Ciao, SEers. We’re up to our sixth of the Seven Basic Plots as defined by Christopher Booker. If you’ve missed the others, you can find them here: Rebirth, Tragedy, Comedy, Voyage and Return, and Quest.
In today’s post, we’re going to talk about the basic plot type: Rags to Riches.
The Rags to Riches plot is the quintessential American immigrant story. It’s also a popular fairy tale plot. Someone begins in a situation of poverty and hardship and makes something of himself.
Note: A key feature of this plot type is the protagonist achieving success somewhere in the middle of the tale only to lose it again. That success hasn’t been earned yet, so he will lose what he’s attained and have to gain it back. This time, he will have grown and learned, and consequently, he’ll be deserving of his success and get to keep it.
The following are popular Rags to Riches stories:
- Brewster’s Millions
- The Ugly Duckling
- The Man in the Iron Mask
This is the basic template for a Rags to Riches tale. I’ll be using Aladdin as my example.
- Initial Wretchedness then Call to Action
The story begins by showing the protagonist in a deplorable situation. His situation could be a result of nothing more than birth order (youngest child) or societal position (the lowest socio-economic class) or both, but that’s where it begins. Then something prompts him to seek a change of status.
Aladdin is a “street rat” and has no home or means of caring for himself. He squats and steals just to get by. A close call with the sultan’s guard forces him into hiding, where he saves a girl and falls for her. Then he learns she’s the princess. He decides to make something of himself so he can win her heart and her hand.
- Getting out into the World
The hero sets out to better himself. He’s able to make gains in his quest for success, or at least, has the appearance of making inroads.
Aladdin finds the magic lamp. While he isn’t able to make a wish for Jasmine to fall in love with him, he can wish to become a prince (Prince Ali Ababwa). The genie grants that wish, and Aladdin is able to throw his hat in the ring as an eligible suitor for the princess.
- Central Crisis
This is where it all hits the fan, where the hero’s façade begins to crumble. The world sees him for who he is—a pretender. Someone who wasn’t born to the status he’s operating in. He’s knocked down a peg, and his status is stripped.
Jasmine doesn’t care for Ali, but she does like Aladdin. They decide to continue the ruse because of the law that she must marry royalty, but Jafar, the Royal Vizier (the villain) exposes Ali/Aladdin as the street rat.
- Independence and Ordeal
The hero has been taken back to his roots, and all help is gone. He’s left with only his original abilities and traits to overcome the core problem in the story.
Aladdin is back to his “street rat” status, and he’s lost the lamp, or the genie’s help. Jafar is poised to rule Agrabah and the world. Aladdin uses his survival instincts and street smarts to trick Jafar and imprison him.
This is the happily-ever-after moment where the hero has gone from rags to riches and meets or exceeds all his goals. This time, the success sticks.
The sultan (Princess Jasmine’s father) is grateful to Aladdin for saving their country. He changes the rule so his daughter does not have to marry royalty. She marries Aladdin, and he becomes a prince. They live happily ever after.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a rags-to-riches story is trite or cliché because it’s seen a lot in children’s literature. Disney continues to thrive with such stories. It’s interesting to note that their tales are starting to have contemporary themes, though, including strong, empowered, independent women. We can learn from that—this plot might be ubiquitous, but if given a fresh twist, it can make for a heck of a story.
Have you written a rags-to-riches tale? Do you have a favorite you like to read and watch over and over? Let’s talk about it.