This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for The Wizard of Oz. Well, not exactly the movie with Judy Garland nor the Frank Baum book, although both have their merits. And they also inspired some great music that I love, like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the Scissor Sisters’ “Return to Oz”. Rather I’m thankful for it, and many others like it because it’s an example of a well-told story. And where would we be without those, be they in film, in print, or handed down orally generation to generation?
What’s more, it’s a prime example of one of the Seven Basic Plots…and where would aspiring writers like myself be without those role models to guide us?
As an aside, my early memories of the Wizard of Oz weren’t all that great. I was very little – maybe three years old – and in hospital, and they somehow got the local theatre company to perform the play (likely in quite scaled down form) in some sort of auditorium at the hospital. Those who were well enough to be transported out of their room to see it were. I vaguely remember it being a bit disturbing. I clearly remember being very disturbed and frightened when they sent the actors around the hospital. The witch came to my room…not a comfort for an ill three year old!
Some years later I overcame my Witch trauma and watched the movie, and quite liked it although agreeing with my mother that Judy Garland was probably too big and old to be a believable Dorothy. Regardless of that, it was an interesting film and doubtless ahead of its time in production values.
I likely didn’t give it any more thought until I hit my twenties. I picked up the then-trendy novel Bright Lights, Big City and loved its style, I was fast in line to see the movie adapatation. I read through reviews of it and was surprised that several made reference to it being a retelling of the Wizard, give or take. Seemed a bit of a stretch, but when one boiled it down, both were stories of someone being transported from somewhere simple (in fact, Kansas in both) to somewhere shinier and glossier (Oz for Dorothy, the Big Apple and its nightclubs for Bright Lights…), looking for excitement and new meaning, only to be put in harm’s way, ultimately disappointed and going home, more appreciative and wiser. Okay…maybe they had something there.
Years later, I would come across a fiction writing principal known as The Seven Basic Plots. The appropriately-named Christopher Booker had the idea that there were really only seven plots in all of the world’s great stories. There’s Overcoming the Monster (from Dracula to Star Wars), Tragedy , where the “protagonist is a hero with a character flaw or great mistake” (MacBeth, Bonnie and Clyde) , Comedy, which he suggests also needs conflict resolved in the end (Midsummer’s Night Dream, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Quests, something bigger than the person (think of the similarities in the wildly disparate Raiders of the Lost Ark and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) , Rags to Riches, which if successful should also include growth of the character (Cinderella, Great Expectations), Rebirths, where the flawed character grows and becomes anew (Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Elizabeth & Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) and Voyages. Oz. Bright Lights, Big City. Alice In Wonderland. A fantastic journey leading the subject back home, a better person.
Now, it’s entirely possible that if you really think about it at length, you might be able to come up with a popular story, either book or film, that doesn’t fit any of those categories. Hats off to their creator if so… especially if it ended up being a story that resonated. But it’s remarkable how many great stories do fall into one of the seven categories. That’s handy for me, as a writer, to remember. And it’s handy for us all to remember by extrapolation – no matter how different our own stories seem from other people’s, chances are they’re not all that terribly different. There aren’t too many different life stories… the way that we choose to react to them, the tiny details are what make them memorable and separate the good from the bad… the Scrooges from the Darth Vaders.
The witch in the room or the likable Toto. Ultimately, we all decide how our story will be told.