How many basic story plots are there?
Written by Michal
In 1965, Kurt Vonnegut, the American author, presented a study to the University of Chicago focusing on how traditional stories such as Cinderella had a popular "shape". After it was rejected he was enraged and responded with “the apathy of the University of Chicago is repulsive to me.” He believed it had been turned down due to the fact “it was so simple and looked like so much fun”.
Kurt Vonnegut proposed that there are simple shapes of stories that can be fed into computers and that these shapes are beautiful. He expanded on this theory in a lecture(press here to watch the lecture, it's pretty entertaining), using graphs to illustrate the various forms of story, such as "man in a hole" and "boy gets the girl." This idea has been explored further by researchers at the University of Vermont's Computational Story Lab, who recently analyzed the emotional content of 1,737 stories from Project Gutenberg and found that there are six core trajectories that form the building blocks of complex narratives. These include "rags to riches," "tragedy," "man in a hole," "Icarus," "Cinderella," and "Oedipus."
“I confessed that I was daunted by the graph of Cinderella."
Image from: https://jerryjenkins.com/
Vonnegut's theory on the simple shapes of stories has been compared to other literary theories on the number of basic structures of all stories ever told. One such theory is that proposed by Christopher Booker in his book "The Seven Basic Plots." Booker believes that there are not 6 but 7 possible story structures: rags to riches, overcoming the monster, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.
Another theory is one proposed by Foster-Harris in his book, published in 1959, "The Basic Patterns of Plot." Foster-Harris asserts that there are only three basic plot patterns: happy ending, unhappy ending, and tragedy.
While these theories do not see eye to eye on the number of basic structures of possible narratives, they do, however, all share a common factor: the belief that all stories can be broken down into a finite number of basic structures. Vonnegut himself acknowledged the similarities between the multiple theories and stated in his autobiography "Palm Sunday": “I confessed that I was daunted by the graph of Cinderella, and was tempted to leave it out of my thesis since it seemed to prove that I was full of shit. It seemed too complicated and arbitrary to be a representative artifact… but then I said to myself: ‘Wait a minute – those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth.’ And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity. The tales were identical.”
While these theories may give a foundation for understanding story structures, they do not account for the specifics and technicalities of particular tales. Furthermore, it is worth noting that these ideas are not widely accepted in the area of literary criticism, and different methods for story analysis do exist.
In conclusion, Kurt Vonnegut's theory on the simple shapes of stories is one of many theories that attempt to classify the basic structures of all stories ever told. Vonnegut's theory, like others proposed by Christopher Booker and Foster-Harris, suggests that all stories can be broken down into a finite number of basic structures. Many theories have been presented and none have been determined as 100% correct because there will always be nuances and complexities of individual narratives that cannot be explained by a single narrative “shape”.
Wertham, F. (2021, October 19). Kurt Vonnegut's shapes of stories: the six building blocks of narrative. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/oct/19/kurt-vonneguts-shapes-of-stories-six-building-blocks-of-narrative
Jenkins, J. (2019). The Writer's Guide to Creating the Plot of a Story, http://jerryjenkins.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/The-Writer%E2%80%99s-Guide-to-Creating-the-Plot-of-a-Story-scaled.jpg