Seven Basic Plots
“Doctor, doctor, come quick!” one of his nurses suddenly shrieked at him from across the hall.
“What is it, then? A stillbirth? An adverse reaction to an epidural? Another father who couldn’t take the suspense and bolted? Speak, nurse, I haven’t got all day,” Doctor Morgenstein -who did in fact have all day- said.
“I think you’d better follow me, Doctor,” the nurse said, her face as pale as the nameless things that lived down in the ruins behind the hospital.
Sighing, and making the kind of grunt that would have impressed the goblins of the Outer Forests, Doctor Morgenstein followed his nurse into room 665.
At first, nothing looked out of the ordinary. A mother, a father, a baby, all breathing, none of them missing any limbs or showing signs of acute bodily trauma. Then he saw the expressions on the parents’ face. They were clearly in a state of supreme shock. The mother seemed torn between the maternal instinct to keep her newborn infant close to her, and a terrible sort of repulsion, as if she was in the presence of an unspeakable horror.
“Who do we have here then?” Doctor Morgenstein asked, trying his best to sound friendly, which came about as natural to him as to the great hissing hydras of the Red Desert. “What an adorable little face she has. Wait, don’t tell me... she’s a Number Four, right? A new Voyager to welcome into this world, to leave us and return one day, with treasures for the mind and riches for the soul?”
An eerie silence filled the room. Everyone was staring at him, except for the baby, who had her eyes shut as if in meditation. Doctor Morgenstein interpreted the awkward silence as an indication that he’d missed the mark with his guess - unusual for him, but not unheard of, as he was only human after all.
“No? A Number One, then? She does look rather strong, doesn’t she? Stocky build, arms made for waving a sword about.”
“Doctor, I think you’d better have a look at her Mark,” the nurse said, uneasily.
Doctor Morgenstein was intrigued now. Not a Four, nor a One... he couldn’t remember the last time he didn’t correctly guess a baby’s Purpose within the first two tries. Lifting the baby up, and carefully turning her around to look at the little back, he saw...
Doctor Morgenstein nearly dropped the baby. In the spot between the tiny shoulder blades, right where the Mark that indicated every person’s Purpose from birth was supposed to be, was a horrifying expanse of smooth, utterly blank skin.
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” the Doctor asked, briefly forgetting that he was in the presence of the newborn’s parents. The mother immediately started sobbing, and the father threw himself down into the chair next to the bed, seemingly having lost all will to live. Typical Number Sixes with their overly dramatic gestures, Doctor Morgenstein thought. Of all the kinds of people in the world, he found the Tragics to be the most insufferable.
“What.. what shall we do with her?” the nurse asked, careful not to upset the parents further. As a Number Five, being diplomatic didn’t always come easily to her. She had a tendency to make light of any situation, which Doctor Morgenstein found incredibly annoying. Not today, however; her sense of humour seemed to have temporarily abandoned her, which was at least a small blessing as far as the Doctor was concerned.
“Put her with the Monster Slayers. Number Ones are the most numerous, so at least statistically we’ve got the highest chance of being correct. Hopefully it’s some sort of freak temporal anomaly, and her Purpose will reveal itself a few days or even a few hours from now.”
“What if it doesn’t?” the husband asked, his voice drawn out and shaky, which made him sound like one of those really annoying howling banshees that roamed the haunted graveyard at the edge of town.
“We will figure something out,” Doctor Morgenstein said, but he knew in his heart that he was only giving the poor man idle hope. He felt his Mark burning, and felt a strange itch in his soul, the likes of which he had never experienced before, but which had been described to him a thousand times over. There could be no doubt: he was about to fulfil his Purpose.
Three days passed. The baby had been under constant observation in the Number One nursery, and while she looked healthy and content enough, her mere presence appeared to upset the other infants. They appeared to sense that something was wrong with her, that her very existence was upsetting the balance of the Universe.
Unmarked. Could it be that those silly legends were true? They were nothing but folk tales, yarns spun by idle minds who were frustrated by the wait for their own plots to unfold. There was no evidence, no solid proof for an Unmarked human to ever have existed.
And yet, here she was: a human devoid of Purpose, her future life a blank canvas, a book filled with empty pages, devoid of plot, storyline, twists, obstacles, goals or victories. Someone who would be able to shape her own destiny, someone who could take control of her own Fate and live her life outside of the constraints imprinted upon her very being from birth. Here she was, an Unmarked, a true abomination.
He thought about the life the child would likely have, growing up without a Purpose, unbound by rules, not fitting into any of the categories that the entire world was built around. She wouldn’t be able to attend any classes, wouldn’t be assigned a trainer nor a mentor, and would be completely clueless with regards to what career to pursue - if she even made it that far.
He thought about the dream he’d had the night before. A little girl, perhaps six years old, was being yelled at by all the other kids, taunted and insulted for being different. She ran away, crying, and ran straight into a dark cave in the woods behind the school. The cave was inhabited by giant blood-sucking bats, in the midst of an epic battle with a pair of Number Ones. Startled by the sudden intrusion, the Monster Slayers briefly dropped their guard, resulting in the tide of the battle turning against them. They were mercilessly slaughtered, their plots cut short, their Purposes unfulfilled.
Shrieking, the girl ran out of the cave, and bumped into a Number Four on his way to Heroes’ Harbour, to catch a ship to the Forgotten Shores.The Number Four tripped and fell, breaking his leg on a sharp boulder. As a result, he missed the ship he had paid for with his life’s savings, and he had no conceivable way of ever departing on his Voyage; another Purpose destroyed. The dream went on like that, Comedies and Tragedies fizzling out before they reached their climax, Number Twos going from Rags to Riches and back to Rags, before dying of starvation, and so on and so forth. It was the worst dream he had ever had.
Something needed to be done. This creature was a threat to the very fabric of the world, and a huge responsibility rested on Doctor Morgenstein’s shoulders. It was then that he understood: instead of bringing life into this world as he did every day, he would bring death today, and by bringing death, he would save mankind. His Mark was a rare one, and the Purpose of Number Sevens was always unclear until it stared them in the face, which often only happened late in life. It was time for him to fulfil his Purpose, to transition from an obstetrician to a murderer, the perfect Rebirth. He felt his Mark burning hot underneath his shirt.
He took the Unmarked baby from her cot, walked into the storage room, and closed the door behind him. He kept a dagger in his lab coat, as most sensible citizens did .You never quite knew when a hobgoblin was going to run amok through the streets, and while he knew it was not his Fate to die at the hands of a monster before fulfilling his Purpose, being bitten by one of those vile creatures was still mightily painful. He pulled out his dagger, and looked at the unsuspecting infant.
She was staring straight at him, and she had the most unusual eyes. Their colour was unlike anything Doctor Morgenstein had ever seen: he swore he could see swirling vortices of iridescent blue and soft pinkish clouds of stardust, with tiny white pinpricks of light shining through from behind the veils of colour. He looked into those eyes, and felt a strange sense of calm come over him, washing away all the stress and sense of responsibility he had felt ever since he had become aware of his duties as a Number Seven. He looked into those eyes, and felt that everything was going to be alright with the world after all.
He put the dagger down, picked up the Unmarked one, and walked back out into the hall. Not looking back, he walked through the wards, down the stairs, and out of the front door. The wide world stretched out in front of him, a blank canvas to be painted with swirling colours and stars.
He felt his own Mark twitch, stretch, pulsate and settle, and he did not have to find a mirror to know that he was a Number Seven no more. And thus, they walked out into the early light of dawn, the most unlikely duo in all of recorded history: the first person unburdened by a plot, and the first person to break free of his plot and step into another.
Far off in the distance, a banshee howled, and it knew the world would never be the same again; for it too had a story to tell.
In a daze, Mike walked into the pristine room and gazed around him. A watery film blurred his vision. He had been crying on and off in waves since leaving the hospital.
Blinking the tears away, he looked around. The tasteful artwork on the walls and plush furnishings took him by surprise.
An immaculately dressed, middle aged woman approached him but instead of a welcoming smile she wore an expression of practiced concern. Although the situation afforded such a somber disposition, to be greeted this way by a stranger filled Mike with unease.
"My name is Anne,” she said gently. “Why don't you make yourself comfortable." She gestured to the settee in the centre of the room.
Mike forced his legs to follow his eyes. He sat down stiffly on the black leather couch and looked at the mahogany coffee table before him. His gaze fell upon the tissue box of delicate gold filigree. He had never seen something as benign as tissues presented with such elegance. He reached for one and cleared his vision.
Anne sank into the armchair opposite, opened a black notebook and sat poised with a silver pen. "I'm so sorry you have found yourself here today Mr...?"
"Alberson. Mike..." He said breaking off at the sound of his croaky and unfamiliar voice.
The woman gave a soft, sympathetic smile and wrote a note in her book. Mike had the impression of being in a therapist’s office.
"My condolences Mr Alberson, I know this is very difficult for you. We will do everything we can to make sure that your beloved...?"
"...mother." Mike finished with the same foreign voice.
"Mother, is honoured with a ceremony befitting her and celebrating her life."
Mike nodded as the tears welled up again. He reached for another tissue and blew his now running nose. A silence filled the room. Anne seemed to waiting for him to say something, but Mike could not find any words. Even the intruder in his throat had vanished.
She gestured towards the bound albums on the coffee table next to the tissues. "Why don't you take a look through the folders and choose something suiting the dignity your mother deserves. We have many excellent packages and after you decide a few simple things, we can organise it all for you Mr Alberson. The last thing you need at a time like this is to be worrying about the details."
Mike nodded again and reached for an album. Page after page of wooden boxes. Different shades, different linings, different handles, but just boxes. How could he choose A BOX for his mother?
Anne seemed to sense his hesitation. "Remember, this is the last thing you can do for your loved one Mike. May I call you Mike?"
He nodded slightly and she continued, "I know you want the best for her.” She moved across to sit beside him on the sofa and turned the page.
“This is my favourite. The lining is Italian satin made from the finest silk. Shouldn't her final resting place reflect the love you have for the woman who gave you life?"
Of course it should, he thought. So how can I put my mother, the woman who gave me life, into some box, like a pair of shoes? It doesn’t matter how you dress it up. A box is a box, and none will ever be good enough.
Mike flicked helplessly through the pages and finally pointed to the last.
Anne frowned slightly before returning to her default empathy.
"Mike, I know you love your mother very much... and given that this will be her final resting place, are you sure you that the Basic Plot Package is the right choice?" She turned back to another page. "Perhaps this is more fitting for someone as precious as her?"
Anne's words suddenly penetrated the fog of Mike’s grief. His tears dried up and he found bile rising in his throat at this surreal mockery of grief. Who was this woman feigning sorrow while mercilessly scheming to line her pockets? Suddenly filled with rage he rose to his feet and threw the album across the room. As Anne's consoling eyes grew wide, Mike exploded.
"You disgust me! I mean what kind of person are you? Other than one hell of an actress...you almost had me believing you cared!"
Anne opened her mouth to speak but Mike kept shouting.
"You look at me and pretend to give a shit about my pain, and then act as though I don't love my mother when I don't choose a golden coffin! You don't give a fuck about me or Mum! You neither know nor care what a beautiful, kind woman she was. You just want her death to pay for your life! You're a parasite who feeds on human misery! Well my mother and I won't be your next fucking meal!"
Mike stormed to the door and swung it open with such force that the handle hit the wall and left an imprint in the plaster.
As he ran out into the street he heard Anne calling after him, "I offered her respect and dignity! You can bury her in the backyard in a cardboard box like a pet if you'd rather Mr Alberson!"
Somehow she didn't sound so sympathetic and warm anymore.
"So how was your day darling?" Leo asked his wife as he served dinner. She had been unusually quiet since she had gotten home from work and that never meant anything good for him.
She clutched the fork with white knuckles. "Bloody crappy if you must know. Actually it's been a real shit of a week. I've only sold seven basic plots. Can you believe that? It would have been eight if today’s customer hadn’t gone berserk and stormed out. What’s the matter with people?" Anne pushed the wilted spinach around her plate.
Leo feigned a practiced expression of concern.
I know this isn’t the remit and probably not in keeping with the spirit of the thing, but I’d really appreciate you putting aside your petty grievances and giving me a good score, please.
If someone petitioned me likewise, said: okay, let’s prank the system, let’s give a disastrous candidate a good score – a perfect score – I’d say: sure, why not? The problem is: I *like* chutzpah, I *love* panache. (Both present here.) I’d rather elevate two thousand iterations of the word poo to the height of kings (ok hang on, let’s be serious for a moment. How might we – you, you, you and I – duke the stats and make two thousand iterations of the word poo, literally, as meritorious as something effortful, dedicated, beautiful and profound? Here’s how: 1. we each open 100 dummy accounts. 2. we pay one admission per dummy. [100x£3 = £300 MINUS £200 EQUALS £100, for I shall issue a subsidy.] 3. we each submit two thousand iterations of the word poo 100 times over, a total of 200,000 iterations of the word poo each [800,000 all inclusive]. 4. marking: I’m not committed enough to do the math, but I’d posit the chance of ONE of our 100 dummy accounts NOT being foured up with triple dummy-markers is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so 5. dish out perfect scores to the poos, and ENDGAME.) than something effortful, dedicated, beautiful and profound. That being said, most will consider this submission a piece of shit. Most might consider two thousand I. o' t' W.P. more deserving, braver, sophisticated (conceptually), therefore: giving me a good score *is* an act of rebellion, an act of rebellion against the tyranny of public opinion. I ask you, you and you to rebel, please. (Just not against me.) Please give me a good score.
It’ll be like in She’s All That (1999) (1).
But that doesn’t explain *why* I’m asking.
The truth is – and this really is true – my grandma is 94 years old and has lung cancer. She is a small woman, not frail – she’s light, wiry. She reaches up and throws her arms around my neck to kiss my face and the tubes in her nose scratch my cheek. We don’t speak – not often, not often enough. Because I am terrified of her – this small woman, who once gifted me a bottle of Blue Star antifreeze for Christmas, antifreeze she won in a raffle – she forgot to remove the pink [her lucky number] stuck to it. She loves me, but *thinks* little of me. She worked hard as a nurse all her life (I’m not sure how best to please you; is it by keeping this brief so as not to bore you, or with verbosity to prove hard graft?) whilst I live at home with my parents. When she asks me what I’m doing with my life I am unable to say ‘I am a writer’, out of cruel arrogance or pathetic shame, because what I mean when I say ‘I am a writer’ is ‘I believe nursing should be done by robots to give people more time to write’ and what my grandma thinks I mean when I say ‘writer’ is ‘bum.’ Because the value of the occupation writer is so often tricky to quantify, unlike that of nurse whose value throbs like a heart. Which is why I ask you, please, give me a good score. So I may tell grandma I got a good score. (2)
And so – because the pecuniary benefit interests me less than the wellbeing of the relationship I share with the woman who once housed in her womb the woman whose womb housed me; because my motive isn’t profit; because I am good – I will donate the monetary supplement, the one that arrives attached to the honour of victory, to charity, namely Hodgkin’s Sick Son and Wallaby – an Australian organisation committed to ‘Improving the wellbeing of [Oliver Hodgkin’s] sick son and wallabies, through strategic investment, lobbying and non-violent direct action – specifically chaining [ourselves] by the throat to the ankles of wild cats, foxes and expensive pieces of medical machinery.’ (That’s a joke, of course; I will in actuality donate the money to Save the Children.) (3)
Ok so I don’t know you. You don’t know me. As Jules Winnfield says, personality goes a long way. With that in mind I’ve included a brief roster or manifesto – if you like – of my most dearly-held beliefs to aid my application: 1. I believe nursing should be done by robots to give people more time to write. 2. I believe fire should be banned to give people – firemen – more time to write. 3. I believe laws should be made illegal to give people – policemen & today’s so-called ‘criminals’ – more time to write. (Bandits, for example, would be much more effective in their work minus the fuzz, without having to waste time constructing gaudy disguises, building hideouts and training fast horses, time that could better be spent – after an exhilarating holdup – perusing a good book or jotting down one’s thoughts about the wingspan of owls, the intimacy of death, the colour of kidneys, nuclear disarmament, the decline of the wild bird by the claw of the domesticated cat, climate change, cuts to mental health services, tax avoidance &c.) 4. I believe in operating holograms out of bathtubs paid for by holidaymakers. 5. I believe – given the genetics industry time to flourish unregulated – in adapting to make toothed the body’s every penetrable orifice. This, I believe, is the necessary basis for a functioning anarchist, utopian society. 6. I believe in angels. 7. Lastly, I believe in a national basic income equivalent to the living wage, paid for by a tax on wealth, mansions, cars, poor table manners, swearing, stupidity, boredom, violence, the exploitation of essential utilities for profit, the ransoming of healthcare and trains and electricity and heating and good food and clean water and watertight homes and Twiglets, greed, institution, inhumanity, Inverness, personalised number plates and humourlessness. A basic income would give people more time to write.
(Probably I should have played a better strategy here as I don’t know you, as I operate out from under a veil of ignorance. I should’ve stuck to generic principles like freedom, equality, security & peace and the triumph of good over evil, but I drank a few mugs of green tea out from under the false assumption that green tea is caffeine free and now I’m much too excited to remain reasonable.) (4)
I don’t know you. You don’t know me. But if we met we would cuddle. (5)
(Please give me a good score.)
If I were reading this I’d be thinking the same things you are. Meta-writing is easy. Anyone can do it. You or you or you could have written this. If it were incumbent on me to score this application – and it wasn’t my own – I would need much convincing to score this application favourably. The problem: we know this is an exercise. We know the stimulus and can perceive how the applicant has interpreted it: seven basic plots to win a writing competition: stimulus: Seven Basic Plots. (1. an appeal to your inherent revolutionary spirit, 2. an appeal to the necessity of you having or having had a grandma, 3. an appeal to your inherent charitable, social instinct. 4. an appeal to your inherent sense of social justice, 5. flattery, love and kindness, 6. honesty and 7. to follow.) Honestly I am stuck now. Honestly my grandma isn’t sick. She’s 78 and sprightly. Honestly I wouldn’t give the money to charity. I donate £8 a month to Greenpeace because I believe in non-violent direct action as an essential means to achieving social change. (I believe the activists from Plane Stupid who blockaded planes at Heathrow in protest against expanding the runway are heroes – they literally make my heart race.) Honestly I believe Capitalism has been jolly wonderful up until now, but today – since many corporations make billions and pay little or no tax while our dearly-held public services are slashed; while children – who somehow we can’t afford to help – drown fleeing warzones, their little bodies washed up on the beaches; while economic and environmental stability destabilises, driven by self-interest, the same self-interest that once sucked oil out of rocks to power hospital generators – Capitalism is an obsolete system; it’s time for us all to be a little more imaginative. (You know, granting me a good score will raise the profile of these views, making honesty an unreliable tool like a flaky hammer – you may wish to suppress me!) Honestly I would give you a cuddle if we met. I don’t see why not. Unless you don’t have a body. Perhaps you’re a kind of intelligent gas – or a primitive fluid. I might struggle to hug you if you’re fluid or gas. But I would certainly give it a try. (6)
Hasn’t this been fun? (Honestly I don’t know. Probably it’s been annoying, a bit smug.)
Go on (why not?) give me a perfect score.
Lastly – plot the seventh; this should be reserved for further deconstruction. To pull back again and say honestly, plot number six, honesty, was a plot, too – I said it was – and none of that was true neither. My grandma is, in fact, dead and buried. I hate Greenpeace – crusty troublemakers. The law is the law. Etc. Etc. I could 'have my cake and eat it' – say, I am trying to be honest here, honesty isn’t honest – and then try my darndest to end on a sincere note, something that reveals an intimate, individual truth – because that’s what's important, right? great [predominantly white, male] American novelists of the world – individual truths? Isn’t it? What could *I* possibly write deserving of your perfect score? I do not know. So instead I am going to use every last one of my remaining, precious words – words that could be better used trying to eke more points out of you – to give you a taster of what could be achieved if we each put aside our petty grievances and pulled together: poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo poo- GOOD LORD! As I was doing this I realised: so long as I don't put spaces in between the poos, eg poopoo, they read as one word(!) which means we *CAN* have 2000 iterations of the word poo after all! So this *IS* your opportunity to elevate 2000 iterations of the word poo to the height of kings(!) This is your *ONE AND ONLY* chance to score 2000 poos perfect!
(Don't let it slip through your fingers [then please wash your hands].)