Types of stories are like ideas. The only limit is our imagination. It only takes one new idea to rewrite the realm of possibility.
My writing teacher once said, “There are only two stories. A stranger comes to town and a man goes on a trip.”
Leo Tolstoy is credited with saying it first. Later it was attributed to novelist John Gardner. It seems simplistic, like someone saying that something is or it isn’t.
In the first place, the quote is apocryphal. Tolstoy’s original statement was abridged. He originally said that there are 22 stories. This kind of editing is dangerous. It maligns the speaker and the message. Stories are important.
“And so we all matter — maybe less than a lot, but always more than none.”— John Green, An Abundance of Katherines
It doesn’t matter what the total number of story types equals. Only that we discover the best ways to tell our stories. Choosing a model for the story you want to tell starts with understanding the importance behind the choices that are available.
Jerry Flattum’s What is Story: Story Types, Plot, Themes, and Genres is a great introduction. He begins with types of conflicts that often exist in stories. His approach is designed to help you write a screenplay that will sell.
To begin with, the examples start with a person vs. themselves or someone else and then includes examples of a person taking on the external world. The elements, technology, the supernatural, and god are the likely antagonists. Others might include viruses, extraterrestrial elements, or some combination of antagonists.
Examples of these conflicts exist in literature. A classic tale of Human vs. self is the book Lord of the Flies. Into the Wild is a popular example of Human vs. nature. Readers need only look to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to witness Human vs. Supernatural.
Conflicts in Stories
For the most part, Flattum’s introduction to how we tell stories is focused on screenplays. Scripts are built on dialogue, plot, and theme. Opposing forces define the structure.
The entertainment industry likes presentations that are brief. Preferably a quick synopsis or bullet points. Ideally presented using an elevator pitch that covers the main points in a matter of seconds. Screenplays are generally 120 pages.
The first thirty pages introduce the characters and conflict. Pages 30-60 build the tension. Pages 60-90 raise the stakes and pages 90-120 are the climax and the resolution of the story.
There are other approaches used to define the types of stories that we know. Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories is another example. Booker’s plot structure approach uses thematic frameworks. They include Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return; Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.
Overcoming the Monster stories are examples of facing our fears like the emotional characters from Inside Out. Rags to Riches films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are about overnight success. The Quest is about the journey and movies like Onward reveal the lessons learned along the way.
The Lion King is a beloved Voyage and Return movie. It illustrates the changes a hero faces after coming home. Comedy can be slapstick like Mr. Bean or intellectual like A Fish Called Wanda.
Save the Cat!
In comparison, Blake Snyder extends Booker’s list from seven to ten with Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Snyder’s examples are among the most original titles that I have ever seen.
In particular, Monster in the House, Out of the Bottle (Wishes and curses), and Whydunit are great original names. By comparison, Golden Fleece (Quest; Journey), Rites of Passage, and Institutionalized are classic tropes.
Buddy Love, Superhero, and Dude with a Problem are my guilty pleasure. Likewise, the Fool Triumphant (Underdog) is always heartwarming. In brief, they all connect with familiar stories I have seen, read, or heard.
For example, Monster in the House can be an outside danger that is invading the members of a home. Or the dark side of someone who lives in it. A Golden Fleece story is not limited to Jason and the Argonauts or Star Wars. It’s a story about embarking on an impossible journey.
In short, a Whydunit like Chinatown is a story about the reason that someone commits an act. Conversely, if you think Dude with a Problem sounds like the television series 24 you are right. Likewise, Forrest Gump is a classic example of a Fool Triumphant.
Look closely at Rites of Passage and the correlation with Big becomes clear. American Beauty is a story about being Institutionalized. I Love You Man is a clear example of Buddy Love. Groundhog Day is a brilliant Out of the Bottle.
How many appear familiar to you?
Ronald Tobias doubles down on Snyder’s list with 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. Tobias includes some new ideas like Escape, Rescue, and perhaps my favorite Wretched Excess. Examples like Ascension and Descension, Underdog, and Temptation are evident in books, movies, and the news.
By comparison, Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations doesn’t quite double the 20 plots that Tobias describes. However, the 16 additional suggestions that he includes provides a new vocabulary. In particular, that makes for some really fun considerations. His fresh ideas offer more to consider when telling a story.
To begin with, Polti’s list includes Crime Pursued by Vengeance, Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune, Rivalry of Kinsmen, Murderous Adultery, and Self-Sacrificing. I’m intrigued by the fact that he includes Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal, for Kindred, for Passion, or for the Necessity of Loved Ones.
It is valuable to recognize the many examples where these lists overlap. Add in a list of 47 genres and plots, themes, and there are over 100 possible types of stories. And it’s always expanding.
Types of Stories Matter
In conclusion, storytelling is as much about telling a story as it is about how you tell a story. The difference is whether or not you are considering your audience. A storyteller without an audience is just someone talking to themselves. The intention behind the story can be a guiding light, a Northstar, or just the horizon.
In short, when you are telling a story it’s important to know what kind of reaction you want your audience to experience. If it’s a funny story you are usually looking for key moments timed to perfection. Personal stories can be humorous, heartbreaking, or inspirational.
In particular, recognizing how your story can connect with one of the many examples listed above helps ground your story. Choosing the right framework can provide a structure for your story.
Finding a narrative that connects with your story can help you share its lessons, values, and message. The journey of your business, your project, and your life is a story waiting to be told.
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