Monday, August 31, 2009

A Plethora Of Stories

A phone rings.
Then what happens?

-someone answers the phone
-someone answers the phone then immediately hangs up
-someone answers the phone and the caller hangs up
-the phone goes unanswered
-the caller hangs up before the phone is answered
-the ringing phone wakes someone
-the ringing phone startles someone into dropping something
-an alien doesn't know what that strange ringing sound is and zaps the phone with its laser beam (...wait, what?)

Okay, so I'm sure you get my point. A seemingly insignificant event-- a ringing phone-- can lead to millions of possible stories. Or can it?

How many stories do you think there are in the world? Billions? Trillions? An infinite amount?

Maybe. But some sources say there is only one story:

Exposition - Rising Action - Climax - Falling Action - Denouement

Some, like Forrester Harris, argue that there are three types of stories:

1. Type A, happy ending
This pattern results when the central character makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically "wrong") for the sake of another.

2. Type B, unhappy ending
This pattern follows when the central character does what seems logically "right" and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.

3.Type C,’ the literary plot
"In which, no matter whether we start from the happy or the unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail."
This pattern requires more explanation. In short, the "literary plot" is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable.)

In grade school English class, we are taught that there are seven basic stories:

1. person vs. nature
2. person vs. person
3. person vs. the environment
4. person vs. machines/technology
5. person vs. the supernatural
6. person vs. self
7. person vs. god/religion

Christopher Booker’s theory is that all stories, whether it’s Cinderella or Lord of the Rings can essentially be boiled down to seven (different) basic elements:

1. Overcoming the monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
5. Comedy
6. Tragedy
7. Rebirth

Ronald Tobias claims that there are twenty basic plots, that can then be divided into two smaller categories as "plots of the mind" and "plots of the body". Plots of the body are action oriented, not necessarily signifying anything. Plots of the mind are more cerebral and often involve "searching for some kind of meaning".

The twenty basic plots:

1. Quest
2. Adventure
3. Pursuit
4. Rescue
5. Escape
6. Revenge
7. The Riddle
8. Rivalry
9. Underdog
10. Temptation
11. Metamorphosis
12. Transformation
13. Maturation
14. Love
15. Forbidden Love
16. Sacrifice
17. Discovery
18. Wretched Excess
19. Ascension
20. Descension

And then (because twenty is apparently not enough) Georges Polti claims to be trying to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe alleges someone named [Carlo] Gozzi came up with:

1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5. Pursuit
6. Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones.

Wow, now there's a list!

(Sources, for the link-clickers and the curious: The Straight Dope, Internet Public Library, Only Dead Fish)

My questions for you:

How many stories do YOU think there are?
And where does your current project fall on the preceding lists?

See you tomorrow!



  1. Woa. That's a lot of lists.

    Okay, I can do this. My current WIP is:

    Type A, happy ending (so far...)

    Person vs. Person and Person vs. Technology

    Overcoming the monster

    Rescue, Revenge, and Sacrifice

    Rivalry of Superior and Inferior

    Whew! Fascinating lists -- really makes you think about what your story is about!

  2. Great list. Mine is Type A (eventually) but Type B in first book. It's (wo)man vs. supernatural/god/religion (a hybrid, I guess), a Love story with some Sacrifice mixed in, along with overcoming the monster, and obstacles to love.
    Whew, that's a lot to think through.