Before I reproduce a letter in the Guardian many years ago, what is all this about there only being one story, or seven, or 36?
Humans like to find patterns and make categories. Aristotle said stories should have a beginning, middle, and end, and progress through a logical chain of cause and effect. Unlike many things Aristotle says, this stands up surprisingly well., although now we don’t always tell stories now in the order they happened.
In Shakespeare’s day, plays were comedies (ends with wedding), tragedies (ends with funeral), or histories (‘right’ King wins.)
The Hero’s Journey tries to shoehorn every story into a single model where personal change and succeeding in the objective are the same thing. At a basic level it is definitely right to consider internal and external conflict and change. In my view, the Heroine’s Journey is better in that it considers three aspects – internal change, external conflict, and a change in respect to society (family, team, etc).
Polti found 36 basic plots – truly more like dramatic situations – in fairy tales.
The following piece claims there are eight essential plots (but in effect adds a nineth ‘modern plotlessness.’) Each plotty plot can be ‘inverted’ or comes in at least two versions – so that is already sixteen plots. They can be done seriously or as comedy or farce. Hamlet could be darkly hilarious if no-one ever managed to murder the people they were trying to kill. Then they can be combined. A love triangle can be added to any of the others.
Of course, reading the below, people need not be human, not all boys are looking for girls, and three is not always a crowd.
It’s true that there are deep structural similarities between stories and that understanding how a story works is important. Stories and books can meander and lose interest because the writer is not clear what they are doing.
Writing combines free creativity and strong discipline, matching ideas can produce fruitful new scenarios. But trying to reduce a book to a standard plot can sometimes serve no purpose.
To say every story is either ‘a stranger comes’ or ‘someone goes on a journey’ only works by taking sweeping definitions of the words. That reminds me of the phase ‘everyone is bisexual really’ which can only be true for a very wide definition of bisexual or really or both – a definition too broad to be useful.
Our Child of the Stars is “A stranger comes to town”. Which of the following plots is it?
I like this list because I use it as a prompt for ideas.
“I’M NOT sure about plots for stories, but plots for plays is something my father, the Irish playwright Denis Johnston, had a lot to say about. Originally he thought there were seven, but then he realised there are in fact eight:
1. Cinderella – or unrecognised virtue at last recognised. It’s the same story as the Tortoise and the Hare. Cinderella doesn’t have to be a girl, nor does it even have to be a love story. What is essential is that the Good is despised, but is recognised in the end, something that we all want to believe.
2. Achilles – the Fatal Flaw that is the groundwork for practically all classical tragedy, although it can be made comedy too, as in the old standard Aldwych farce. Lennox Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy is the Fatal Flaw in reverse.
3. Faust – the Debt that Must be Paid, the fate that catches up with all of us sooner or later. This is found in all its purity as the chase in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. And in a completely different mood, what else is The Cherry Orchard?
4. Tristan – that standard triangular plot of two women and one man, or two men and one woman. The Constant Nymph or almost any French farce.
5. Circe – the Spider and the Fly. Othello. The Barretts of Wimpole Street if you want to change the sex. And if you don’t believe me about Othello (the real plot of which is not the triangle and only incidentally jealousy) try casting it with a good Desdemona but a poor Iago.
6. Romeo and Juliet – Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy either finds or does not find Girl – it doesn’t matter which.
7. Orpheus – The Gift taken Away. This may take two forms: either the tragedy of the loss itself, as in Juno and the Paycock, or it may be about the search that follows the loss, as in Jason and the Golden Fleece.
8. The Hero Who Cannot Be Kept Down. The best example of this is that splendid play Harvey , made into a film with James Stewart.
These plots can be presented in so many different forms – tragedy, comedy, farce, whodunnit – and they can be inverted, but they still form the basis of all good writing. The fault with many contemporary plays is simply that they do not have a plot.
Rory Johnston, London NW3.