Ever thought that Harry Potter’s adventures shared a lot in common with Luke Skywalker’s? Ever thought that Simba and Neo were soul mates? Can you believe I just used the term soul mates?
The reason so many of the stories we know and love feel familiar is because of one of the most popular narrative structures writers like to use. The Hero’s Journey is explained below using Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, Spiderman, The Lion King, and The Lord of the Rings. Worth also seeing how this structure fits into the 6 Story Arcs.
I’ve written before about plots and how there aren’t as many of them as you’d think – somewhere between 1 and 36 depending upon how you want to break them down. Recently there was some research published that analysed 1,737 fiction novels to figure out how the story arcs are constructed. Let’s pretend there is a big difference between a plot and a story arc…
The study used Project Gutenberg – i.e. public domain works – and the results suggest that there are only really six story arcs:
Fall-rise-fall: ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘The Wonder Book of Bible Stories’, ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘The Serpent River’.
Rise-fall: ‘Stories from Hans Andersen’, ‘The Rome Express’, ‘How to Read Human Nature’ and ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.
Fall-rise: ‘The Magic of Oz’, ‘Teddy Bears’, ‘The Autobiography of St. Ignatius’ and ‘Typhoon’.
Steady fall: ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The House of the Vampire’, ‘Savrola’ and ‘The Dance’.
Steady rise: ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’, ‘Dream’, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘The Human Comedy’.
Rise-fall-rise: ‘Cinderella’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Sophist’ and ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’.
The most popular stories have been found to follow the ‘fall-rise-fall’ and ‘rise-fall’ arcs.
Or for those that prefer to read graphs because it makes them feel intellectual:
For those that just saw a bunch of squiggles in those graphs, what you are looking at is the story arc plotted over time for each story analysed. They’ve broken these into similar groups then added an average (the orange line). You can see how some of the story arcs follow the average more, whilst some types vary more. To see an individual story arc, they picked out Harry Potter as an example in the paper, but have the rest archived here (Project Gutenberg books) and here (a selection of classic and popular novels). As they note:
The entire seven book series can be classified as a “Rags to riches” and “Kill the monster” story, while the many sub plots and connections between them complicate the emotional arc of each individual book. The emotional arc shown here, captures the major highs and lows of the story, and should be familiar to any reader well acquainted with Harry Potter. Our method does not pick up emotional moments discussed briefly, perhaps in one paragraph or sentence (e.g., the first kiss of Harry and Ginny).
This is all nice and good, but why is this interesting? Well, aside from using my favourite statistical technique – principal components analysis – this study shows that authors create, and the audience expect, structures that are familiar. The fact that two of the story arcs (rise-fall and fall-rise-fall) are the most common emphasises this point. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful and familiar to us. There is scope to play within the formula, but ultimately we desire stories that fit conventions.
So yes, there is no original art being made.
This is the third* video in the CineFix series of Book vs. Movie differences. Well worth a watch.
* Yes, I’m skipping the second video because I haven’t read The Walking Dead comics and gave up on the TV show after spending half-a-boring season on that f@#$ing farm.
A friend made the comment to me recently that a film we had both watched was merely a rip-off of another film. Rip-off is a bit harsh in my opinion. If we think hard about all the books and films we’ve ever watched and then break them down into their general plots you start to see a lot of patterns. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Buddies team up to do something awesome. Odd couple team up to do something awesome. When all said and done, it is hard to identify anything truly original.
As a result, people often say that there are only a certain number of basic plots and that any story is really just a variation on these plots. Depending on how detailed they want to make a “basic” plot, different writers have offered a variety of solutions. An article I found lists these:
Attempts to find the number of basic plots in literature cannot be resolved any more tightly than to describe a single basic plot. Foster-Harris claims that all plots stem from conflict. He describes this in terms of what the main character feels: “I have an inner conflict of emotions, feelings…. What, in any case, can I do to resolve the inner problems?” (p. 30-31) This is in accord with the canonical view that the basic elements of plot revolve around a problem dealt with in sequence: “Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement”. (Such description of plot can be found in many places, including: Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1992.) Foster-Harris’ main argument is for 3 Plots (which are contained within this one), described below.
Foster-Harris. The Basic Patterns of Plot. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. Foster-Harris contends that there are three basic patterns of plot (p. 66):
- “’Type A, happy ending’”; Foster-Harris argues that the “Type A” pattern results when the central character (which he calls the “I-nitial” character) makes a sacrifice (a decision that seems logically “wrong”) for the sake of another.
- “’Type B, unhappy ending’”; this pattern follows when the “I-nitial” character does what seems logically “right” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice.
- “’Type C,’ the literary plot, in which, no matter whether we start from the happy or the unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail.” This pattern requires more explanation (Foster-Harris devotes a chapter to the literary plot.) In short, the “literary plot” is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than the end. What follows from that event is inevitable, often tragedy. (This in fact coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable.)
7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:
- [wo]man vs. nature
- [wo]man vs. [wo]man
- [wo]man vs. the environment
- [wo]man vs. machines/technology
- [wo]man vs. the supernatural
- [wo]man vs. self
- [wo]man vs. god/religion
Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. (ISBN 0-89879-595-8)
This book proposes twenty basic plots:
- The Riddle
- Forbidden Love
- Wretched Excess
Polti, Georges. The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. trans. Lucille Ray.
Polti claims to be trying to reconstruct the 36 plots that Goethe alleges someone named [Carlo] Gozzi came up with. (In the following list, the words in parentheses are our annotations to try to explain some of the less helpful titles.):
- Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
- Crime Pursued by Vengeance
- Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
- Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
- Daring Enterprise
- The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
- Enmity of Kinsmen
- Rivalry of Kinsmen
- Murderous Adultery
- Fatal Imprudence
- Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
- Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
- Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
- Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
- All Sacrificed for Passion
- Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
- Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
- Crimes of Love
- Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
- Obstacles to Love
- An Enemy Loved
- Conflict with a God
- Mistaken Jealousy
- Erroneous Judgement
- Recovery of a Lost One
- Loss of Loved Ones.
It is therefore inevitable that it is all just a little bit of history repeating.