Being parents of young children, it was a rare occasion (even pre-pandemic!) when my wife and I were able to get out to dinner and a movie. Our last cinema outing had ended with us both falling asleep (an unfortunate reflection of our engagement with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). On this occasion, however, we held high hopes that Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast would fare better. It turned out our hopes were not in vain, as we both enjoyed a credible remake of a classic story. And yet for me, it wasn’t the special effects or the grandiose musical renditions that struck a chord that evening. As the credits rolled and the theatre lights came up, I sat reflecting not only on the main plot lines of the movie, but also on why they should resonate with me at all. Why should I care about an angry and aggressive monster transformed into a man of humility, kindness, and love? Why did I long for justice for the villain, Gaston, and happily ever after for our heroes?
With every story I experienced in the years following, I asked similar questions. Yet the more stories I encountered, the more a rather surprising pattern began to appear. Whether through film, literature, a television show or theatre, I witnessed how writers were drawn into the orbit of a particular set of themes. Not only that, but these themes also resonated with audiences time and time again. In 2019 alone, the Hollywood film industry posted a revenue of $35 billion, with streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime posting similar numbers. Broadway brought in a staggering $1.83 billion in tickets sales that year alone. This natural tendency toward certain themes and the predictable response of the receiving public piqued my interest, begging me to ask: Why are we repeatedly drawn back to the same kinds of themes in our narratives? And what is it about these stories that they so resonate with us?
I am certainly not the first to ask this question. The study into the similarities in stories across culture and century began as early as the late eighteenth century. The English writer Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) commented, “How small a quantity of REAL FICTION there is in the world,” how “the same images with very little variation, have served all the authors who have ever written.” By the late 19th century collectors of folktales were coming across versions of the same basic story “cropping up from places culturally and geographically so far apart that it no longer seemed possible that such stories could have sprung from just one original source.”
More recently, journalist and author Christopher Booker devoted over thirty years of his life to an extensive analysis of this phenomenon, summarized in his critically acclaimed work The Seven Basic Plots. Author and podcaster Mike Cosper added to the conversation in his 2014 book The Stories We Tell. It is Booker, however, who attempts to organize these patterns by distilling a vast array of stories written over the centuries into seven basic plots; Comedy, Tragedy, Rags to Riches, Rebirth, The Quest, Voyage and Return, and Overcoming the Monster. Reinforced by an extensive bibliography of literature, his proposal (though not completely watertight) provides a lens through which to view the stories of humanity. Booker’s framework left me affirmed in my own conclusions yet still pondering why all these stories have presented themselves in this way.
As he closes his volume, Booker gets down to presenting what he sees as the explanation of the observed trend. He begins by highlighting that, for many late nineteenth century writers, stories and myths were an attempt to explain occurrences in nature common to all mankind (e.g.: sunrise/sunset, the changing of seasons). He agrees in a sense, suggesting that the genesis of these stories indeed comes from a source that is universal, yet — he argues — not external. The skill of the writer, he suggests, “lies in the power with which they manage to find new outward clothing in which to dress up a theme which is already latent, not only in their own minds but in those of their audience.”
Over the course of the last 200 or so pages, Booker dives deeper into what he defines as “a controlling power that is centered in the unconscious.” He asserts that our stories, not unlike our dreams, serve as a projection of the underlying psychological dynamics at work behind our conscious thinking. Drawing heavily from Jungian thought, he suggests that there are primary archetypes (Father, Mother, Child, Animus & Anima) within our unconscious that operate as the main creative forces in forming our stories. It is our natural draw to these archetypes, he argues, and their subsequent presentation in various forms, that give explanation to the narrow field of thematic fictional material.
Reading Cosper, we observe certain similarities in his approach. As with Booker, he acknowledges the pattern of predictable plot lines and points to a singular formative agent as its driving force. Yet moving forward he diverges, reaching to an external source to find his answer.
Cosper proposes that there is “one grand narrative (that) subsumes and encompasses all the other comings and goings of every creature — real or fictional — on the earth.” This narrative, he argues, is none other than the biblical story. From the utopia of Eden to the depths of the fall, from the power of God’s sacrificial rescue, to the unspeakable joy of justice, reconciliation and redemption found in the pinnacle of history — it is Cosper’s belief that all of our fictional creation is driven by our conscious/subconscious longing for the realities in this story. The recurring themes of brokenness, tragedy, sacrificial love, justice, rescue and freedom that inhabit our fictional worlds are but an engagement with our earthly experience and a reaching toward this truer narrative. It is for this reason, suggests Cosper, that we are drawn back into the same themes over and over, “like a faded beauty who looks in the mirror remembering her youth, mourning the long-gone glory of Eden.”
In summary, Booker proposes the phenomenon of the seven basic plots is best explained by the dynamics at work within the human unconscious. Cosper proposes that all our creative work in the fictional realm is an engagement with our earthly experience, an experience itself infused with longing for the biblical narrative. Reflecting on both proposals, Booker’s approach, while in many ways intellectually intriguing, leaves us rather flat. Yes, our fiction is a projection of something deep within us, yet I feel more inclined to lean with Cosper’s conclusion. His ideas speak to both our innate longings and the foundational ones promised within the biblical story, as well as our instinctive desire to move beyond the role of a spectator of fiction to an active participant within our fiction.
One may rightly suggest at this point that a large portion of humanity rejects the biblical story. The irony of this reality is not lost on Cosper. Interestingly, he suggests this tension of refusal and longing merely drives people to create (and emotionally inhabit) more worlds/stories that expound on the very themes they reject in the biblical narrative. In our attempts to avoid the stark experience of the real world (and yet maintain a rejection of the biblical story) we create pseudo realities that speak to our deep longings and transcend our earthly experience, yet those pseudo realities pale in comparison to the glorious reality of the biblical narrative. There are many ways in which this rejection of the biblical narrative/ imitation dynamic plays out, yet none is clearer than the way in which we navigate death in our stories.
Dying In Our Stories. Few would disagree: death, for being one of the most natural things in this life, carries an overwhelming sense of the unnatural. Each time it enters our story or the story of another, its sting and starkness profoundly impact us. Death evokes an almost primal response on an emotional, mental, and physical level. For something so common in the human experience, we have never quite settled with its presence in our lives. Some would say death is but another juncture within the narrative of life, like birth or marriage. Yet we cannot seem to get over the sense of it being an imposter within that tale. While birth and marriage seem to affirm and harmonize with our instincts, death unapologetically disturbs them.
We often react to this derangement with an outcry of injustice over the unfairness of death, particularly in the loss of the young. Yet even within the celebration of “a life well lived” we carry a similar sentiment. Whatever death looks like, we still walk away from the graveside with pangs of grief that spark from the painful friction of reality against our gut instincts.
In the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, we see the writer affirm our perceptions of death in real life. He articulates (and battles with) the ominous and unwelcome inevitability of death. Though he sees wisdom in the consideration of our end (“A wise person thinks a lot about death”), he also sees injustice (“It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate”). At the end of his book, the writer offers a poetic meditation on death, a poem in which the decay of a dilapidated old house is a metaphor for the decay of a human body:
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Everything is meaningless!”
Ecclesiastes 12:1–8 (NIV)
In Ecclesiastes, death is the final thing, the eventuality that the poet can’t get past, the end of the matter that sucks meaning from life. Turning toward our fiction however, we can see several ways in which we have attempted to transcend our unsettling worldly narrative into something ultimately more biblical at heart.
In the summer of 1994, I went to see the new Disney release The Lion King. As an eleven-year-old I was just becoming aware of “playing it cool” around friends, yet nothing could have prepared me for the stampede of wildebeest that would trample Simba’s father to his death. No amount of pre-teen social pressure could stop my tears as I witnessed the sheer injustice and finality of Mufasa’s murder coupled with the deep grief of a son losing his father too soon. Yet as the film progressed, this tide of emotion subsided in the knowledge that Mufasa, while physically dead, was very much still alive and was able to speak to and in some way “live within” his young son, Simba.
As an adult (I managed to hold back the tears this time!) I experienced a similar narrative in the recent Marvel hit Black Panther. T’Challa witnesses the murder of his father in a bombing, yet later we learn how his father lives on with his ancestors. In fact, T’Challa is later able to visit with his father in an afterlife like experience. Indeed, the theme of defeating the definitiveness of death is all too common in our stories (think of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Neo in The Matrix, Harry Potter, Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Jedis in Star Wars, etc.).
Companies like Disney and Hallmark (also think any chick flick you’ve ever seen) have made billions out of the “and they lived happily ever after” sentiment. The frequent usage of this literary conclusion (and the fact that we use it for almost all of our children’s stories) suggests there is a sense in which this feels a most natural and satisfying end. Essentially, we are consistently drawn to a reality where death is either surpassed or absent altogether. And when we are faced with the alternative, where our heroes don’t make it in the end (I’m thinking of people like William Wallace, Tony Stark/Iron Man, Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, etc.), we are drawn back to the familiar bitter taste of our earthly experience. We are left longing for their return or for some kind of lasting reunion with their comrades. When we begin to observe the kinds of longings projected in our fiction and the foundational realities of the biblical narrative, we cannot help but see a cohesion between the two.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.
(Revelation 21:1–6, NIV)
This prophecy of the future heaven and earth speaks to our present suspicions about death, helping us understand why it wars against our deep-seated inclinations. It makes sense of our drive to create stories where death is defeated or absent altogether. In our creating we are engaging with our discordant earthly reality and (subconsciously or not) echoing a true reality, a place where decay and death make way for immortality and eternity with God.
My approach to stories has changed considerably since that date night several years ago. The themes of sacrificial love, loss, justice, redemption and freedom, themes that I then took as mere narrative twists, I now see as signposts to an ancient grand story. In light of this revelation, I believe we can approach fiction in a different way. No longer simply a means of transcending our earthly experience to a more satisfying but ultimately mythical reality, it becomes a means to remind us that there is a truer reality, a reality ultimately more glorious and satisfying than any story ever told.