The One Underlying Substance of All Story Structure Models: Bullshit
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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.