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Are There Only 7 Stories in the World?

Many academics, most notably author Christopher Booker, believe that there are only seven basic plot structures in all of storytelling – frameworks that are recycled again and again in fiction but populated by different settings, characters, and conflicts.

Those seven plots are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

This list comes from Booker’s seminal book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It took him 34 years of research and reading to complete the 700-page psychoanalytic tome.

But where did the idea of a limited number of stories come from? Is it true? If so, how does that affect writers – all of whom strive to create their own unique stories?

Let’s dig a little deeper into this idea.

Although The Seven Basic Plots is the most frequently cited text today, Booker was not the first person to propose that there are a limited number of stories.

A list made by Foster-Harris in 1959 claimed there are only three stories:

  • Happy ending
  • Unhappy ending
  • Tragedy

While you can place every story you can think of into one of these three groups, it’s overly simplistic, offering little in the way of observation of actual story structure.

More recently (and perhaps intriguingly) the University of Vermont took a leaf from one of author Kurt Vonnegut’s theories and used powerful computer programmes to analyze 1,737 fiction stories. The purpose was to track the emotional content by looking for words such as ‘tears,’ ‘laughed,’ ‘enemy,’ ‘poison’ and so on. They describe building happy emotions as rise, and sadder emotions as fall.

Their results concluded that there were six basic master plots:

  • “Rags to riches” (rise).
  • “Tragedy,” or “Riches to rags” (fall).
  • “Man in a hole” (fall–rise).
  • “Icarus” (rise–fall).
  • “Cinderella” (rise–fall–rise).
  • “Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall).

The entire research paper is available to read online, but it’s heavy going. Rather wonderful, however, are the emotion graphs produced to track the patterns of happiness during the story arc.

Here, for example, we see the analyzed emotional arc of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:

 

Hedonometer Score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

 

Dubbed the Hedonometer, the results of this analysis for a wide variety of novels is also free to view online, and makes for a fascinating resource for writers who like to analyze books in detail. Of course, not every book in the world has been analyzed, but most of the classics and popular books are there for you to peruse.

(It’s also worth bearing in mind that this most recent analysis only looked at fiction available on Guttenberg – mostly older classics and all in English. Deeper exploration of other cultures and recent ideas might uncover wholly new stories.)

Ultimately, what does all this science mean? If every story has already been written, is striving for originality a pointless task?

The answer is no; it absolutely is not. While it may indeed be compelling – and likely true – that storytelling conventions are built on only six or seven broader foundations, the purpose of categorizing stories into broad types is as a way to understand fiction, not to limit our creativity.

These frameworks describe the emotional journey at the core of each story, but they can never define the limitless, majestic scope of the sights, sounds, people, and places readers can encounter during that journey.

While films such as Apollo 13 and Mad Max: Fury Road, and books The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland are all in the “Voyage and Return” category, they’re still worlds apart in their content – uniquely positioned for very different audiences.

Stories stand on their own because of the people that write them, and the characters they create.

So remember: even if there are only seven stories – or three or six, or whatever researchers suggest next – it doesn’t mean you don’t have a worthwhile story to tell. From a framework perspective, it may all have been done before – but only the most cynical could use that as a reason not to write.

But with all of that said, how can we gather some useful information from these studies? Well, you could do worse than checking out some of the Hedonometer graphs for books that have inspired your work. If something in your early drafts seems to be missing – like the story just isn’t pulling you in like you’d hoped it would – try comparing it with the emotional journey laid out in those graphs. How are you engaging the reader on an emotional level with your language in comparison to these other works?

A few tweaks here and there to bring your story more closely in line with the framework readers expect may just make the psychological link you’re looking for.

On the other hand, you might choose to follow your own inspiration and strive for more peculiar greatness. It’s all up to you.

Adding an eighth storytelling wonder to the world doesn’t sound like too bad a prospect, does it?

What do you think? Do you agree with the theories surrounding possible story arcs? Which do you find to be the most appealing as both a reader and a writer? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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    Join the Discussion on “Are There Only 7 Stories in the World?”

    1. Rachael says:

      What immediately came to mind for me is the challenge of taking one of the six/seven basic plots, but then reversing the happy/sad approach. So rags to riches, what if it was ultimately sad? or other combinations of mood, like ‘fall-fall-rise’ or ‘rise-rise-fall’. Something like that might be different enough…

    2. wade M. says:

      Yes, I see or can agree that there is a limited amount of plot basics but that is where we as writers need to put on our creative thinking into gear. Great material to chomp on for a Monday morning start.
      Thank you.
      Wade M.

    3. The really interesting thing is that there are only two different types of object in the real world: light objects and heavy objects. Light objects like cats and doughnuts can be easily picked up and moved around. Heavy objects, like elephants and planets, tend to stay where you put them unless they move of their own volition.

      Given that there are only two types of object, we can readily conclude that no more innovation is required.

    4. Mark Troy says:

      Looking at the six master plots, made me aware that those are the types of stories we tell about each other when we get together as families and friends. “Uncle Joe had it made until. . .” “She goes from man to man, looking for that perfect prince, but . . .”

      These represent the trajectories of out lives. Sometimes the trajectory is brief of encapsulated, and sometimes it spans decades and maybe generations. What’s important is how the person navigates them. I read and write to learn about people/characters and the plot is how I learn. Each person will behave differently in each of these plots. As a writer, I see all sorts of possibilities for my series characters as they go through each of these “plots” in their lives.

    5. Paula says:

      A great observation and something we all kind of realize. But there is so much diversity in the world, it still leaves much for the creative writer to explore. Always love the diversity of thought Auto-Crit offers. Keep it going.

    6. Anita says:

      There maybe only a few plots, but that’s a very limited perspective. It’s something like saying that all human beings have two eyes, one nose and two ears,And then they may be white, or brown or whatever color so that finally leaves us with such a limited lot. So that’s it , a brown man, white girl and so on. But it isn’t like that at all. There are millions of humans and rarely are you going to confuse one with another. Same goes for stories, there are million of those too, and the theme, the style maybe similar but some are elegant, some silly , some great. All the stories in the world haven’t been told , yet. . The human mind, the different perspectives , the unending train of ideas, fantasy, horror, medical fiction, past present and future, it’s endless. There will always be new stories to tell and takers for them too. So write on from your heart and there is no need to put yourself or your story into any fixed slot.

    7. Wes Kelley says:

      I am both a novelist and songwriter and the same hypothesis of limitations was made by Jimmy Webb in his book, “Tunesmith”. He writes that by virtue of the limitations on the musical scale every song not yet written has, in fact, already been written. The challenge is to engage the reader/listener within the context of those limitations.

    8. Claude Rothman says:

      Professor Peter Dodds from the University of Vermont perfectly related to this article, observing seven story arcs in his more scientific study.

      I highly recommend you take the time to read this very understandable article.

      Do not worry about the mathematic, the content is fascinating and very approachable.

      Enjoy: http://www.uvm.edu/pdodds/research/papers/files/2016/reagan2016c.pdf

    9. JP Blickenstaff says:

      Distilling plot lines down to seven is too simplistic. In my few stories and in my reading, I find combinations of those seven (and others) mixing them in different strengths and timing. In printing there are the four colors that are combined in endless ways to generate all the colors, tints, hues, shades, etc. Enjoy the story not the abstraction of plot lines.

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