The Seven Basic Plots In Online Learning

Using The Seven Basic Plots In Online Learning

Stories are the oldest form of knowledge transfer in human history. Before we knew how to write things down, we passed on our intellectual heritage through an aural tradition. Even with the information technology at our fingertips today, our brains are still hard-coded to interpret stories.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of including a narrative as part of an online learning engagement strategy. It’s the best way to place each employee within the grander scheme of the organization and explain the Epic Meaning behind everything they do.

Not everybody has the knack for story-craft. We can’t all be Dickenses or Spielbergs. That said, there’s a big secret that none of these storytelling masters want you to know – there are only seven plots!

The Seven Basic Plots

In the 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker analyzes the history of stories and the deeper meaning behind them. In the 34 years it took him to research and write the book, he discovered something: If you dissect any story, from Cinderella to Star Wars, you’ll find one of these seven plots at its core.

With this knowledge in your arsenal, you’ll be able to create a narrative for your training in no time! Whether you’re planning an eLearning unit or an entire training campaign, here’s a little inspiration to help you on your way:

1. Overcoming The Monster

Example: Dracula

In this plot, a big, bad, evil force is threatening the protagonist and all they hold dear. By the end of the story, the monster is slain and everybody can go back to the safety of their normal lives.

In Online Learning:

Think about the biggest challenge that your organization faces. Let’s suppose you’re a high-street retailer, for example. In this case, the ‘evil’ could be the growth of online shopping and the threat that poses to the company. Put your learners in the center of the action by emphasizing the importance of strong customer service skills that are no match for online stores!

2. Rags To Riches

Example: Cinderella

The rags-to-riches story is what it sounds like. At the start, the main character lives in some kind of poverty, clothed only in rags (metaphorical or otherwise). They gain some ‘wealth’, which could be anything from a stack of gold doubloons to the love of their life. At some point, they usually lose that wealth, before gaining it again, and growing as a person (or a dog, or a robot).

In Online Learning:

This story is almost made for induction training! When an employee first starts at your company, they don’t know anybody, they haven’t learned the secret language that exists in all workplaces and they’re scared of putting a foot wrong. The ‘riches’ in this case are the skills they acquire in the online learning. It’s not traditionally appropriate to follow the rags-to-riches story word-for-word, thereby taking that wealth away from them. On the other hand, once they’ve passed their induction course, they begin another training journey and they find themselves in ‘rags’ once more, albeit with a little more experience.

3. The Quest

Example: The Lord of the Rings

In the quest plot, the main character teams up with some friends and set off on a journey. They’re usually looking for an important object, or merely trying to get somewhere. Naturally, an easy quest wouldn’t be a very good story, so this plot usually involves a host of obstacles to test the heroes’ mettle.

In Online Learning:

This plot is perfectly suited to frame an entire training program. Every learner is on a quest to become their best and you can think of each learning intervention as an obstacle. In fact, you should think of them as obstacles, and you should communicate as much to the learners. There’s no glory in finishing an eLearning unit – rising to a learning challenge just sounds more exciting! To really make the quest plot work, you need to keep the learning experience as collaborative as possible. Host your learning on a social LMS and make sure you involve a few team-based activities.

4. Voyage And Return

Example: Alice in Wonderland

In the Voyage and Return plotline, the protagonist is lurched out of the ordinary world they’ve come to know. They find themselves in a strange and often perilous land and the plot charts their journey home and the lessons they learn along the way.

In Online Learning:

Online learning can quickly become a little samey and your engagement levels can suffer as a result. What better way to spice things up than to yank your learners out of their comfort zone and into a strange and slightly scary new world. You could send them a surprise multiple-choice quiz, but that’s what they’ll be expecting you to do! Instead, give them a real challenge and ask them to write a statement, take a photo or record a video giving their own perspective. This makes the entire learning experience more personal – maybe a little uncomfortable too, but that’s what makes it so exciting!

5. Comedy

Example: Four Weddings and a Funeral

It’s easy to assume that the comedy plot is all about having a laugh without any real point, but it goes deeper than that. Although it’s usually light and frivolous in nature, comedy isn’t just about humor. In a typical comedy, the characters run into constant conflicts, each one more confusing than the last. The plot runs towards a single event at the end which clarifies all the seemingly ridiculous things that have been happening until that point.

In Online Learning:

I wouldn’t blame you for glossing over this plot-line in your quest for a learning narrative. I might argue with your motives though. You probably think comedy is just silly and doesn’t belong in training. That’s not true, and it’s not the best reason to avoid the comedy plot either. The fact is, this is probably the most difficult plot to pull off properly.

If you’re tempted though, I salute your bravery! You’ll have to have a clear idea in your mind from the outset and ensure that any confusion you create is counterbalanced by that final piece of the puzzle that pulls everything together. If you can do that successfully, you might end up with one of the most powerful training initiatives you’ve ever seen!

6. Tragedy

Example: Breaking Bad

The classic tragedy plot charts the downfall of a fundamentally ‘good’ character. This character either has one critical flaw, or makes one fatal mistake, that proves their undoing in the end.

In Online Learning:

Boring online learning is bad enough, but imagine how bad depressing online learning might be! Tragedy is something that needs to be handled with great care in an online learning initiative. That doesn’t mean you should avoid it altogether. After all, we learn a lot from others’ mistakes! You can try creating a recurring tragic character, that person who always seems to get everything wrong. Introduce them at the start of your eLearning units as an example of what not to do.

7. Rebirth

Example: A Christmas Carol

In this plot, the main character usually starts off as a fairly unlikeable one. They might be a criminal or just a garden-variety misanthrope. At some point in the story, an event occurs that forces them to change their ways, usually for the better.

In Online Learning:

This isn’t a plot I’d recommend for a wider training initiative. After all, you don’t want to give your learners the impression that you think they’re horrible people! It could be useful in certain circumstances, however. For example, when it comes to waste, we could all do with being a little less horrible. If you’re on a mission to reduce wastage in your organisation, it doesn’t hurt to force the learners to examine their own habits. If they discover they are technically horrible (in this case at least), the training will act as the pivotal event that turns them into better people.

Final Word

If nothing else, thinking of your training in terms of stories will help you clarify the journey you want to send your learners on. If you really commit yourself to the idea of weaving a narrative, you could end up with a highly engaging training experience and one that will stick with your learners… and they can all live happily ever after!

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