I blame Damien G Walter for setting me off on this train of thought. In his blog post Two. four. Seven. More. How many stories are there? he discusses various theories on the reduction of narrative to its basic building blocks. Paulo Coelho reckons there are four primal plots, Aristotle says two and Joseph Campbell goes for broke with his concept of a single monumental monomyth.
All this talk of building blocks got me thinking about DNA. When you break it down, all life on Earth is made of just a few basic proteins. Yet its variety is staggering. It’s the same with stories. Are writers really just recycling the same plots over and over again? I don’t know for certain. Even if they are, there’s no denying the resulting smorgasbord of stories resembles the biosphere of a rainforest in its complexity and diversity.
What really interests me is how these theories help the writer. It’s possible to take, for example, Campbell’s blueprints and use them to construct a myth of your very own. If George Lucas is to be believed, that’s exactly what he did when writing the original Star Wars.
But can it really be as simple as that? Well, yes and no. Constructing stories in this fashion is all very well. But the line between blueprint and cookie-cutter is a fine one. Rely on theories like this too much and all your stories will start coming out the same.
“But wait,” I hear you cry. “Isn’t this exactly what happens with popular music? There are only so many chords, but there are still plenty of songs.” Yes indeed, it’s a good analogy, one that Damien makes in his post (it’s also illustrated to hilarious effect in Axis of Awesome’s Four Chord Song which is, well, awesome).
All well and good. But I’d argue that you can no more use a blueprint to imagine a story than you can study a test tube full of proteins to imagine a Venus fly-trap or a Colobus monkey. The key word here is imagine. Creative writing isn’t about putting building blocks one on top of the other. It’s about heading out into the great beyond and seeing things that nobody’s ever seen before.
So do I think all these theories on fundamental story structure are nonsense? Not at all. I think they’re fascinating and highly relevant. I just see them as a way of studying stories rather than writing them. Granted, it can be pleasing when, as you’re writing, you realise your narrative is chiming with something out of Campbell. But that’s just an echo. You still have to rely on your own voice to make the originating sound.
One final thought. If stories, like life, really are made up of protein, we can consider them an essential food group. Consumption of literature, therefore, is vital for our continued existence. Now that’s a theory I can get behind. Feeling peckish anyone?