The 7 Basic Plots: Rebirth

by Liz Bureman | 20 comments

This post is part of our series exploring Christopher Booker’s theory of plot types in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write StoriesSee type 12345, and 6, and 7.

I have a confession to make: I'm kind of into Doctor Who. In general, sci-fi is not my thing, and if there are aliens involved, it is even less my thing, yet here we are. I think it's the characters and their arcs that make me keep watching (that, and the fact that David Tennant is probably the most adorable man on the face of the planet). The series got its start in the 1960s, and is currently on its 11th Doctor. How does that work, you ask? Briefly, the Doctor is an alien who can regenerate himself when he's close to dying. He'll take on a new appearance and personality, but have the same memories. Neat way for the series to live on forever, eh?

This regeneration, while not exactly its own plot, brings me to the next type of plot of Booker's seven: Rebirth.

Rebirth

Photo by Nasa's Earth Observatory

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Rebirth stories generally focus on villain protagonists who redeem themselves over the course of the story, after spiraling deeper into villainy and meeting a redemption figure. Redemption figures usually come in the form of a child or the protagonist's other half, and they serve to remind the villain-hero what compassion or love feels like. They also help the villain-hero see what the world alignment is actually like, instead of the warped perception that the protagonist has that has given them the proclivity towards villainy.

The Structure of the Rebirth Plot Type

Unlike the other six plot types, Booker does not give a list of stages for stories of Rebirth. Instead he provides a basic sequence (listed here):

  1. A young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of the dark power.
  2. For a while, all may seem to go reasonably well. The threat may even seem to have receded.
  3. Eventually the threat returns in full force, until the hero/heroine is seen imprisoned in the state of living death.
  4. This continues for a long time, when it seems like the dark power has completely triumphed.
  5. But finally comes the miraculous redemption, either by the hero (if the imprisoned figure is the heroine), or by a young woman or child (if the imprisoned figure is the hero).

A Christmas Carol is probably the best-known example of a Rebirth story, with Scrooge as the villain-hero, and the three ghosts as redemption figures. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is another example (a lot of holiday stories, it seems, fall under this umbrella). Basically, most stories where the hero is morally ambiguous and does an about-face by the end of the story are Rebirth plots.

What is your favorite rebirth story?

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PRACTICE

Write a Rebirth arc for a classic villain in literature or film for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the comments, and leave some encouragement for your fellow writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

20 Comments

  1. Elwyne

    Ha! Huge Doctor Who fan here. Rebirth has definitely been a recurring theme of the modern show, recovering from the Time War and all that. But really any type of character can ‘regenerate’ themselves, becoming something or someone else as a result of what’s happened to them, what they see about themselves, what they see about the world. It may be a new appreciation for the life they have; a new resolve to change things; a new opportunity they’ve never seen or had before. I think a kind of rebirth happens in any story regardless of plot type: rarely is a character the same person at the end that they were at the beginning.

    Reply
  2. Stephanie Noel

    I’m a Whovian, too! I think the rebirth in Doctor Who doesn’t really have to do with his regeneration but more with how he changes while traveling with his companions. Donna, for example, stops the Doctor from completely annihilating an alien; she helps him come back to the “good” side and heal the wounds of the loss of Rose. Clara does something similar with 11th and helps him go back to the good doctor and accept the Ponds’ departure.

    Reply
  3. Syleste Hoskins

    Thanks for this post! I have been having trouble with my plot, but this was a revelation. I never considered that my WIP plot might be the Rebirth. I should have done more research before now. Great mini-series of posts!

    Reply
  4. Rachel Pierce

    I think I’m in a rut of thinking of female characters, because the only thing I can think of after reading this is how much I want to turn it on it’s head and have the girl be the hero. I hate that that’s different, because those are the characters I love most of all.
    Also, Doctor Who is fantastic.

    Reply
  5. The Striped Sweater

    I’m afraid 15 minutes wasn’t enough time for me on this one. My plan was to redeem the Gingerbread Man, the infamous snatcher of sweets. If I finish the story, I’ll post it here as an update.
    “Run, run just as fast as you can, you can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!”
    The Gingerbread Man shot off the table, his sack full of pastries.
    Those kids wouldn’t be getting a single mouthful if he had anything
    to say about it. Tears filled the little boy’s eyes as he looked down
    at his empty plate, but his sister was more enterprising.

    “Let’s see you take our dessert now, you little runt!”

    She flew from her seat and slammed the door. Without breaking stride, the Gingerbread Man scattered candy sprinkles across the floor. He activated the
    compression switch on his sack, instantly flattening the pastries.

    “Hey, that’s my Cinnabun. Waaaaah!” wailed the baby brother.

    The Gingerbread Man took a flying leap across the floor. Sliding on the round rainbow sprinkles, he escaped through the gap beneath the door, the flattened
    pastries bringing up the rear.

    “Run, run, just as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the Gadget Gingerbread Man!”

    Reply
    • Emma Marie

      This is hilarious, Striped Sweater! I love this Gingerbread Man!

  6. Winie

    Humbert Humbert has always haunted me. I’ll try and show him trying to convince, in his own way, how he’s changed.
    I’ve maintained, time and time again, throughout my incarceration, our relationship was purely platonic. Read the opening sentence of the novel I wrote about our journey across America, fleeing from the wrath of jealous and ill-informed relatives.
    After Lolita’s mother died they abandoned her. They came to the funeral to see what they could pick up from the estate. Her husband had been wealthy. Once. After she was buried they walked around the house, eyeing the furniture and the pictures on the wall. They sniffed, and then left. They never turned up afterwards for the reading of the will
    Lolita wasn’t someone they wanted bequeathed to them.
    The authorities complained that she missed school? I gave the little angel much more than a stuffy classroom and pimply boys with wandering hands ever could have: freedom. I showed her the outside world, and allowed her free rein to let her spirit breathe.
    You insist I use her proper name? I refuse. Dolores sounds so sad, with its mournful cadences.

    Where was I? That Lolita, my Lolita, chose to stay in the motel rooms all day, eating hamburgers and ice cream and watching television is neither here nor there.
    They say first impressions count. With me it’s my name – Humbert Humbert – that puts people off right from the start.
    And, you forget something else. Who provided friendship and companionship to her mother, Charlotte Haze, alone and struggling to make ends meet? The fact she had a pubescent daughter whom even married men ogled made it even more difficult.
    Excuse me while I get my thoughts together before I paint myself into a corner.
    Ladies and gentlemen of the Probation Board. I address you as the mature people you are. With the wisdom of your life experiences you can see I’ve mended my ways. My past continues to haunt me precisely because I’ve cast it behind me.
    Believe me, I still grieve for the death of the playwright.
    Lolita grew up to be a fine young woman, despite what people maintain happened during our friendship. Her subsequent failed marriage is but another statistic of life in America.

    Reply
  7. AlexBrantham

    Another one! I too am not big on sci-fi generally, but never miss a Doctor Who episode: perhaps that means it isn’t really about Sci-Fi, they are mostly straightforward adventure/morality tales that happen to have a few aliens scattered here and there. Oh, and being able to travel in time is a great way of solving plot problems!

    Here’s my villain and his redemption – perhaps not what you were looking for but I was having fun!:

    Big Brother was getting bored, to be honest. He’d seen it all – literally. Nothing could surprise him anymore, because he had looked into the living rooms and inside the minds of everyone in Oceania for the last umpteen years.

    What made it worse was that most of what he saw in their minds, he’d put there in the first place. It was like trying to communicate with a room full of two-year-olds, all of them faithfully parroting back whatever nonsense he’d decided to push out that week.

    From time to time he had tried to amuse himself by telling them something so absurd that they couldn’t possibly believe it, but that hadn’t worked: once they’d fallen for War Is Peace and Freedom is Slavery, they were going to swallow anything. Then he started to get surreal: Tree is Pink had been amusing – watching the functionaries in the Ministry of Truth get to grips with that had been quite fun. It was a bit of shame that every tree in Airstrip One had been either chopped down or died from Pink Paint Poisoning, but it gave them something new to blame the enemy for.

    Until, one day, BB saw something different on one of the screens. A prole was being tortured – sorry, re-educated – in the Ministry of Love and he’d suddenly stopped screaming. The silence was unusual, and his interrogator was also a little taken aback. BB zoomed in, not wanting to miss anything.

    The prole was tied in a chair, almost naked, filthy, and close to breaking point. His head was hung forward, almost as if he was looking for inspiration on the urine-soaked floor in front of him. He lifted his head and started to croak.

    BB couldn’t hear, so he turned up the volume control on his telescreen to eleven, but he could still hardly make out the words. He could see the interrogator, likewise, leaning forward, doubtless hoping to hear the expected words of capitulation.

    By now, the prole was gaining strength. His head was now held high, the song he was singing filling the room, shaking BB to the core.

    “Always look on the Bright Side of Life…,” he sang, his lips cracking when he tried to whistle.

    And from that moment BB was a changed man. Compulsory physical exercises for all were replaced by compulsory screenings of old Monty Python movies, and everyone lived happily ever after.

    Reply
    • Winnie

      Fascinating environment you’ve created. Ministry of Truth, proles, the Monty Python movies, all suggest a world gone awry.

  8. Margherita Crystal Lotus

    Rebirth! Did you ever die to your old self? A good situation turned into a nightmare, which made your life so unbearable that the only option is to give up. It happened to me, not only once. And after each such episode, I emerged, like a drowning child who finally realizes that her current strategy of screaming does not work under water.

    My dilemma was I loved so much, and had made my solid commitment to be true to my love. The marriage I went into came crashing down like a big tower crumbling by its own heavy weight of expectations. It was not possible to hold it all any longer. I was swimming in conflicting emotion, like a trapped fish in a tiny aquarium. There was no other way than to jump out without knowing what would await me.

    At that critical juncture of total constriction all strings holding me in its grip fell apart, my heart broke wide open and vulnerable. I was being reborn through the pain of passing yet another birth canal into a new life.

    I was free, but scared! It left me like a helpless newborn. Friends and other angels rushed in to help recover my spirit. This new landscape was foreign and yet intriguing. In the end, it was my curiosity that carried me through, and turned it into an adventure to explore the precious gems found at the core of pain itself. I also gained another lesson in how to love. Humbled, I understood that love has no boundaries except love. It cannot be bound by expectations, ideas or other concepts. True love is free! What I could do is to respect that freedom and nurture my relationships that include freedom of mind itself.

    Reply
    • Winnie

      Impressed by “..being reborn through the pain of passing through another birth canal … ” Then “you’re free, but scared.” You describe that part of renewal so well. Is that why some of us still cling onto the old however unpleasant, because it is familiar?

    • Margherita Crystal Lotus

      Yes I think so, I believe our life lessons (rebirths) are like layers of an onion. There are still fears that potentially can drag us backwards.. and real freedom is to have mastered those fears. Does that sound true to you?

    • Winnie

      Agree with you there. We also talk about “our baggage from the past” that we unwittingly drag along with us, mainly to act as points of reference for our new experiences.

    • Margherita Crystal Lotus

      Yes Winnie, You got it! I am working with my “baggage”…. Writing about it helps me to solve some of it, and if in doing that others are inspired I am happy. Your statement “act as points of reference for our new experiences” is brilliant! Thanks, I will adopt this idea.

    • Winnie

      The pleasure’s mine. I heard it from a seasoned writer.

  9. Michael A.

    I still find Darth Vader’s rebirth story the most compelling

    Reply
  10. Josue Molina

    I think when a story is so good, genre is irrelevant. How many people love Terminator or Jaws — and never seen another sci-fi or monster movie ever again? Because it has a strong theme, I believe. It’s about a man or woman overcoming their fears.

    Anyways, I’m interested in learning about the basic plots. I’m assuming it close relates to Joseph Campbell’s teachings? or Christopher Vogler.

    Reply
  11. Eric

    Favourite rebirth story has to be Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich! It is also one of the most spiritual.

    Reply

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