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
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 structure. To 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.
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