Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Only 7 (or 21 or 69) Stories Ever Told

Over the years, many people have claimed that there are only N stories to be told.  The number N has varied from as low as one to as high as sixty-nine (that I could find).  For those adhering to the "there's only one story to be told" philosophy, what is the story?  "Stuff happens".  Oh, that's so useful.

In William Foster-Harris's The Basic Patterns of Plot1, he says there are three stories:  happy ending, unhappy ending, and literary.  That's better than "stuff happens."  Why don't we divide stories into those with an odd word-count, and those with an even?

Some of the more sophisticated N-way categorization may have a use in a high-school English classroom, but I still don't see its use to a writer.  Take, for instance, Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories2.  He lists stories of; overcoming the monster, rags to riches, journey as quest, journey as voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.  Of course, there's also Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces3.  Sure -- you can probably fit any story you can read into one of the available categories.

Unless the book you're trying to categorize is Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past4, which many would say doesn't even fall into the allegedly all-inclusive "stuff happens" category.

I don't want to delve into the question of whether or not an author should pick a category, a master story, to pattern their next novel on.  If it works for you, do it.  If you don't pick it beforehand, it may jump out at you when your manuscript is complete.  Cool.  But to me, the entire issue is a distraction:  I won't be thinking about master stories as I write or plan my next novel.  Neil Gaiman is with me on this one, or rather I'm with him -- he said he stopped reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces half way through.  He didn't want to know that stuff.


What bothers me is when the argument morphs from "which category can we put a given story into?" to its seemingly obvious (to some) corollary "there are only N different stories that can be told."  I object to that.  Strongly.

Every person's life is a story.  We not only speak of "life stories", but each life has a beginning, middle, and end, just like a story.  Each life has characters, main and otherwise, that act out the story.  Stuff happens.  Everyone gets a journey to take, obstacles to overcome, monsters to fight, ups and downs, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.  Is everyone's story the same?  Of course not.  Is your story the same as mine?  Is mine the same as a 14th century slave in Italy?  Is the slave's story the same as the current Queen of England?

We can draw parallels between the slave and the queen or between any two lives:  it's one of the things humans tend to do, but it doesn't make the stories the same.  Why not just say that no story is ever worth reading because you always know how all stories turn out? -- They end.

You might argue that when I say "N different stories",  I should be saying "N different categories of story."  Then should I say there are N different kinds of people?  I don't believe that.  I won't let myself be limited like that.  Neither way of thinking about it (as categories or as stories) helps me to write, and I can't see how it can help anyone else, either.

In writing, as in life, we have more than enough things trying to limit us, hold us back, pigeon-hole us, shake our confidence, make us second-guess ourselves, put crimps of various sizes in the creativity that makes us who we are.; we don't need any more negativity.  I hereby declare that there are an infinite number of stories to be told:  an unlimited number of choices for each of us to make in our lives as well as our writing.  Choose wisely.  Even choosing not to choose is a choice.

Every choice creates a new story.

1.  Haven't read it, don't plan on reading it.
2.  Haven't read it, don't plan on reading it.
3.  Started reading it, stopped when I figured out what he was getting at.
4.  Haven't read it yet, but it's on my list, and coming up soon.


  1. Hi John!
    I've emerged from revision hell. Usually when I visit I try to bring my A game so I can digest what you've written and respond with a somewhat educated comment. Not tonight. My brain is fried. But I will say I'm a big fan of the happy ending. It's why I read romance. Reading is my entertainment, I don't want to read about world problems. And while I don't believe there is a finite number of stories to be told, I notice many recurring plot lines in romance. So I often wind up switching between sub-genres for some variety.

  2. Hi Wendy,
    I like happy endings too, but I like a mix: I'm always up for something different.

    You made mighty quick work of those revisions -- I hope you were paying attention!

    Oh -- we just found out today that Tyler did not get selected as Valedictorian. Bit of a bummer for him, but he's our hero regardless.

  3. I actually finished my revisions today. 4/26 I was taking a break, revisiting the world. When I'm in the zone I can work for hours, and did. Day and night. Now my eyes hurt and I'll probably fall asleep by nine tonight, but I'm done. At least until they ask for more, which I guess is better than a rejection.

    I just wrote: So sorry to hear about Tyler....Then I deleted it....because I'm not sorry. Being a Valedictorian candidate is quite an accomplishment, and something to be proud of regardless of the final decision. We all know judging is subjective and the best person is not always the one chosen. He could have worn a certain color shirt that rubbed a judge the wrong way. He could have used a word one of them didn't understand. The list of possibilities is endless. Please send him my regards and my congrats on a job well done.

  4. I will tell Tyler. I'll point him here, so you'll have told him yourself. [It could also have been something like the science dept. has had 3 of the last 4 valedictorians, and it's time for another dept. to get their share.]

    I don't know why I though you planned on working through MAY on your revisions. You said "through the month," and I thought it was May already, I guess. I wasn't thinking too clearly, since the main thing going through my mind was OUCH!

    I was thinking about using the valedictorian episode as fodder for my next post. Just as you say, it's so subjective: like picking queries to ask for partials from, for instance.

  5. Well, now that I have been directed here, time to respond.

    Wendy: Thank you. In hindsight we decided that the award was won the moment I was picked as a finalist. It's always nice to have that last step up, but still. At least it's one less thing to worry about.

    Actually, quite a lot of people have agreed that the finalist is picked for fluff reasons. And also, there is quite a lot of anger at the choice. Maybe they're just saying that to my face and who-knows-what behind me. But, particularily among the Journalism class, there is some real tangible anger. Saying things such as, "Yeah, you're SNC's (my school's abbreviated name) golden child. We GET it already."

    I'm curious how the article will turn out because that class has blacklisted the Art Department right now. One girl requested that we do an article on her show, backed out of the interview the day before (on the basis she didn't want to sound stupid), didn't email a quote to the writer, and threw a royal fit (literally) when she found the article was not in the paper. I could go on with other examples, but you get the idea.

    Anyway, to circle back to the original disscussion, I can't be sure what made the final cut. However, in response to Dad's suggestion it had better not be that. I don't know who got it my first year, but my second was another computer science major (who was also named Tyler, that could have been it too). Last year, was an Art major. This year, is an Art major.

    The lack of knowing the true reason has really made me want to be on a Valedictory panel, just because now I really want to know the sort of things they look for.

  6. Hi Tbiz!

    I would guess that in addition to a set of pre-determined criteria dictated by the school, each person on the panel has their own set of ideals regarding who they think should be the school Valedictorian.

    More important than being a humble winner is being a gracious loser. (Not to imply in anyway that you are a loser...but you get my point.)

    Win or lose you have a wonderful and exciting future ahead of you. Focus on that!