On the ubiquity of plots

So I was talking to someone at a NaNoWriMo meeting last week, and he produced a sheaf of printout at one point and started talking about how all of the most popular novels could be broken down into main plot points and storylines and they were all similar-

And all I could think was “Well, DUH.” (Which was a little mean, but at least I didn’t say it out loud.)

I think my ultimate view on plots comes down to Desire’s words from What I’ve Tasted of Desire* – “Somebody wanted something…mostly they get it, too.”

There’s the Quest. There’s the Love Story. There’s the Revenge story (which, if you think about it, is another sort of quest – as is love). There’s Crime/Discovery/Mystery – “here, have a problem to solve” – which, again, is a sort of quest. There’s the seven plots that form the 007 stories, there’s the endless reincarnations of Hero Action Stories that turn up as five-fold sequels, and there’s the fact I find it hard to watch romance movies because oh look, they fall for each other, oh look, they got driven apart somehow, and oh here’s the romantic ending-

As well as someone wanting something, they all come down to a journey. They all come down to people travelling, either literally or metephorically. Something has to happen, an event to get people moving, and then they can meet other people or discover themselves or discover something or get what they want, or shoot the baddies and get the girl, in the case of James Bond. There always has to be something that kick-starts the person trying to get what they want.

So…I find it odd that someone hadn’t noticed how similar stories are, and how there’s always the same elements in a lot of popular writing. It’s what we depend on, it’s what we like – predictability is a definite human trait, and stories are most certainly not exempt. It’s why you end up with the defined genres, and the conventions of those genres; it’s why someone like Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown can churn out book after book that I can’t tell apart. They use the same plots, the same ideas – which I admit work: they tell a good story.

And the trick – the real trick – is telling those same story elements in one of two ways: the expected way, or an entirely different way. People either want to know what’s coming, or want to have their minds changed/challenged/broadened.

The failure is to tell the same elements in a way that is different enough that it’s surprising…but not different enough that it’s new. For example, Hero doesn’t get the girl (different) – but gets the boy instead! (New, but original format is preserved). Hero doesn’t get girl and ends up lonely…not such a good ending. See what I mean? Any deviation that doesn’t fit our narrative structures leaves us adrift and craving our fulfilling ending; it doesn’t chime with what we expect, and therefore leaves us less likely to ‘enjoy’ the story – no matter how interesting or good the writing or plot.

My, that’s a cynical thought. Must be a Monday.


*In Endless Nights. If you haven’t read The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, GET OFF MY BLOG NOW AND GO READ IT.

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at writingandcoe.co.uk. When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.