Hari Patience-Davies considers the stories humanity just can’t stop telling.
Kurt Vonnegut said three. Christopher Booker said seven. The University of Vermont said six.
Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years so it’s not too surprising that things can get a bit repetitive. There are certain types of stories we gravitate back to over and over again and if you take a step back and consider them from a distance, there are clear similarities between tales.
You can break down popular storytelling by genre – horror, thriller, romance – or you can break it down by plot point – underdog triumphant, boy meets girl – or even by location – haunted house, western, space. But there’s no correct answer to the question of how many basic plots there are – it’s all about how you choose to see it (which means really it’s just a lot of different opinions and people fighting in comments sections online).
Storytelling tropes are so well established that you can easily lose several hours of your afternoon falling into a click-hole at Tvtropes.org (seriously don’t open this site at work, you will lose all ability to hit your deadlines). Realising that most romantic comedies owe royalties to Shakespeare and that The Fast and the Furious is just Point Break with cars can be an eye opener.
Here is a (non-comprehensive) list of my favourite story plots:
Overcoming the monster
In which a person must escape from/defeat an evil monster
Subtypes: haunted house, pursuit/escape, the monster is us, evil stepmother, war is hell, defending the Alamo
Examples: Halloween, Scream, Alien, Cinderella, The Purge, Platoon, Haunting of Hill House, Pacific Rim, Horrible Bosses
X meets Y
In which two people (eventually) fall in love. This could be boy meets girl, boy meets boy, girl meets fish-monster… the list is endless.
Subtypes: rom-com, tearjerker, fake-dating, enemies to lovers, buddy comedy (bromance)
Examples: The Notebook, When Harry met Sally, Lethal Weapon, The Fast and the Furious, To all the boys I used to know
In which everything goes wrong but maybe there’s hope
Subtypes: dying young, dying stupidly, dying to save humanity
Examples: Romeo and Juliet, The fault in our stars, The girl with all the gifts, Atonement, Titanic, Great Gatsby
In which we all learn a valuable lesson about X
Subtypes: Scrooge, rags to riches, riches to rags, underdogs triumphant
Examples: Christmas Carol, the Lego Movie, Whip it, Groundhog day, Wall Street, It’s a wonderful life
Stranger in a strange land
In which the unfamiliar is dangerous, and maybe not as unfamiliar as you might think
Subtypes: travelogue, pulling back the curtain, apocalypse
Examples: Walking Dead, The Matrix, Outlander, Alice in Wonderland
In which our heroes must find something to prevent the worst from happening
Subtypes: there and back again, collection of artefacts, rescue the princess, hunt the McGuffin, spy games, murder mystery.
Examples: Lord of the rings, X-men, Game night, The Expanse, Murder on the Orient Express, most James Bond movies
Often popular films and novels blend plots together. Consider The Avengers movie – it’s about a team coming together which makes it not unlike a sports movie (underdog group must learn they are stronger as a team to become the champions – see Mighty Ducks, The Longest Yard, Oceans 11), but it’s also about defeating Loki which makes it overcoming the monster. There’s even a few side plots – Coulson’s tragic death, Black Widow’s personal quest to rescue Hawkeye from Loki and the enemies to teammates bromance between Iron Man and Captain America – that bleed through from elsewhere.
Mainstream storytelling these days is a mix of the complex and the simple. We wants the good guys to win, but we also expect them to suffer an early defeat so that their eventual victory is that much sweeter. Audiences may say they want to be surprised but they also revel in the comfort of a familiar storyline in a Hollywood Blockbuster – in the end people want to know that the story will end as expected (good buys win, bad guy defeated) but we want the journey to that victory to entertain and delight us.
There’s a reason that most major blockbusters these days are sequels, remakes or adaptations – it’s easier to attract an audience if your audience is already familiar with the story you’re telling.
No matter how many types of stories you define, if we all think about it hard enough about it we can come up with at least one famous film or novel that defies categorisation. And that’s fine, because not everything has to fit into an established model of storytelling – it is simply that following the rules, knowing the archetypes and flirting with the tropes ensures that you are telling the sort of story an audience has heard before, and that means they’re more likely to be open to it.
Here are a few ways in which you could apply a basic plot to a project or challenge:
Rebirth/Growth could apply to a rebrand – a company shaking off the negative legacy of its past and looking to the future – maybe an oil company investing in renewables or a fashion brand committing itself to sustainability? What’s the story behind why they decided to make this change?
Or maybe Overcoming the monster could apply to a team struggling against an impossible deadline or a seemingly invincible competitor? How did they overcome it? What were the magical ingredients that led to success?
Perhaps we should consider a discovery sprint as a Quest for knowledge? Or improving a website sign-up or first login experience as a Strange Land waiting to be explored – we’d need to find a guide to help us on our way if we want to get moving quickly… chat bot anyone?
Suffice to say that you don’t have to search for very long to find a plot that you could use. And once you have that basic story you then have a whole new set of tools and tropes you can use to drive success for that problem or client – whether it’s rescuing a metaphorical princess or slaying an imaginary dragon.
Image by Black ice from Pexels.