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The 7 Basic Picture Books?

As part of the training I deliver on persuasive writing, I always introduce business writers to the basic plots. A number of authorities have defined lists of plots that books can follow, but I tend to favour the Seven Basic Plots defined by Christopher Booker.

In theory, these apply to all stories but, when I try and fit them to picture books, I find it doesn’t quite work.

Take, for example, Room of the Broom. The witch isn’t really on a quest for anything and she doesn’t learn an important life lesson (except possibly to buy stronger brooms); whilst it is funny, it is not a comedy in the classical sense. She’s not reborn and doesn’t go from rags to riches. She does overcome a monster, but only late in the story, and it’s not tragic.

In short, it doesn’t fit the model. And when that happens, there’s only one thing to do.

Change the facts. Let’s face it, it’s hard coming up with a good model; it’s much easier to change the plot. I’m sure Julia Donaldson won’t mind…

Let’s look at the options:

1. Overcoming the monster – The dragon is introduced on spread 1, and is terrorising a village. The witch sets out to defeat it, gathering allies along the way

2. The Quest – The dragon can only be defeated by a mythical wand, so the witch and her band of animal heroes set out to recover it and save the day.

3. Journey and Return – The witch sets out to defeat dragon alone, as she is greedy and wants to claim the dragon’s treasure for herself. The animals help her overcome small obstacles (not too different from the actual story), but she still doesn’t want their help with the dragon, until, in her hour of need, they help her anyway, and she realises the error of her ways.

4. Comedy – The witch thinks the animals are stealing her things, and sends them away. She then ends up in all sorts of hilarious scrapes that the animals could have helped her with, before everyone realises the mistake and all come back together in time to defeat the dragon. Includes a fart gag during the swamp scene.

5. Rebirth – The witch is evil but, after a near-death experience mishandling a lighted dragon, she realises the error of her ways and is reborn as a dragon-defeating heroine.

6. Rags to Riches – The witch and the animals are all left with nothing after the dragon destroys their homes. After a chance encounter with a goat herder, they discover a back door to the dragon’s cave and set off a treasure avalanche, which crushes the dragon and floods the village with gold.

All of these are good, but I think, ladies and gentlemen, I have found the winner:

7. Tragedy - the witch is convinced that her cat is plotting against her to take over the broom. Every time she loses an item, she is convinced this is the cat throwing them overboard. Whilst searching for her bow, she plans to kill the cat. When she hears rustling in the reeds, she zaps it with her wand, but accidentally kills the dog in the process. The bird, who was best friends with the dog, vows revenge, forcing the witch to kill the bird as well. When she loses her wand, the frog refuses to help find it, as it saw what had happened earlier.

Then, suddenly, the dragon attacks! The cat, who dearly loves the witch hurls himself into battle but, with no allies, is quickly defeated. The cat declares its love for the witch with its dying breath, causing the scales to fall from the witch’s eyes. The witch, full of remorse, lets the Dragon eat her.

In the final scene, the dragon chokes on the witch’s pointy hat.

If that isn’t a bestseller, I’ll eat my witch.

Do you think there are seven basic picture book plots? If so, let us know what they are in the comments below.

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Cath Nichols
Cath Nichols
Apr 14, 2021

I think of Seven Basic Plots in pairs that get more sophisticated: Overcoming Monster and Rags to Riches are simple stories like killing ogres e.g Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella.

The Quest and Voyage and Return more eventful (e.g. several monster or challenges to get through) but fairly straightforward emotionally.

Comedy and Tragedy are more adult: Comedy is rom-com that starts with everyone in a tangle, misunderstanding everyone else's motives but it ends with people paired up and happy. Tragedy replaces the childhood 'monster' with the character's own self and shadow side e.g. Macbeth a good soldier/captain who gets ambitious and starts murdering people to become king! So Comedy and tragedy are maybe more appropriate to YA? Unless it…


Cath Nichols
Cath Nichols
Apr 14, 2021

1. Overcoming the problem: child faces small problem and is embarrassed/ tries to avoid it. Then with help (or not) finds a solution. Tons of PBs.

2. Avoiding the problem with hilarious consequences: as it says in the title! No-one learns anything but it is all terribly funny. Fewer PBs such as Not Now Bernard.

3. Addition and subtraction: character adds more and more elements to a situation before realising that the solution is to remove them all. Rather like 'voyage and return' as you sail out from the 'home' situation and change it massively but then you sail back and realise that 'home was good in the first place'. (As in the witch on Room on the Broom or…

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