Basic Plots: Rags to Riches

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:

  • Cinderella
  • Brewster’s Millions
  • The Ugly Duckling
  • The Man in the Iron Mask
  • Aladdin

This is the basic template for a Rags to Riches tale. I’ll be using Aladdin as my example.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Fulfillment
    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.

Staci Troilo

39 thoughts on “Basic Plots: Rags to Riches

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  4. I am loving this series, and am making a suggestion to add the posts to a page or sidebar link. It’s so helpful it’s worth visiting over and over again. I see films like Trading Places, and The Natural as fitting the mold. Possibly even The Sting. Very useful posts. (I might be old, look at those movie titles.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s what I love about literature—the way mashups happen to create magic (pun intended).

      Harry Potter is close. He did go from rags to riches, but there was never the “false riches” in the middle that he lost only to find true riches later. An argument could be made for book 3 being his false fortune, when he found and thought he’d live with Sirius only to have that taken away. However, he didn’t lose Sirius through his own fault, and there wasn’t a lesson to be learned that made him worthy of his later success. Still, there are heavy elements of a rags-to-riches story in Harry’s arc, and this additional theme enriches the work as a whole.

      Great observation, Judi.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t think of a specific title now, but you’re right—some contemporary popular fiction explores this theme with women, where they escape an oppressive relationship and come out on the other side with a successful new business venture, not just a new love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s not a genre I read much of, but that’s good to know. It sounds similar to Anne Rivers Siddons’ work. I used to read her years ago and loved her writing. I can’t remember any specific plots, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of her work fits this iteration.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Never tried this one, but you’re right that it shows up in children stories a lot. That’s probably why people don’t use it much for adult stories. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new rags-to-riches plot too. Has it become less popular?

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