Basic story patterns

I remember reading somewhere, several years ago, a theory/statement that all stories worth telling are mere retellings of a few basic stories about the human experience. The theory said that there were exactly 4 (or 7?) of these basic themes, and went on to enumerate them.

I think some famous author (maybe Shakespeare?) had been mentioned as the original author of this theory.

I can’t find the theory in question via Google. Anybody know what I’m talking about?

I’ve heard something like that.

I’m just curious what the earlier re-tellings of The Human Centipede might be.

Originated by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

  1. Man against man

  2. Man against nature

  3. Man against himself

  4. Man against God

  5. Man against society

  6. Man in the middle

  7. Man and woman

It’s a man’s world!

Robert Heinlein said: Boy Meets Girl, The Brave Little Tailor, The Man Who Learned Better, and If This Goes On.

To have a story you must at least have conflict. It’s a universal characteristic of all stories. Everyone attempting to classify stories usually classifies them based on conflict.

If you classify based on who the main character is in conflict with, then it’s hard to be more comprehensive than Tethered Kite’s list. But obviously there is more to a story than who the protagonist has a conflict with. Moby Dick is more than just a story about Man versus Whale (which oddly is not a choice on the list).

**Tethered Kite’s **list is the only list I’m familiar with, so I won’t be much help in answering the OP’s actual question.

Joseph Campbell spoke of the “monomyth,” with all mythical-type stories being variations on a theme, and The Hero’s Journey (with various common aspects that he named, as well) being the most well-known.

I can’t remember the source or context, but I still remember these four basic plots for video games or maybe it was movies that dude bros will like. And using more than one is pretty common.

  1. Save the world.
  2. Get the girl.
  3. Get the treasure.
  4. Revenge.

You could stretch the first to include saving your own personal world (struggling to pay rent or saving the town from the evil real estate developers) and the last for proving yourself to your father, or something less dramatic than taking out the gang that killed your little brother or whatever.

Nah, you can have a story where people just wander around slice of life style. May not be a good story, but it’s a story.

I disagree. Show me something without conflict that’s called a story.

If you don’t have conflict you have a reference guide, a memo, an instruction manual, but never a story.


Western stories tend to obey the Freytag Pyramid. After an introduction that establishes the situation, there’s an inciting incident that creates a conflict that sets the story in motion. This conflict builds until the climax is reached and the conflict is resolved.

However, in the kishotenketsu form, there is no inciting incident or rising conflict. Instead the starting situation is elaborated on in various ways. In place of the western climax there’s the “ten”, a twist, that introduces a completely incongruous element that seems to have nothing to do with the starting situation. This is followed by the “ketsu” that reveals the connection between the disparate parts. Instead of being disconnected to each other, they’re revealed to be interconnected at a deep level.

In conflict-driven stories, audience interest is sustained by anticipation of how the conflict will resolve. In connection-driven stories, audience interest is sustained by trying to figure out how to assemble the parts into a meaningful whole.

Yes well thats Seinfeld style - the show with no story. Thats what HE says it is… But of course its usually involving irony - the misinterpretations or victim of circumstance …

Which is…

  1. Tragedy … the downfall where they should otherwise get 1,2,3 or 4…

Only too aware of tragedy myself - Of course it fits man vs world of the larger list - I feel like lose when I win.

I recently asked this of a UCSD literature professor…and he said he didn’t have any idea!

I mostly like Tethered Kite’s (Quiller-Couch’s) list…but… What does “Man in the Middle” mean? I understand the others.

There’s also the 36 dramatic situations and ten movie plots. Lots of people have made their own lists. I think there was a Cecil column that cited a bunch.

Most “dude, I got so high…” stories. Unless the police are involved. Stories are just sequences of events. Though one can be cute and characterize my sweet story about going to the store to buy a stick of gum as man vs. himself. My trip is my struggle to find my place in a post-industrial society!

Moby Dick can be seen as an allegorical representation of god. The reader never knows his thoughts or intentions, but he is very powerful. Ishmael tries to understand and defy him. That would make it a “man vs god” story.

He could also be read as “nature”. Obviously being a great force of the natural world, Moby Dick is never seen completely when he is in the water. Ishmael is always trying to compare Moby Dick to what he knows of other whales, but Moby Dick isn’t as simple as just one whale. He is like the sea: we can see a small part, but it’s always unpredictable and goes to depths we can never know. That would make it a “man vs nature” story.

Some Australian Aboriginal stories are like this. Someone went here and hung out for a while, and fished. Then the weather changed, and they went somewhere else. Then they met up with their sister and her friend, and then someone had a baby. Then the whole group went back over this way, before splitting up to go various other places.

It’s not riveting storytelling by Western standards, but in that culture those stories are very important and significant.

An old writing teacher of mine once cracked on this subject that you could boil stories down to two basic plots: “A Boy meets A Girl,” and “A Stranger Comes To Town.”

And, with the power of ambiguity and interpretation, that you could even further render it all into one basic plot: “Shit Happens.”

I imagine you can get a lot of mileage just by varying the intonation and syllable stress. :smiley:

Ah, but is the story one shitty thing after another, or is it the same shitty thing over and over?

Cecil addressed this issue, noting that there are claims of there being a wide variety of numbers of different story patterns:

Mine said the two are:[ul][]A Stranger Comes to Town []We Go on a Journey[/ul]

Thanks for all the responses!

I think the list I had heard of was the one cited by marshmallow, but I’m glad to see that there are many ways to slice these things.

I’m guessing that it refers to a man in conflict with his choices.

Or a wombat. (Whoosh.) :wink: