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The seven basic storylines: #2 Rags to Riches

Person wearing half ragged clothes and half suit

One thing you may not have realised about stories is that, for all the possible variations, each falls into one of seven archetypal narratives, as described by Christopher Booker. In this miniseries, our guest contributor, author Lewis Bright Rees, will take you through them.

You’re going about your day. Maybe it’s a perfectly normal day, or maybe your life is in a slump. Maybe you need your car fixed or your partner has just walked out on you. And then, all of a sudden, you win the jackpot in the lottery. You inherit millions from an unknown relative. You find a genie that helps you achieve all your dreams.

Congratulations! You’ve joined the ranks of Eliza Dolittle, Harry Potter and Andrea Sachs in a ‘Rags to Riches’ storyline.

A sudden change in circumstance

This storyline is all about a sudden change in fortune for the better. A perfectly average character (for the setting) is given an opportunity or sudden windfall that elevates them into the higher reaches of society.

The conflict here is usually that the character is dreadfully unsuited for their new position. They’ll sit at a dinner table surrounded by the rich and influential, and be unsure about which fork to use, or drink from the fingerbowl. One way or the other, their humble beginnings – and lack of effort to achieve their current status – will come back to bite them.

All may be lost

And bite them, it will. At some point in the story, it will feel like all is about to be lost. Placed back in the position they began in or faced with the very real possibility of going back to their roots, the character will have to do everything within their power to regain their elevated position.

They may decide to start applying themselves, displaying skills nobody thought they had. They may have to show their partner what they’re missing, or overcome their own self-doubt. In some cases, the loss is self-imposed, with the protagonist deciding they’re not cut out for their new life. But, through hard work, they’ll regain their position, exceed it, and find themselves in a much better place than they were at the beginning of their story.

We empathise with the hard worker

This loss is key to the Rags to Riches storyline. There’s no satisfaction to be gained if a character has everything fall into their lap, and is instantly happy and fulfilled. The original gains are rarely – if ever – a result of anything but blind luck or the whims of those in power, but this is hard for the reader to empathise with.

How many of us have been given a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity, or won a jackpot in the lottery? Our wealth is more likely to come from hard work, skill and guile: traits that the hero inevitable must display to regain their position.

We want to see them earn their happy ending, instead of having it thrust upon them, because it makes us feel that earning our own happy ending is a real possibility.

As with every other storyline, this is more common in some genres than others. Comedies, romances or dramas are far more likely to follow this plot than horrors or thrillers. Where it does occur in the latter genres, it tends to be a part of one character’s arc or backstory rather than the driving force behind the plot itself. The threat of losing everything can also come from unexpected outside sources rather than the situation itself.

All about aspiration

Rags to Riches, far more than the other basic storylines, is an aspirational narrative.

If we’re not born into wealth and privilege, we likely dream of gaining them, whereas most of us hope to avoid a situation where we need to overcome a monster or have a dangerous quest thrust upon us. We’ll root enthusiastically for a character if there’s a chance, no matter how small, that we might gain the same success for ourselves.

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