cannot be wrong.