Did you know that the incalculable number of stories in existence—which were created in every culture and in countless forms and styles—are all merely versions of the same exact four (or seven or twenty-three or two) basic stories? Or, if you are to believe a recent Atlantic article, merely remixes of the one primal story?

In “All Stories Are the Same,” TV producer John Yorke is the latest critic to try and reduce art to some secret and simple answer. Anyone who has studied storytelling has been subjected over and over again to this kind of useless analysis. There are exactly seven basic plots to all fiction. Actually, all stories are either a) Man vs. Nature, b) Man vs. Man, or c) Man vs. Self (or else a bunch of other Man vs. things). All stories involve either a stranger coming to town or else a man going on a journey. All stories are essentially Man vs. Stranger in Town vs. Freytag’s Pyramid. And so on and so forth.

These self-congratulatory attempts to reduce art to formula rarely tell us anything useful about stories. These formulas don’t tell us how stories function or how different narratives affect readers. They don’t tell us how great stories were written or what meanings the works can produce. Instead, these essentialist structures are parlor tricks that exploit the need for all mysteries to have simple explanations. But what the critic is invariably doing is generalizing to the point of nonsense. In Yorke’s essay, he begins by listing three basic story types, then declaring they are all actually the same. Here is his first basic formula:

 A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom.

This summary alone is already very general, but not enough for Yorke’s purposes. When he starts to list his examples of the stories that fit this type (The Thing, Jurassic Park, The Shining, “every episode” of CSI, Psycho, Erin Brockovich), it becomes apparent that he wants to abstract each and every element of those two sentences to the point of absurdity. The word “kingdom” now means literally any number of people from one to the entire planet. The term “restore happiness” means “overcomes something even if no happiness is restored.” The “one man” brave enough to fight evil can mean two, ten, twenty, or even every character in the narrative. “Monster” can mean any antagonist. Hell, “monster” can mean almost anything at all: “The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure.

Rather than the story of a lone hero standing up to an inhuman monster to save his community, this “basic story” has been reduced to “some people struggle with something dangerous.” Wow, what an insight.

Yorke says, “though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical,” but he is exactly wrong. These stories are drastically different in tone, style, message, structure, and everything else, and are only “identical” on the most superficial level. Yorke has zoomed out until the elephant and SUV each appear as a single grey pixel, then declared them essentially the same.

It isn’t so much that Yorke or is wrong, but that he is merely saying nothing. Yes, you can abstract and generalize until everything is the same. But does that tell us anything? All fruits are really the same, just edible plant matter. All objects on earth are made from a few basic atoms. Everything in the universe is just energy. Yada yada. But at least understanding atoms or plant matter teach us important things about biology and physics. The abstraction of story to a few simple models tells us nothing. Sure, I can say The Metamorphosis and Moby-Dick are both stories about men struggling with animals, but does this give you any kind of insight into either work?

Instead, these models are the literary criticism version of astrology. Two humans with completely different life experiences, genes, histories, and personalities are lumped together through a couple vague generalities. (Horoscope generalities are so vague that almost everyone will think they apply to them, regardless of birth date.)

This is why I find it frustrating how often discussions of literary genres devolve into claims they are all the same. “Oh, magical realism is just normal fantasy written by Latin Americans!” is the kind of thing that sounds superficially smart, but offers no insight into the different techniques, intentions, influences, and effects of Marquez and Tolkien.

Yorke is hardly alone here. It’s become increasingly fashionable to declare that nothing is original and everything is a remix. As Freddie deBoer says on a smart essay on that topic:

It can be really frustrating debating this stuff, because there’s no threshold for when they abandon the pretense that two stories are the same. There is no argumentative methodology. Individual details can be embraced or abandoned as evidence without any alteration to the fundamental argument. You never get to a non-negotiable difference. If a key difference is pointed out, people just hop to the other foot to talk about how the stories are really alike. There’s no consistency in the level of evidence that’s necessary to claim that two stories are the same, or that one is the remix or another. It’s the classic problem of non-falsifiability: arguments that cannot be disproven have no value.

In his piece, Yorke acknowledges that a bazillion other people have done what he is doing, but he says his system is unique cause he is the only one who asks “why.” Yorke’s Atlantic piece doesn’t really go into the why, you’ll have to buy his book for that, but I think what Yorke and similar story model pushers forget to ask is: so what? What use does the single story model serve?

If these models don’t teach us any useful ways to interpret stories, do they teach us interesting ways to create them? In his piece, Yorke quotes three actual writers, the writer-filmmakers Guillermo Del Toro, David Hare, and Charlie Kaufman. All three are say that story models are pointless, reductive, and unhelpful. Yorke brings them up to scoff at them, saying they all “protest too much” and then declaring that all their work is actually just remixes of classic forms… without even a single sentence of elaboration or evidence. What is telling is not that you can come up with an abstract model like “stuff happens to people” to lump their work together, but that Del Toro, Hare, and Kaufman all find such thinking to be utterly useless to the writer. All three are great writers and filmmakers. Their award-winning work is interesting and often boundary pushing, and I’d hazard to guess it is that way precisely because they avoid the simple formulas and models that critics like Yorke come up with. In my own experience, writers I’ve known who’ve clutched the formula writing advice books closet to their chest always produced the stalest, most uninteresting work. They focused far too much on how their work could be similar to other work rather than how it could be different.

And this is the ultimate problem. Whether or not you can create a couple generalized models and be “right” is pointless if those models don’t actually help readers understand and appreciate art, nor help creators create new and interesting work. Criticism should be helping us have a deeper and more nuanced view of art, not a more simplistic and shallow one. I’ve always found that the most useful and insightful way to look at fiction is to study its spectacular diversity. Stories can illicit every human emotion, can take place in any location real or imagined, and can use any structure you can think of. This near-limitless expanse is not something we should obscure with vague generates; it is the very thing we should celebrate and embrace.

18 Responses

  1. kd rose

    Eight grade. Horrible Teacher. The Man vs. —— stratum. It’s a wonder anyone can think independently at all.

    Reply
  2. Roy

    Great to see a little pushback on the whole story archetype idea! I guess the one thing we can learn from how far Yorke has to pull back to fit all of literature under his umbrella is that there are actually very few essential ingredients. Wasn’t it Henry James who said something like, The only real requirement for good fiction is that it be interesting? And I couldn’t agree with you more that all these models are useless if they don’t enhance our understanding or creation of great stories. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Taylor Napolsky

    So true. These kinds of explanations–reducing storytelling to nothing but formulas–is hollow, and shows a total lack of understanding of the importance of imagination. It’s the imagination that makes stories different. Focus on the sameness and you will see the sameness. Look for the differences and you’ll see the imagination.

    Reply
  4. Eden

    As a university lecturer I teach all of these as a starting point before moving onto encouraging students to be less prescriptive. Yes it can all be considered reductive but we must begin somewhere, usually with Aristotle’s three act structure. But I also understand the sentiment of the piece in that there’s far more to it than mere basics. However architects cannot create contemporary opera houses without first having learned about fundamental shapes. Talented artists take what is already formed and combine old ideas in new and interesting ways. Education is designed that ncreasingly complex concepts are layered on top of basic ones which means the foundations have to be laid first. I see much writing nowadays where authors have not learned their craft and the work is lacking because of it. Critics however are another kettle of fish…

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      I think there is a big difference between telling a student “here are a couple story structures that have proved fruitful to a lot of writers” and “these are the only two possible story structures!” I also think there is a difference between studying a fleshed-out story structure, like say the hero’s journey–which Campbell makes pretty detailed and specific—and the vague, simplified single sentences that Yorke promotes.

      The former can be fruitful. The latter? I don’t think so.

      Reply
      • U.L. Harper

        I don’t see how a vague story structure is less beneficial than a detailed one. I would figure a more vague structure would give the writer more room to work, versus the detailed one which is full of rules and specifics and useless discussion. If someone told me there were only three story structures to work with then I’m like, cool, that’s better than 15 or 20 to figure out. I don’t see how more moving parts are better.

      • Lincoln Michel

        Well it depends on how vague you go. But take a really vague one like “All stories are either a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey.” What can you really draw from that as a writer or reader? To be charitable, it tells you that “all” (probably more like most) stories involve a routine that get’s disrupted either by an outside force or by the protagonist’s actions.

        But that’s about it. There isn’t much of a structure to follow or subvert. A lot of the story “structure” models aren’t really structures. Just kind of vague groupings of central conflicts. Like “man vs. nature” isn’t really a structure you can follow, you know?

        I think studying something like the hero’s journey with it’s more specific structure can be fruitful, at least if you understand going in that it doesn’t mean “all stories are the same” and doesn’t mean all stories need to follow that structure.

    • nancy

      Eden, You’re right. You have to start somewhere. And doesn’t the joy come when a writer remolds the basics into something new and creative.

      Reply
  5. Fritze

    “Sure, I can say The Metamorphosis and Moby-Dick are both stories about men struggling with animals…” This made me laugh so hard. 🙂 I guess bc neither of them are really about men struggling with animals.

    I wonder why writing gets this kind of mystical treatment. Can you imagine an art critic saying all paintings are really renditions of the one primal image? Yeah, because, whether it’s a naked woman or a landscape with a distant horizon… they all…are images…that um… elicit a primal feeling in the viewer. yeah.

    I see how it could be useful to ask question like “could you analyze The Towering Inferno comparing fire to a monster?” But I have to agree with you, what’s the point of reducing all stories to one? Thanks for the interesting insight.

    Reply
    • nancy

      Fritze, Perfect analogy with painting. Why reduce the art of us writers and not of those painters? Why reduce any art at all? It’s discouraging for both the producer and the consumer.

      Reply
  6. U.L. Harper

    But it seems that what he is saying is that there are a finite number of foundations for any given story. The same way there are only so many different foundations for a home, no matter the type of home. You can do whatever on the foundation but underneath is still a vague, general slab, but you need it. And it does say plenty about the stories because in some ways it does set parameters, at least to an extent. It says where the parameters can go. Or there are how many billions of people in the world. I bet we can all find something in common, even if we’ve never met and speak different languages. There is a point and a message to not having too many story types. It means storytelling, hasn’t changed too much in a very long time, if ever. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      Well he is literally saying there is “one foundation” but as I said it isn’t that he, or similar critics, are wrong but that they are vague to the point of uselessness.

      I honestly don’t think these are “foundations” at all though. And the fact that every critic groups them differently I think proves that. For example, is the central “foundation” of Moby-Dick a man vs. nature conflict or is it the quest story? Is the central foundation of The Great Gatsby rags to riches or man vs. self or a stranger comes to town?

      Each model will claim the “foundation” or “skeleton” to be something different.

      Reply
  7. Jake D. Parent

    I feel like the idea of trying to boil great stories down to basic plot structures is mostly a way for those frustrated with their own lack of genius (and/or hard work) to minimize the great feats of others by trying to turn them into some kind of trick.

    Reply
  8. Phil

    I agree that the extreme example you’re citing from the Atlantic is silly, but you might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater here. Critics analyze works from all kinds of angles, many of them tedious. What’s wrong with analyzing from the point of view of narrative structure?

    Can you name a great work of literature that doesn’t have a solid narrative structure? Whether or not the author followed a point-by-point system, I can all but guarantee it’s there.

    I think there’s a big difference claiming there are only x number of story arcs (I agree with you there) and using story models as lenses to analyze and learn from great works.

    I’ve personally found Save the Cat extremely useful for reworking my manuscript. It’s saved me a ton of time by letting me look at ideas with a critical eye before I actually write really long passages, essentially allowing me to “fail faster.” I’m sure if you followed it mindlessly, you’d get a mindless work, but as one tool among several, it has been great.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      “What’s wrong with analyzing from the point of view of narrative structure?”

      I don’t think there is anything wrong. I think it can be really useful! But I guess what I’m saying is that there is no reason to pretend that one or two common structures are the ONLY structures, you know?

      For example, I’m very interested in genre and different genre traditions. I think studying how high fantasy or hardboiled detective stories work and have changed is very useful. But I don’t think it would be useful to try and pretend that every story in existence is either fantasy or crime.

      I’d also say that a lot of the story models I’m referring to aren’t really structures in any meaningful sense. “A stranger comes to town” or “man vs. nature” aren’t really structures, they are set-ups or central conflicts.

      Reply
      • Phil

        You’re right. There’s a big difference between identifying some universals (a la Campbell) and claiming that everything fits into one or two universal schemas.

  9. Litblog Roundup » Real Pants

    […] Are there 20, or only one? Perhaps there isn’t even one at all, according to the rebuttal by Lincoln Michel, entitled “The One Underlying Substance of All Story Structure Models: Bullshit” […]

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