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The seven basic storylines: #5 Tragedy

Romeo and Juliet open book, rose

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.

The ‘Tragedy’ storyline, by and large, is the flipside of two others: Overcoming the Monster and Rebirth.

As we’ve mentioned before, every character needs a flaw. Maybe it’s vanity, ambition or simply ill-conceived romance, but whatever it is, characters are flawed. In a Tragedy, the hero will be overcome by their flaw. The flaw eventually consumes them, and the hero becomes the villain.

People think of Tragedies and imagine Romeo and Juliet, Titanic or The Gargoyle. They think of star-crossed lovers torn apart by fate. But a Tragedy isn’t just a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Although a Tragedy storyline always ends badly for the protagonists, not all unhappy endings mean the story is a Tragedy.

Tragedy is all about succumbing to our base instincts. It’s about fatal flaws, and what happens when we give in to the devil on our shoulder.

The flawed protagonist(s)

More often than not, the protagonist of a Tragedy dies, and that death has to feel deserved. It has to feel karmic, almost. Perhaps they see the error of their ways just a little too late. Hamlet‘s titular character is so consumed by his lust for revenge that he brings death to just about everyone he knows. When he dies, we feel he sort of had it coming.

Romeo and Juliet isn’t a Tragedy because they die. Romeo and Juliet is a Tragedy because they get married in secret, following their own selfish whims, instead of trying to reconcile their families and pursue a traditional romance. As a result, six people die. It’s a Tragedy because adolescent infatuation drives common sense out of their minds: remember, these were two thirteen year olds who got married after knowing each other for a grand total of a day.

Nobody’s perfect, but perhaps one of the great tragedies of character – and life – is wanting to be right so much that you don’t listen to the other side of the story. This concept is a key building block of many Tragedies.

Tragedy and genre

Tragedies usually don’t have happy endings – not for the protagonists, at least. As such, the Tragedy storyline is relatively rare in comedies. It’s also unlikely to occur in a war story, as nothing kills a patriotic tale quite like rooting for the enemy.

However, it fits into most other genres relatively easily. Since the protagonist in a Tragedy is often something of a villainous protagonist, the narrative features well in fantasy, science-fiction or mafia stories. Besides comprising a story’s plot, it can also form a villain’s backstory or a subplot in a broader narrative.

The role of the Tragedy

A Tragedy is, more than anything, a cautionary tale. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, but that doesn’t stop us being the villain in someone else’s. The Tragedy storyline teaches us that we’re just one bad decision away from becoming the monster that someone else needs to overcome.

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