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.