All Stories Are the Same Few Stories

Stories fall into a hand­ful of tra­di­tion­al struc­tures. Many schol­ars have addressed this from dis­ci­plines rang­ing from anthro­pol­o­gy to writ­ing stud­ies. Stories are about con­flicts, inner and out­er jour­neys of growth, and there are a lim­it­ed num­ber of poten­tial con­flict mod­els. Likewise, a char­ac­ter either grows towards good, remains the same, or descends towards evil. Even with nuance, the sto­ries we tell in Western cul­ture reflect a few com­bi­na­tions of char­ac­ter, con­flict, and res­o­lu­tion.

Two years ago, I first read this arti­cle in The Atlantic and told myself I would com­pose a blog post on the top­ic. And then, I start­ed grad­u­ate school for my MFA in Film and Digital Technology. This arti­cle and its source book remain valu­able.

All Stories Are the Same
The Atlantic
John Yorke

Jan 1, 2016

This arti­cle has been adapt­ed from John Yorke’s book, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.

Take three dif­fer­ent sto­ries:

1) A dan­ger­ous mon­ster threat­ens a com­mu­ni­ty. One man takes it on him­self to kill the beast and restore hap­pi­ness to the king­dom … It’s the sto­ry of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the sto­ry of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem pub­lished some time between the eighth and 11th cen­turies.

And it’s more famil­iar than that: It’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob—all films with real tan­gi­ble mon­sters. If you recast the mon­sters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of MI5, House, or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho, and Saw. The mon­ster may change from a lit­er­al one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a cor­po­ra­tion in Erin Brockovich, but the under­ly­ing architecture—in which a foe is van­quished and order restored to a community—stays the same. The mon­ster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s moth­er in Ordinary People. Though super­fi­cial­ly dis­sim­i­lar, the skele­tons of each are iden­ti­cal.

2) Our hero stum­bles into a brave new world. At first he is trans­fixed by its splen­dor and glam­our, but slow­ly things become more sin­is­ter …
It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fan­tas­ti­cal worlds with worlds that appear fan­tas­ti­cal mere­ly to the pro­tag­o­nists, then quick­ly you see how Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, The Line of Beauty, and The Third Man all fit the pat­tern too.

3) When a com­mu­ni­ty finds itself in per­il and learns the solu­tion lies in find­ing and retriev­ing an elixir far, far away, a mem­ber of the tribe takes it on them­selves to under­go the per­ilous jour­ney into the unknown …
It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morte D’Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down. And if you trans­plant it from fan­ta­sy into some­thing a lit­tle more earth­bound, it’s Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Guns of Navarone, and Apocalypse Now. If you then change the object of the char­ac­ters’ quest, you find Rififi, The Usual Suspects, Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider, and Thelma & Louise.

So three dif­fer­ent tales turn out to have mul­ti­ple deriv­a­tives.

We can group struc­tures as Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self… for a start. We have a com­plete Tameri Guide to Plot and Story because the con­cept of struc­ture influ­ences teach­ers of all writ­ing gen­res. There’s Man vs. God and Man vs. Man’s Creation, too, if you want to expand the list. These are old, tra­di­tion­al cat­e­gories with some bag­gage — includ­ing sex­ism, ableism, and Eurocentrism, and so on. The cat­e­gories are also valu­able because we con­tin­ue to use them in our writ­ings.

Yorke notes that screen­writ­ing is par­tic­u­lar­ly prone to struc­ture analy­sis and near-mys­ti­cal claims about per­fect struc­tures.

In my own field it’s a ver­i­ta­ble indus­try—there are hun­dreds of books about screen­writ­ing (though almost noth­ing sen­si­ble about tele­vi­sion). I’ve read most of them, but the more I read the more two issues nag away:

1. Most of them posit com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sys­tems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write sto­ries. How can they all pos­si­bly claim to be right?

2. None of them asks “Why?”

Some of these tomes con­tain invalu­able infor­ma­tion; more than a few have worth­while insights; all of them are keen to tell us how and with great fer­vor insist that “there must be an incit­ing inci­dent on page 12,” but none of them explains why this should be. Which, when you think about it, is crazy: If you can’t answer “why,” the “how” is an edi­fice built on sand. And then, once you attempt to answer it your­self, you start to real­ize that much of the theory—incisive though some of it is—doesn’t quite add up. Did God decree an incit­ing inci­dent should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s jour­ney? Of course not: They’re con­structs. Unless we can find a coher­ent rea­son why these shapes exist, then there’s lit­tle rea­son to take these peo­ple seri­ous­ly. They’re snake-oil sales­men, ped­dling their wares on the fron­tier.

Yorke sug­gests, like Joseph Campbell, there are under­ly­ing expla­na­tions for our sto­ry struc­tures. Maybe this is anthro­pol­o­gy, evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gy, soci­ol­o­gy, or anoth­er field of exper­tise, but there are iden­ti­fi­able struc­tures in Western lit­er­a­ture. They exist and there must be a rea­son they have per­sist­ed for thou­sands of years.

I don’t dis­miss Campbell or any oth­er schol­ar offer­ing evi­dence that sto­ry struc­tures are some­how ingrained with­in us. Nor do I dis­agree with claims that rigid­ly adher­ing to sup­posed mod­els leads to pre­dictable and bor­ing sto­ries. There is a huge dif­fer­ence between under­stand­ing the­o­ry and using a book with bul­let points for plot beats. As one famous writer-direc­tor states, too often we have the some­what informed lead­ing the half-informed to a mis­in­formed struc­ture method.

Here’s Guillermo Del Toro on film the­o­ry:

You have to lib­er­ate peo­ple from [it], not give them a corset in which they have to fit their sto­ry, their life, their emo­tions, the way they feel about the world. Our curse is that the film indus­try is 80 per­cent run by the half-informed. You have peo­ple who have read Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee, and now they’re talk­ing to you about the hero’s jour­ney, and you want to… stuff it in their mouth.”

Del Toro echoes the thoughts of many writ­ers and film­mak­ers; there’s an ingrained belief for many that the study of struc­ture is, implic­it­ly, a betray­al of their genius; it’s where medi­oc­ri­ties seek a sub­sti­tute muse. Such study can only end in one way. David Hare puts it well: “The audi­ence is bored. It can pre­dict the exhaust­ed UCLA film-school formulae—acts, arcs, and per­son­al journeys—from the moment that they start crank­ing. It’s angry and insult­ed by being offered so much Jung-for-Beginners, cour­tesy of Joseph Campbell. All great work is now out­side genre.”

I dis­agree with Del Toro’s tone (obvi­ous­ly, as I cen­sored it). He real­ly hates for­mu­la writ­ing, yet his own films fol­low tra­di­tion­al struc­tures. What he is stat­ing is that you don’t need pre­cise beat counts. You need to under­stand the basics, but you should not adhere to the “by page 12” style rules in many guides. As Yorke observes, there are rules. Audiences want writ­ers to fol­low the rules, with­in rea­son. A twist or two is even with­in the rules. It’s all a mat­ter of degree and zealotry.

But there are rules. As the cre­ator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin, puts it: “The real rules are the rules of dra­ma, the rules that Aristotle talks about. The fake TV rules are the rules that dumb TV execs will tell you; ‘You can’t do this, you’ve got to do—you need three of these and five of those.’ Those things are sil­ly.”

Know the struc­tures from read­ing books and watch­ing per­for­mances. The more sto­ries you know, the more you have absorbed the struc­tures used through­out his­to­ry. I’m a believ­er in read­ing books on struc­ture and find­ing what does and doesn’t work for you as an indi­vid­ual writer. There is no one right guide to sto­ry struc­ture. There are plen­ty of wrong-head­ed guides, though, writ­ten with hubris.

Any good artist knows you learn the basics and tra­di­tions before chal­leng­ing the norms.

Even if you’re going to break rules (and why shouldn’t you?) you have to have a sol­id ground­ing in them first. The mod­ernist pioneers—Abstract Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Futurists—all were mas­ters of fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing before they shat­tered the form. They had to know their restric­tions before they could tran­scend them. As the art crit­ic Robert Hughes observed:

With scarce­ly an excep­tion, every sig­nif­i­cant artist of the last hun­dred years, from Seurat to Matisse, from Picasso to Mondrian, from Beckmann to de Kooning, was drilled (or drilled him­self ) in “aca­d­e­m­ic” drawing—the long tus­sle with the unfor­giv­ing and the real motif which, in the end, proved to be the only basis on which the real for­mal achieve­ments of mod­ernism could be raised. Only in that way was the right rad­i­cal dis­tor­tion with­in a con­tin­u­ous tra­di­tion earned, and its results raised above the lev­el of impro­vi­so­ry play … The philo­soph­i­cal beau­ty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empir­i­cal beau­ty of his apple trees.

Too often when I tell aspir­ing writ­ers they must read, and read, and read some more, they resist. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true of play­wrights and screen­writ­ers. They for­get to study the words on a page (or screen) to see how the words led to the final work. I have argued that if you do not like read­ing, you shouldn’t be a writer. Maybe there are excep­tions, but I doubt it.

Play with struc­ture after you know struc­tureTo exper­i­ment with struc­ture you need to know what parts of the plot are being moved about and why. If you can­not jus­ti­fy break­ing tra­di­tion, then return to tra­di­tion and start again.

Cinema and tele­vi­sion con­tain much great work that isn’t struc­tural­ly ortho­dox (par­tic­u­lar­ly in Europe), but even then its roots still lie firm­ly in, and are a reac­tion to, a uni­ver­sal arche­type. As Hughes says, they are a con­scious dis­tor­tion of a con­tin­u­ing tra­di­tion. The mas­ters did not aban­don the basic tenets of com­po­si­tion; they mere­ly sub­sumed them into art no longer bound by verisimil­i­tude. All great artists—in music, dra­ma, lit­er­a­ture, in art itself—have an under­stand­ing of the rules whether that knowl­edge is con­scious or not. “You need the eye, the hand, and the heart,” pro­claims the ancient Chinese proverb. “Two won’t do.”

Storytelling is an indis­pens­able human pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, as impor­tant to us all—almost—as breath­ing. From the myth­i­cal camp­fire tale to its explo­sion in the post-tele­vi­sion age, it dom­i­nates our lives. It behooves us then to try and under­stand it. Delacroix coun­tered the fear of knowl­edge suc­cinct­ly: “First learn to be a crafts­man; it won’t keep you from being a genius.” In sto­ries through­out the ages there is one motif that con­tin­u­al­ly recurs—the jour­ney into the woods to find the dark but life-giv­ing secret with­in.

Start with craft. Practice craft. Read about craft and prac­tice some more. Only when you are a com­pe­tent craftsper­son should you attempt to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the art of sto­ry­telling.

Especially with­in mass-mar­ket fic­tion, audi­ences expect sto­ries with struc­tures they can fol­low and to which they can relate pre­vi­ous sto­ries.

Why 2017 Lacked Posts

We know there were no posts to the Tameri blog for 2017. We had a lot hap­pen­ing, not the least of which is the com­ple­tion of my (Scott) mas­ter of fine arts degree in film and dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. We did main­tain post­ing to the Facebook page and to our Twitter account, but we didn’t blog. We know that it was a mis­take to let the blog go stale.

It’s nev­er good to neglect a blog for a year. Followers assume it has been aban­doned for­ev­er and some RSS appli­ca­tions mark the blog as dead. Subscribers leave, unless they hap­pen to fol­low you on Facebook and Twitter. Do fol­low the Tameri Guide social media feeds. We are active on Facebook dai­ly.

Now that the MFA is com­plete and some per­son­al mat­ters are set­tling down a bit (a lit­tle bit) we will revive this blog with posts about our favorite books and writ­ing.

Oh, and I co-edit­ed a book and wrote a chap­ter for anoth­er text.

Passive Voice is Okay (Sometimes)

We should stop telling stu­dents and emerg­ing writ­ers that the pas­sive voice is some sort of mor­tal sin in texts. It is not. Sometimes, the pas­sive voice offers the best way to con­trol what a read­er per­ceives as impor­tant.

Consider the fol­low­ing rea­sons to use pas­sive voice:
1. Technical man­u­als.
2. Aphorisms with no agent (actor) involved.
3. Unknown agent with the result more impor­tant than the action.
4. Action-focused sen­tences with­out a named agent.

Technical instruc­tions are pas­sive to focus on the object instead of the user of the object, often for legal com­pli­ance rea­sons.

Valve X is set to 150 degrees by the oper­a­tor after ten min­utes.
The soft­ware set­tings are found in the pref­er­ences menu.
The car should not be left in gear when parked.

The empha­sis in tech­ni­cal man­u­als remains on the object of doc­u­men­ta­tion: the valve, the appli­ca­tion, the car.

Universal Truth” or apho­rism are often pas­sive state­ments.

Rules are meant to be bro­ken.
The uni­verse is for explor­ing.

Any revi­sion of that “tru­ism” would be awk­ward, at best. “The peo­ple mak­ing rules mean for them to be bro­ken.”

Unknown agents result in pas­sive con­struc­tions. If you do not know who com­mit­ted an action, it is appro­pri­ate to use pas­sive voice.

My cam­era bag was stolen.
The bank was robbed.
The vic­tim was beat­en severe­ly.

The thief is unknown in these exam­ples, yet was the agent of action. Revising as “Someone stole my cam­era bag” shifts the focus to “some­one” instead of the more impor­tant cam­era gear now miss­ing.

Action-focused atten­tion, or sen­tences meant to stress the object of the action are pas­sive (and often the agent is omit­ted).

The fam­i­ly albums were burned in anger.

Revising this would be mat­ter of style: “The step­son burned the fam­i­ly albums” might or might not con­vey the desired impor­tance.

Stories that Sell

An email exchange brought some­thing into focus that I want to stress to all screen­writ­ers and nov­el­ists hop­ing to pitch a film, series, or nov­el. A sto­ry needs to be unusu­al, yet obvi­ous. The audi­ence should antic­i­pate some, but not all, of the con­flicts and the out­line of the sto­ry from the basic ele­ments you intend to bring togeth­er.

Here is one pos­si­ble equa­tion explain­ing my ide­al sto­ry:

  • nat­u­ral­ly “dif­fer­ent” char­ac­ters + unusu­al chal­lenge + good set­ting = a pitch that writes itself.

1) If you have char­ac­ters that are, by their natures, going to be in con­flict at times, that’s inter­est­ing to watch. Don’t think about “good v evil” or “pro/ant” yet. Ask your­self, if I put these peo­ple in a room, on an island, side-by-side at work, et cetera, would there be a nat­ur­al con­flict? Think The Odd Couple sure, but also think about it in more depth.

The new show Limitless is doing a good job with this “fish out of water” con­flict. Chuck was based on this, as are most sit­coms.

Consider the shows and films you enjoy. How far apart are some of the char­ac­ters? You should find some oppo­sites in good scripts. They don’t sound alike, act alike, or share the same val­ues.

I had a showrun­ner tell me that for every three char­ac­ters, at least one has to be the “fish out of water.” Two against one is appar­ent­ly inter­est­ing. Pairings can also work (think Will and Grace side­kicks or Cheers with Cliff and Norm play­ing off Sam… or Diane… or every­one else). In film, dif­fer­ences have to be obvi­ous from the char­ac­ter intro­duc­tions. You don’t have episodes to reveal how far apart peo­ple are.

2) Unusual chal­lenges are as unique and shock­ing as pos­si­ble. The chal­lenge has to be a sit­u­a­tion that increas­es the like­li­hood of con­flict. How does the chal­lenge bring out the dif­fer­ences among char­ac­ters even more? How does it place two char­ac­ters in oppo­si­tion? Again, avoid “good v. evil” because inter­est­ing “evil” is often sure it is “good” and mere­ly has anoth­er per­spec­tive of what is best. (Not that pure evil is bor­ing, either, but try to imag­ine the per­spec­tives involved.)

If your log­line is a basic chal­lenge, one we’ve all read and seen, it won’t rise above the sta­t­ic. Catch the real killer? Blah. Defeat the evil dic­ta­tor? Yawn. Expose the greedy, inhu­man cor­po­rate exec­u­tive? Double yawn.

Wait. Don’t those films and shows with pre­dictable chal­lenges get pro­duced? Sure, but by estab­lished writ­ers and direc­tors. To break into the mar­ket, you need to be sub­mit­ting some­thing that stands above the muck that’s being made.

3) Give us a set­ting that is inter­est­ing, in place and time. TV takes the lazy way out and imag­ines big cities are inher­ent­ly inter­est­ing to every­one. I love M*A*S*H for its use of set­ting on TV. Setting is prob­a­bly the tough­est of these to devel­op and make stand apart from what exists. (Bonus if you pull off the set­ting. Few do.)

Setting can dri­ve the action. If the set­ting is the Titanic, we know what some part of the sto­ry will be. Put peo­ple in a closed, con­fined space, and you have an obvi­ous con­flict. That’s why space sta­tions, under­sea labs, and oth­er iso­lat­ed set­tings work so well for sto­ries. Don’t select a “bor­ing” or famil­iar set­ting unless there’s no oth­er choice.

New York is not com­pelling by itself. Neither is a gener­ic small town. The set­ting becomes inter­est­ing when you place peo­ple and events in the set­ting that doesn’t suit them. Trap a spy in a small vil­lage, where she falls in love. Put the coun­try farmer in the big city, search­ing for some­thing that is lost.

Now put these togeth­er and test how com­pelling your con­cept is.

Writing Fiction about Writing: Please, Stop!

I’m mak­ing a movie about a young film­mak­er.”

My new play is about a strug­gling play­wright in New York City.”

I’ve writ­ten a great book about a romance writer.”

And then we have…

My new screen­play is about a play­wright….”

STOP IT. Please. Stop writ­ing about being a writer and assum­ing oth­er peo­ple care. Only oth­er writ­ers will tell you that a sto­ry about a writer is inter­est­ing. Generally speak­ing, writ­ers aren’t that inter­est­ing. They sit and write. They send out query let­ters. They beg friends and fam­i­ly for mon­ey to make their films, pro­duce their plays, and self-pub­lish their unsold man­u­scripts.

Write about inter­est­ing char­ac­ters. Not that some writ­ers aren’t char­ac­ters, but leave that for biog­ra­phers. Plenty of artists (includ­ing writ­ers) are fas­ci­nat­ing train wrecks. If you’re writ­ing about one of those famous drunks, addicts, or oth­er­wise inter­est­ing writ­ers with a great sto­ry, then ignore my pleas. Otherwise, get away from this self-explo­ration.

Write what you know? No. No. And again, no!

I don’t want actu­al psy­chopaths writ­ing mur­der mys­ter­ies. We don’t need police sto­ries writ­ten only by cops. It’s called research and cre­ativ­i­ty. Do fan­ta­sy writ­ers know real uni­corns and go shop­ping on the back of Pegasus? No. You write good sto­ries about inter­est­ing char­ac­ters fac­ing unusu­al chal­lenges.

Okay, I get that Murder She Wrote was about a writer, but it wasn’t the navel-gaz­ing non­sense of a play about plays or a movie about mak­ing movies. Please stop writ­ing about writ­ers. It just feels lazy to write about a writer. It feels like you’re trapped by being a writer, in a writer’s world. Escape.

Someone told me, “But I’m sup­posed to write what I’d want to read.”

When you were dis­cov­er­ing your pas­sion for read­ing, I doubt it was through sto­ries about oth­er writ­ers. Please, I hope not. I hope you were read­ing great works of fic­tion. I hope you were watch­ing epic films and beau­ti­ful come­dies. If those works you loved were about writ­ers, expand your hori­zons.

Avoid writ­ing films, plays, or books about writ­ers, unless you have some­thing beyond spec­tac­u­lar to share.