Thursday, January 6, 2011

Plot and Human Experience

Most of us, if we're writers, have heard that there are no "new" stories to tell. They've all been told, written, read, discussed. There are no overarching templates, only variations on preexistant ones. I for one have been disappointed in this critique, though not really skeptical of it's veracity. I don't doubt that all stories fall into one of a very few catagories, but I marvel that the vast saga of human experience has distilled itself within so few protonarratives. These narratives are given on the blog WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones, as follows:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Voyage and Return
  • A Quest
  • Rags to Riches
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth
Adair Jones has this to say about these seven catagories of plot:
Although it may seem reductive to restrict all narrative to these seven basic plots, it is actually quite instructive. Not only can you use them as building blocks, combining different plotlines in various ways, but you can keep better artistic control of your work by using similar classic stories as a guide. Knowing what’s come before and why such stories remain compelling will only help you produce more broadly appealing stories and perhaps keep you from going astray.
I said that I marvel that human experience distills into so few catagories. But I realize that that is somewhat misleading. Human experience defies catagories, actually. The seven basic plot lines that Adair Jones references are are not meant to label and package human experience, per se, but rather to delineate shared cultural meaning systems that are part of the ethos of humanity--of humans living with other humans. These catagories are redemptive in a sense, for writers, because while they are templates, they are also vehicles for creativity and originality. There may be seven distinct plot templates that all writers utilize, but stories inumerable. There is always a frontier when it comes to writing a story, always uncharted territory.

What do you think? Do you find this list that Jones references helpful or appropriate, or would you add more templates to the list? How do you "story" a plot line or interpret our society's shared cultural meaning systems for your own narratives? Talk to me, peeps!


  1. You know I hear this all the time, along with various other tweakings and reteachings of this idea. I just don't think I've ever really used it. The only I sit down to worry about what kind of story I'm telling is when I'm working on the summary to publish or field to editors.

    I have a list of goals to address and themes to take on in every story, but I never think of the story fitting into any one box when I'm writing it. The exact literary nature of what I'm writing doesn't really come into mind, I guess. I have an idea, I work it out, then I figure out what to call it.

    This a helpful reference, especially for beginning writers who aren't quite sure what kind of story they're telling just yet. I suppose it's not something I personally put a lot of stock in...

  2. I hear you on that one. I do think our ideas can be said to be products of our place within specific social and cultural locales (that's where I think the list comes as a helpful reference) but we make the specifics entirely our own when we write creatively. Nothing is predetermined. :)

  3. I do love reading Adair Jones' blog.

    Great post, Laura! Much food for thought. I agree with everything you've said here. There may be seven basic templates, but individual human experience can overcome repetition. The reason we can rewrite the same template over and over is because we all see the world differently . . .

    All fiction holds truth.

    - Lauren

    Ladaisi Blog



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