In A Nutshell
Movies, books, and television shows can seem pretty formulaic by now. Watch enough, and you know when the big reveal is going to be coming, right? That’s no coincidence. A University of Nebraska professor has found that no matter the genre, the author the time period the story is from, works of fiction only have six different trajectories. And as for story, early screenwriters decided there were only about 36 different types of stories you could tell.
The Whole Bushel
Read enough books and watch enough movies, and you’ll probably come to the conclusion that there are only a handful of stories out there waiting to be told, and most of the time they’re just dressed up with fancy new skins and special effects. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters, one of the biggest complaints was that it was a pretty obvious rehashing of A New Hope.
The Star Wars series itself was, of course, cherry-picked from a handful of different sources and mashed together into the space opera we all know and love, but that leads back to the original question. Are there really only a handful of stories out there? And if so, have we heard them all already?
We’d like to think that’s not the case, but for decades, writers have been trying to answer that exact question.
When silent films were the new, groundbreaking medium for storytelling, there were a few attempts at outlining the possible plots that people interested in this new profession of “screenwriting” could try their hand at. In 1922, Frederick Palmer wrote the Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia, which outlined the 36 different types of plots—along with the subdivisions within them—that viewers could expect to see on the big screen.
First, there’s Supplication, which included subdivisions like fugitives looking for help against their persecutors and the condemned looking for a pardon. There’s Deliverance, which includes a rescue, and Crime Pursued by Vengeance, which is basically something bad happening and then a parent/child/spouse/friend out for revenge. Some plots revolve around Obtaining, that is, finding a certain object. And there are the aptly named ones that need no explanation, like Daring Enterprise plots, Abduction plots, and Revolt plots.
Anyone reading through this small selection of plots is likely to be able to name several movies that fall into each category.
Other books of the era outlined similar theories, framing plots with some of the same familiar elements. That was decades ago, though. Surely we’ve gotten more creative?
Maybe! It’s still up for debate. When Matthew Jockers, an English professor at the University of Nebraska, decided to see what computers would say about the problem, he needed to define something first: plot.
There are a few different ways plot can be described, and it’s not always what you think. While plot can refer to the elements of the story—like the ones Palmer defined—it also refers to the shape of the story and the order it’s told in.
That’s what Jockers wanted to look at. He turned book plots into data points, measuring the emotional turmoil and the literary distance between the various highs and lows, and so on.
And he found that no matter the genre or the author, stories tend to follow only six patterns. (A seventh pattern showed up occasionally.) The idea that the thousands of screenwriters, playwrights and novelists have unknowingly been following the same six patterns for centuries is pretty mind-blowing.
Show Me The Proof
Slate: The 37 Basic Plots, According to a Screenwriter of the Silent-Film Era
Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia, by Frederick Palmer
Motherboard: There Are Only Six Basic Book Plots, According to Computers
The Guardian: Star Wars: The Force Awakens in-depth fan review: ‘so much to obsess over’