Basic Plots 2: Rags to Riches

The last time I saw the TV programme Top of the Pops, was in 1975.  It featured the Bay City Rollers and a man in a flat hat singing the Ugly Duckling!  He was Mike Reid and this is his song!

The Ugly Duckling is a Rags to Riches story pared down to its basics.  Rags to Riches is always about growing up and achieving inner potential.  The Ugly Duckling has to experience a lonely winter before he discovers his true nature.

At first glance, the Rags to Riches story seems a perfect fit for business.  It certainly is for some businesses.  But not necessarily the businesses you might think.  Riches do not of themselves bring about maturity.  The story is not complete until the hero or heroine proves worthy.

Relationship with Overcoming the Monster

There are parallels with overcoming the monster but the emphasis is different.  Here the protagonist may overcome several monsters as the story progresses.

Overcoming the Monster focuses on good versus evil.  Rags to Riches focuses on perfection and completeness.  Just as good versus evil is unrealistic, we rarely encounter complete evil or good in real life, so perfection and completeness is incomplete.  The point is to remind us what is important.

The hero in a Rags to Riches story encounters several barriers and increasingly draws on their own resources to overcome them.  This leads to growing maturity.  Perhaps this story-type fits closer to life coaches than to marketers.  But if it is about growing to maturity, perhaps it applies mostly to younger people.

5 Stages of the Rags to Riches Story

Just as overcoming the monster typically has five stages, so does Rags to Riches:

  1. Initial wretchedness and the call. Note the threat this time is local.  The hero leaves home in the overcoming the monster story to find the monster, in rags to riches they leave home to escape a monster.
  2. Out into the world and initial success. Sometimes this is significant, the hero, with significant help, has good fortune and grows in wealth.
  3. The hero’s hubris precipitates the central crisis. Their initial success goes to their head. At this stage despair sets in.  If the hero does not overcome despair, there is no story!
  4. Independence and the final ordeal – this time around they have to rely on their own resources.
  5. Final union, completion and fulfilment. The rewards are similar to those from overcoming the monster but there is a strong sense that now the hero deserves her or his riches.   They are proven worthy.

Longer stories naturally move on to all five stages.  The temptation is to break off the story at stage 2.  A moment’s reflection shows why this is a mistake.  There are many stories of people finding a fortune and squandering it in a few years. Or early business success is followed by a disaster that takes everything away.  Illness or falling out with a partner are common reasons.

Promises of a 6 (or 7!) figure business are common and are sometimes described as Rags to Riches.  This basic plot underlines the reasons these promises do not become true.

Hidden Potential

The hero often starts in wretched circumstances.  Cinderella for example, lives as a servant at the beck and call of her ugly sisters.  We compare her generous nature their self-centredness.  The sisters don’t just represent a threat, they are also a contrast.

When transformed, Cinderella’s apparent wealth represents her inner nature.  At the end of the story, the Prince recognises her even though she is dressed in rags.

Whatever the failings of the hero, we see she or he is worthy from the beginning.  They have a lot to learn and if that were not so, we would have no story.

Growth from Childhood to Maturity

We see inner potential manifest through the obstacles the hero overcomes.  Frequently initial wealth is itself a barrier to maturity.  It is as much a test as the various monsters the hero encounters.

Typically, initial wealth is found with help.  Cinderella has her fairy godmother and Aladdin his genies.  At this stage they learn they have inner strength to meet adversity without help.

If we focus solely on making money, the Rags to Riches story does not work.  The hero is tested and found worthy.  The real riches are within the hero, not in whatever material fortune comes her way.

The story is about how people become their true selves.  Everything else, wealth and adversity, is there to help them find out what they are capable of.

Moment of Crisis

The hero proves her maturity when she has to face her biggest threat ever without help. The temptation is to give into despair.  Everything that goes before prepares the hero for her final test, where she has to rely on ingenuity and experience to pass it.

In passing the test she shows she is worthy of the external trappings; her prince, her fortune, a kingdom to rule.  But the real riches are the qualities she discovers as she works through her final ordeal.

Perhaps the right ending for this story is “they lived happily ever after”.  Real life goes on and there are more challenges.  The point is this story is over.  The hero has attained maturity.  There are immature elders, of course.  But they feature in a different story-type.

Looking Forwards

This is the second of Booker’s seven plot types.  The aim is not to put your story into a straitjacket but to help structure a marketing story that resonates with your market.

Next time we’ll look at a plot perhaps more relevant to marketers and businesses that help make money, the Quest.  This plot is the first of two about journeying and business owners may find one or the other a good fit.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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Basic Plots 3: The Quest - Market Together Blog - August 1, 2018 Reply

[…] you read the five stages of The Quest, you see parallels with Overcoming the Monster and Rags to Riches.  You see also why quests take a lot of telling.  For this reason, I have adapted a real-life […]

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