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It’s Not (Always) About the Lorax, by Michelle Nijhuis

“Are there other ways to tell environmental stories? With Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots as a field guide, I’ve been searching for examples of environmental journalism with other-than-tragic narratives — archetypal frameworks that still fit the facts, but startle the reader out of his or her mournful stupor.” (Michelle Nijhuis)

The Seven Basic Plots By Christopher BookerTaking a slight breather at the halfway point of the Nausicaa Project, I wanted to share an intriguing article titled It’s Not (Always) About the Lorax by Michelle Nijhuis. She notes too often environmental stories gravitate towards tragedy because it’s the most direct method for expressing the loss or diminishment of nature. But while this approach is honest and powerful, it can leave readers feeling depressed, powerless, and paralyzed. Nijhuis loosely uses Booker’s Seven Basic Plots to highlight a series of well-written narratives that use other approaches to convey environmental understanding. My favourite story listed has to be Alan Rabinowitz’s incredible Wild Eyes, if only because I’ve actually camped in the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve in Belize.

The piece got me thinking about the Ekostories I’ve explored. What kind of plots do they contain? Which categories are well-represented? Are there some that don’t show up at all?

1.) Overcoming the Monster – I had a surprising amount of trouble with this one. The stories that have this as a chief plot include the twisted fairy tale of Majora’s Mask in which the protagonist travels to a new world and works to save its people from a malevolent force, or Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender in which the main character defeats the “big bad” via unconventional means.

2.) Rags to Riches – The Ekostories that use this plot have little to do with the acquisition of monetary gains, but are more about gaining happiness and contentment through the creation of a healthy environment. In Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden, a boy and his damaged patch of garden eventually transforms the city into a lush and vibrant place. Jeannie Barker’s Window is actually a Riches to Rags story as the natural environment is converted into suburbia before the process is reversed in Belonging where the drab cityscape is transformed into a nurturing and diverse neighbourhood.

3.) The Quest – I find that this common plot is often tied up with Overcoming the Monster and Voyage and Return. An exiled Ashitake sets off to find a cure for his curse in Princess Mononoke and is swept away in events far greater than him. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang awakens after a century to discover he must set out with friends to restore balance to a war-torn world.

4.) Voyage and Return – This is my personal favourite plot, as I’ve always been fascinated by the process of maturity and the circularity of coming back to one’s self for true understanding and acceptance. A lot of Le Guin’s work revolves around this plot, including A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore in which Ged the protagonist returns home to find wisdom, insight, and solace.

5.) The Comedy – These are surprisingly easy to find. Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt subverts conventional perceptions about nature to hilarious effect. Both Dinosaur’s Changing Nature and the Simpson’s Bart the Mother are genuine comedy of errors. Changing Nature carries a tragic tinge as Earl realizes the consequences of his actions too late, while by the end of Bart the Mother,  it’s clear that no learning has taken place at all.

6.) Rebirth – For me, the rebirth plot is probably the most affective and powerful of all; these are the poignant stories that inspire and offer hope from despair. In The Wind Waker, a king finds redemption and respite by entrusting the future to the next generation. In The Inner Light, a man given the chance to experience a second life in a society that has long vanished is profoundly affected. For me, these plots reaffirm the power of choice and the possibility of change.

7.) The Tragedy – As Nijhuis states, sometimes tragedy is just the fastest way to truth. Jared Diamond’s Twilight at Easter depicts the decline of the environment coinciding with the collapse of civilization. In Tiptree’s Love is the Plan the Plan is Death!, doom is foreshadowed from the beginning, yet we are compelled to keep reading to learn about the well-intentioned protagonist.

What do you think? Can you think of examples you have come across of non-tragic environmental stories? Do they fit into any of these seven basic plots? Would love to hear your thoughts.

16 Comments

  1. Great post! Many of my favorite stories combine several of these plot devices. I think creating ekostories is a challenge, this includes the ones that green businesses and governments tell. Many Ekostories that portray “realistic” views of the future end up giving more weight to a tragic outcome instead of one of possible rebirth. On the other hand, ekostories can’t be so optimistic that they ignore the steep challenges in the world.

    • Yeah, I think Booker mentions that most stories feature a mix of those seven; I was lazy and just mentioned one per for the most part 🙂

      I think sometimes there is a tendency to portray the negative aspects of reality for the sake of being gritty and interesting and “hard-hitting.” But like good stories, life is always a mix of everything, the light with the dark, the good with the bad. That’s why there is still hope amidst the worst of times. Thanks for commenting.

  2. It is so easy to become overwhelmingly depressed by what we’re doing to the earth, especially by global warming. While narratives of tragedy have their place, we also need stories that will uplift our spirits if we’re to have the psychological/spiritual energy to do what we can for the planet and a truly human society. Thank you, Isaac, for reminding us there are alternatives to dwelling on tragedy.

    And as a writer, I’m definitely interested in thinking about these plots!

    • Couldn’t have said it better myself Nancy! It’s not that tragedy doesn’t have a place, it’s just that there are other stories to tell out there. I think it’s important to explore some of those, hence the range of stories on this blog.

      I’m pretty sure TV tropes has a more detailed and specific synopsis of the 7 plots if you want to check it out. 🙂

      • Mention of TV reminds me of why I love Star Trek. Unlike dystopian SF, it always leaves the viewer with a sense of hope.

        • Ahh, there’s an interesting topic for exploration. Even Star Trek contains many different forms of narratives, which is a good thing. Overall, I think the original series and Next Generation were more optimistic glimpses of humanity and its potential, whereas something like Deep Space Nine dealt more with the human experience within the context of politics and war.

  3. Maybe that’s why the original and Next Generation are the series I prefer. Deep Space Nine had interesting characters, but definitely less optimistic, and it seems to me that after Roddenbury’s death, Next Gen and the whole franchise in general morphed into a very different ethos (though I’ve enjoyed the recent movies, which feel more in line with Roddenbury’s original vision).

    • Yes. The tone definitely changed. I’m actually in the opposite camp and think TNG actually improved dramatically after Roddenberry’s departure. I still enjoy the original series very much though and appreciate his legacy though. Different strokes for different folks! 🙂

  4. As someone who has come to create little stories nearly by accident, I was very interested in learning about these seven basic plots and whether I used them in some intuitive way. I noticed that you are attracted to the more epic length stories with complex plot lines. It’s fascinating to think of the possibility of archetypal story forms being used to shape potential outcomes. Thanks for giving me more to think about!

    • I’m glad you find this interesting. I automatically associate quest plots with many of your stories. I’m not sure if I’m right or not though 🙂

      Right now, I am definitely focused on a sprawling epic, but I also enjoy shorter simpler stories as well. Power and resonance sometimes comes with brevity.

  5. I gravitate toward stories that fit plots 3 and 4 and you’ve covered my favorites. I love The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, because it teaches kids the healing value of gardening.

  6. Love this idea. What’s intriguing though is that all those plot types do have a type of happy ending (even if with tragedy it is merely catharsis). Surely that’s a case for more genuine positivity regardless of which story arc environment writers choose

    • In short story writing, I’ve heard from some that it’s a good idea to end with a unexpected twist. Not a plot twist, but merely a sideways observation or a strange scene that help the story stick in someone’s mind. Perhaps there is opportunity to do that and inject a spark of positivity into even the most tragic environmental story.

      Just me rambling 🙂

  7. Like your parsing of plot types. I hope it will inspire a new project. My last one, Dragonfly’s Question, is a novella that helps people to envision and want a more sustainable lifestyle. I think too many people fear that it would be this huge sacrifice (what, I have to give up my SUV!?) instead of a huge improvement in their quality of life by reconnecting them with their community.

    Like you, I felt we needed more positive stories, ones that people could be pulled toward rather than more gloom and doom. Bill Moyer (not Moyers) says that for society to change, people have to say Yes three times: yes, there is a problem; yes, there is a solution; and yes, the solution is an acceptable alternative to the status quo. I think most people are stuck on the last question. That’s where positive stories based in reality are helpful.

    • Thanks for sharing Darcy, your combination of a novella and a discussion guide is pretty intriguing. I’ll check it out in detail when I have a bit of time.

      I love that Moyer quote and agree with the assessment that most are stuck on the last point. (of course, some are still stumbling over the first) The new vision has a lot of inertia to overcome, even though objectively it can be a no brainer.

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