Paulo Coelho, in a blog post inviting others to steal his books, recently shared the idea that all writers are only recycling four stories.
First, because all anyone ever does is recycle the same four themes: a love story between two people, a love triangle, the struggle for power, and the story of a journey.
I collect ideas of this kind. Aristotle said there were only two stories, Comedy and Tragedy. We know quite a lot of what he thought about the latter, but his ideas on the former have been lost for some years. Arthur Quiller-Couch devised the rather Man centric seven plots of Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man against God, Man vs. Society, Man in the Middle, Man & Woman, Man vs. Himself. Also weighing in for the number seven is Christopher Booker, who puts forward a convincing argument that all plots revolve around the conflict between humanity and our selfish ego, only then to ruin it by trying to argue that all 20th Century literature represents the capitulation of the the self to the ego. George Polti outlined Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations including Deliverance, Pursuit, Disaster, Revolt and thirty two more. Perhaps my current favourite has recently been republished in Plotto : the Master Book of All Plots by dime novelist William Wallace Cook which represents a possible 1,462 plots. Wallace once wrote fifty-four novels in one year. Take that NaNoWriMo fanatics! In probably the most famous typology of story, Joseph Campbell trumped everyone by declaring there was only one plot and naming it the Monomyth, thereby determining the formula for almost every Hollywood blockbuster from Star Wars to The Matrix, Toy Story and The Dark Knight.
Are these theories actually of any use? No idea. I like reading them, and from a commercial perspective the Monomyth has proved to be a horrendously successful formula for very, very, very profitable stories. But I completely understand the writers who cover their eyes and ears the moment any mention of this kind of idea appears, for fear that it will forever pollute their original voice.
Are there really only two, seven, thirty six or however many plots? Again, who knows. I’d love to argue for the infinite mutability of story, and I’m sure I could quite convincingly. But at the same time stories, however diverse they appear on the surface, are all made from much the same thing underneath. Some characters. A plot. A theme or two. Half a dozen symbols. A bit of conflict to get it all going. And yet, much like the seven chords that make up all songs, the same elements used in much the same ways seem to yield staggeringly different and original results in the hands of each artist who picks them up. There may only be seven stories, but there are uncounted storytellers, and each one must contribute some unique spark, or the story will never take life.