Is storytelling woven around basic plots, archetypes and stereotypes that we can’t escape from?

Some years ago I found a question in the letters page of a newspaper and tore it free.

“Only 7 story plots?

I thought I might use it at some point but never did.”

The premise fascinated me, are there really only 7 stories being re-told again and again? The question that followed was also intriguing :- How can I be buried at sea?……The main requirements are…… perhaps I should write a story?

Alison Flood In the Guardian on Wed 13 Jul 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/13/three-six-or-36-how-many-basic-plots-are-there-in-all-stories-ever-written.

This is a colourful piece about Kurt Vonnegut and his thesis submission on ‘The Simple Shapes of Stories’ to The University of Chicago in 2004. In it he proposes that “stories such as Cinderella shared a basic “shape” with the origin story of Christianity in the Old Testament.” He was very angry at its rejection. Now at http://hedonometer.org/books/v1/ which originated from University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab you can view their “analysis of 1,737 stories from Project Gutenberg – all English-language texts, all fiction – through a program that analysed their language for its emotional content.”

“The researchers found “six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives”. These are: “rags to riches” (a story that follows a rise in happiness), “tragedy”, or “riches to rags” (one that follows a fall in happiness), “man in a hole” (fall–rise), “Icarus” (rise–fall), “Cinderella” (rise–fall–rise), and “Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall).” Story structures based on these models are easy to find as Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots describes.

Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

by Melanie-Anne-Phillips, Chris Huntley

The Dramatica Framework uses the concept of a Story Mind meaning the story viewed as if it were a person. This is in contrast to the ‘plots only’ hypothesis, as it allows movement away from archetypes and stereotypes.

A story has a personality, made up of the subject matter and attitude toward life. For example: a story set in Outer Space could bring with it, sober, deep, furtive attitudes. You as author have a constant conversation with your story, all parts of your story, as will your audience or reader. 

“characters, plot, theme, and genre represent aspects of the human mind made tangible. Your story is a practical joker, or a civil war buff (genre), and it talks about what interests it. It tells you a story about a problem with some endeavour (plot) in which it was engaged. It discusses the moral issues (theme) involved and its point of view on them. It even divulges the conflicting drives (characters) that motivated it while it tried to resolve the difficulties”

Melanie-Anne-Phillips , https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/w-plot.html

So are we programmed to tell stories in a way that reflects ourselves?

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