How These Cannes Winners Utilized the 7 Basic Plots of Storytelling

They’re the foundation for some of the most successful and creative work

There are seven main plots used across literature, film, TV—and even advertising.
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There was quite a bit of chatter at Cannes Lions this year when Samsung’s CMO, YoungHee Lee, uttered the word “storyliving” onstage during a presentation at the Palais. While I can’t quite figure out the merits of the “living” part, I do know for a fact that the “story” part is alive and well and powering the best work in the festival.

Stories and storytelling are as relevant today on a mobile phone as they were back in the day when Neanderthals were gathered around a campfire.

According to former Oxford Professor Christopher Booker, to build these stories, all you need to know are the seven basic plots. In fact, these seven plots underpin the entire body that Eastern and Western literature, film and television is built on.

The seven plots are: overcoming the monster, the quest, rags to riches, rebirth, journey and return and tragedy and comedy.

When I first stumbled upon this theory in Booker’s wonderful book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, it blew my mind. I could see that from Shakespeare to Spielberg to Sofia Coppola, there were basic plots upon which their most famous stories were built: Hamlet (a revenge quest), Jaws (overcoming the monster), Lost in Translation (journey and return).

Since learning about these plots, I have used them to assess the work we do for our clients, and I have seen how these universal storytelling blueprints are the foundation for the world’s most successful work. Case in point: this year’s Cannes Lions.

Overcoming the monster

Overcoming the monster is a popular tale. Think Beowulf or basically any and every James Bond film. Overcoming the monster is also a favorite amongst challenger brands and any entity taking on a large challenge.

We saw quite a bit of monster-crushing work at Cannes, too. In fact, nearly every Burger King idea seems to be built of this plot as the BK team takes on their market-dominating rival McDonald’s.

But the idea this year that took on the biggest monster was Johnson & Johnson’s Grand Prix-winning documentary “5B,” the story of the brave nurses who set up a ward to care for AIDS patients. Indeed, there was no bigger monster at that time than the HIV epidemic.

The quest

The quest, which is characterized by an epic desire to obtain something valuable—think, Moby Dick or Lord of the Rings—was brought to life wonderfully in The New York Times’ campaign, “The Truth Is Worth It.” The team, led by Droga5, did a magnificent bit of storytelling showing the creation of a story and the extraordinary lengths that Times reporters go through in their quest for the truth.

Rags to riches

There was a wonderful rags to riches tale this year, earning the coveted film Grand Prix for retailer John Lewis. In “The Boy and the Piano,” the adam&eveDDB folks used the rags to riches framework—in reverse. The film begins with Elton John of today: accomplished, famous and successful. From this moment of richness, the film takes us on a journey showcasing the legendary pop star’s rise. We arrive at the end of the film at young Reggie’s beginning and the gift of his first piano.

Journey and return

Journey and return is a timeless plot told through stories like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or pretty much every episode of Star Trek.

A great example of a journey materialized in something surprising is the gold Lion-winning mobile idea for the NBA called “You Seeing This?” This idea inspires a media journey. The folks at R/GA were tasked with increasing viewership during live games. The team smartly leaned into people’s mobile behavior, showcasing game footage that was happening in real time, placing it on platforms like Instagram Stories and proactively asking, “You seeing this?” How could you not take a little voyage over to the game after seeing that?

Rebirth

The fifth plot, rebirth, is all about transformation. Think Scrooge from A Christmas Carol or Bruce Banner transforming into the Incredible Hulk. A good example of rebirth was evident in Google’s ambitious “Creatability” experiments. This bold idea literally transformed people with disabilities into artists. Using AI, the Google team created tools that allowed people who could not hear to create music and those who could not see to actually draw.

Tragedy and comedy

The last two plots are catch-all’s: tragedy and comedy. There was no shortage of tragic stories at the festival, but there was a dearth of comedy.

One powerful idea told the seemingly endless horror story that is gun violence in America. Earning a design Grand Prix, the designers at FCB assembled a book containing stories of people who have been killed by senseless acts of gun violence. To put an exclamation point on these sad stories was a powerful design element: each book was literally shot at. And the ramifications of that bullet’s damage appear on each page and serve to punctuate every heart-breaking story.

One of the rare moments of comic relief in the festival was Apple’s “The Underdogs,” a charming tale of a group of marketers that seek to get approval to launch an innovative round pizza box. There are wonderful casting and some truly funny moments, like when team member Brian’s iPhone—and his mother—wake him up for the big presentation. Oh, and if you’ve been paying attention, this comedy is actually a quest.

Now, these seven plots are no replacement for creativity. No, you still need to build a compelling story upon these foundations. But they do give you a head start, and they do serve as a way to connect with jury members, and most importantly, the audience.