Are All Stories the Same?
Author/Editor : Jennifer J. Lacelle
Date : August 20, 2021
There’s a great debate among literary scholars, authors, readers and the like about the limitations of storytelling. Of course, each story is unique to the author as they reveal tiny pieces of themselves in their work (but that’s another article altogether). The debate, however, is how many types of stories exist.
So, what are these stereotypes? According to the book The Seven Basic Plots they are:
Overcoming the monster
Rags to riches
Voyage and return
Rebellion against the one
Deciphering the Plots
They’re pretty self-explanatory, but to go in-depth, it’s clear to see many stories incorporate elements, we’ll call them subsections, from each of the main sections. You can have a romantic tragedy/comedy (think of the movie P.S. I Love Youfor example).
Let’s break them down to what they mean though. In the first one, the protagonist has to face a monster that’s going to destroy something he loves. Usually, s/he’s hunting the beast down and has to go into the lair, returning with the spoils of victory.
The second one is essentially the underdog story… and unlikely hero who no one expects to succeed overcomes every obstacle and is ultimately famous, rich and successful in the end. The quest is basically a treasure hunt where the protagonist goes off on an adventure in search of his glory.
Voyage and return is when the protagonist has to make their way home after being transported to an alternate world that’s not so friendly. The fifth is probably one of the most celebrated because people love to laugh. Comedy comes in so many shapes and forms that’s plausibly one of the most used and incorporated to other plots. Usually depicted by a community that’s divided by different factors and usually ends in a marriage (love) — like a rom-com.
Such a tragedy! Usually this happens when everything goes wrong and can’t be restored or fixed. Calamity ensues and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Have you ever heard of the story of Job in the Bible? That’s pretty close to tragedy…
To be like the phoenix is the next plot… where the hero is captured by the bad guy until rescued by love, conquering the evil that’s trapped him/her.
The last two were the ones the author of the book supposedly didn’t see as prevalent amongst storytellers. However, both of these have continued to rise in the ranks over the years. When it comes to overpowering the main evil villain, a strong influx of characters capable to do this has risen and will always be remembered for overtaking “the one,” (Thanos, Sauron, Jadis the white witch, President Snow, Voldemort…)
Mysteries are now considered widely successful hits as well, in where people outside the crime or incident must discover the truth. Think CSI, Criminal Minds, Murdoch Mysteries, or Agatha Christie novels.
Beginning, Middle, End
In general, we’re taught that every story has three primary stages. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that. Depending on who you ask, and what you’re writing, there can be anywhere between five and eight structural stages to a story.
If you were to ask Dan Harmon, a well-regarded American writer, what he uses, he’s sure to inform you about his story cycle. It’s now one of the main ideas taught to budding authors.
In this structure, authors are more able to create a vivid, descriptive and clear narrative. Thus allowing the author to more readily understand their own tale, which in turn permits the reader greater access to the nuances of the story.
In the first section, readers are introduced to the character who is comfortable where they are. It’s your basic first-meeting of the protagonist and who they are. Then they realize something’s missing and they have a need or desire that comes to light.
So, in order to obtain that need they end up getting themselves into a situation they’ve never faced before. Which means they have to adapt to the situation in order to overcome it.
Because they’ve adapted, they get what they want, whatever that need or desire happened to be. However, now that they’ve achieved their goal they must pay for their actions, their need. Once that’s said and done, they return to their comfort zone, like coming home again, but they’re different from how they were before their great adventure.
Let’s overview The Hobbit (spoilers) as example:
Comfort Zone: we are introduced to the calm, serene life of one little hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. He smokes his pipe, grows his garden and has second breakfast.
Need/Desire: Gandalf the Grey and a horde of dwarves enter Bilbo’s life, at first he wants nothing to do with the offer but there’s an internal tickle in his gut telling him he wants more than this plain life. He wants to go with the troupe.
Unfamiliar Situation: because he decided to take the chance and go with Gandalf and the dwarves he’s placed in situations he never imagined… Smaug (dragon), giants, being chased by orcs, the elves, battles…
Adaptation: however, he slowly begins to assimilate to the new territory. He discovers his dagger, Sting, and he learns to use it. He goes into the den, Smaug’s lair, in search of the Arkenstone, but he never would have done that before.
Gets What He Wants: he’s gone on the adventure, grown and become true friends with the dwarves. He understands their plight for a home, because he also misses his. However, when things go awry, Bilbo makes a deal with an elven king to save the dwarves, but an army of orcs forces them into a war as they fight for the horde of gold. The battle ensues and because he’s now stronger than before, he tries to help in the field.
But Pays the Price: He must watch his friends perish and there is nothing he can do for them now.
Returns to Comfort: the war is won and Bilbo returns home to the Shire with his share of the treasure.
Having Changed: but Bilbo is forever changed because of what he experienced, endured, adapted to, and saw. He tells his own kin the tales of his adventure and writes his book, regaling future generations of the truth of Thorin.
The Hobbit can fall into the voyage and return stereotype, but also incorporates overcoming the monster and rags to riches.
So… Are Stories Boring?
If you watch movies, or read books, and can guess exactly what’s going to happen next then the odds are in your favour that you subconsciously (or consciously) understanding this dynamic.
When there are plot twists incorporated to the stories, their designed to leave the audience in shock. But they need to be done right. If it’s obvious, or not shocking, then was it really a twist? Of course, the better you are at finding these thing the more likely you’ll know the twist before it happens.
This doesn’t mean stories are all the same. Each one has a different element brought to the table because every author is different. Furthermore, every reader is different. Therefore, every piece of literature has thousands of interpretations and variations.
No to reviews of the same product will be exactly alike (unless it’s plagiarized, but that’s not good either).
The next time you read a book, or watch a movie, why don’t you try and discover what the archetype is. It could make for a great conversation.