Monday, July 11, 2011

Nothing New Under the Sun, But Writers Make It So

by Holly Jahangiri


I was telling someone about a story I recently wrote. "So, basically, it's 'The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf'?"

"Well, yes, actually - except that there's no wolf." A minor technicality. Ever feel like, no matter what you write, it's all been written before? Do you find that discouraging?

Did you know that there are some 27,000 variations on the Cinderella story?

Years ago, while lying on a concrete floor in the basement of the University of Tulsa's library, reading what I should've been reshelving, I ran across a book called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti. I was fascinated by the notion that every story could be pigeonholed into one of thirty-six basic plots. Polti even suggests the necessary characters to pull it off; for example, in a storyline he calls "Rivalry of kin," we have the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; and the Object of Rivalry. Sounds like the The Prodigal Son, doesn't it?

Since then, I've read there are only twenty - or, to simplify matters even further - seven. They can be summed up as follows:
[wo]man vs. nature
[wo]man vs. 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

I suppose you could combine them further and say that really, there are only four:
[wo]man vs. nature/the environment
[wo]man vs. man/machines/technology
[wo]man vs. self
[wo]man vs. god/religion/the supernatural

I'm tempted to say "three," but to combine "self" and "man" might be pushing a point. Besides, if you're looking for story ideas, Polti's thirty-six provide more food for thought.

Some years ago, I wrote a story called "Just a Little Peace and Quiet." After rereading it, I realized I'd written a modern, feminist version of Edgar Allan Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," With a wicked little twist all its own.

If we shut down and gave up every time we wrote something that's been "done before," we'd never write another word. For grins, read Cecil Adams' take on the whole notion at "What are the seven basic literary plots?"

One intriguing aspect of Polti's thirty-six dramatic situations is the notion that there are 36 emotions (I can run through half of them in two hours, if the movie is any good).

In exploring the basic plots and story structure, it is impossible not to stumble across folkloristics - the study of motifs in folklore. A motif is a recurring element having symbolic significance. It is not an ordinary, everyday thing or occurrence. A flying carpet, for example, is a motif. A mother is not a motif, but a cruel or murderous mother is. Transformation of people into animals or objects may also be a motif.

The trick, then, is to travel the well-worn trail, but to make it uniquely our own.

Just for Fun and Practice

  • Choose five of your favorite books. Identify the basic plots each book fits into best.
  • Write a short story (about 500-1500 words) using one of the basic plots identified above (or one of the thirty-six described by Polti)
  • Post your response on your own blog - be sure to label it with the chosen plot or dramatic situation and leave a link in the comments here.

Do you think that recurring symbolism (use of motifs) is an effective storytelling device? Why or why not? Why do you think this features so prominently in folklore?


  1. Good article, Holly. Yes, we need to make the tale ours.


  2. Is every story a conflict? I can think of other motifs (boy meets girl, say) that don't fit into the 7 you mention, but which have made scads of books. Your piece got me to thinking. Off to blog a reply ;)

  3. As usual, well written article Holly! I can definitely relate to this - "Ever feel like, no matter what you write, it's all been written before? Do you find that discouraging?". Although it may be discouraging at times, I just keep trying and at the same time have fun doing it. :)

  4. Libdrone, I cannot think of an INTERESTING story that does not involve some sort of conflict (and usually, some sort of resolution or peacemaking with it). Let me know if you come up with an example to the contrary!

    Jaypee, thanks! I'll bet most bloggers can relate - the trick is to put your own touch on the "BTDT" so as to add interest, humor, deeper understanding, a hook more people can relate to (e.g., I didn't understand "stack operations" - the dish caddy metaphor only took my understanding so far, but gave me no good real world USE CASE - until someone in the gaming world walked me through a hypothetical "send 'em to Hell" script and gave me a metaphor with some context). In the course of human history, there's pretty much nothing that hasn't been done or tried or at least thought or dreamed of. But still we write and read and watch movies and listen to music... because there's always a new perspective.

  5. Thanks for giving us the facts of basic plots and how authors need to make their "take" unique.