Do All Stories Have One of Six Basic Plot Points?

Everyone knows that the general outline of content in various art forms tend to repeat themselves.

Ed Sheeran is famously getting sued for how similar ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is to ‘Let’s Get It On’. When Hunger Games was released, people were outraged with its similarities to Battle Royale, and there’s a whole Wikipedia page that lists ‘Twin Films’ (films made at the same time about the same thing but by different studios). 

A professor from Washington State University and researchers from the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab have attempted to analyse and categorise over 1700 English novels into six different story shapes. The shapes that they attempted to ascribe to the novels were: rags to riches, riches to rags, Icarus, Oedipus, Cinderella and Man in a hole. Following on from the research, the BBC managed to plot several classic novels into the different plot shapes, however, many of them incorporated a mixture of the different plot structures or, such as in the case of The Ugly Duckling, were occasionally too emotionally complex and nuanced to fit into just one category.

These six shapes of plot points that may be applicable to most narratives is similar to how many songs are variations on pre-established chord structures- it’s inevitable that patterns that people enjoy and relate to will reoccur. However, what the research fails to acknowledge is how its simplistic approach to plotting narratives ignores the nuanced way in which these over-arching plot points make us relate and emotionally respond to each novel in different ways. Pride and Prejudice may have the same plot shape as Cinderella, yet the headstrong character of Elizabeth Bennet creates a strong emotional connection to the reader which contrasts to how they may feel towards the shy and oppressed Cinderella, therefore forming completely separate experiences of the narratives despite the similar over-arching plot devices.

Books are personal, individual experiences and, despite how the research suggests that many are fundamentally similar, unique and fresh novels still prevail. There’s no denying that many books have similar basis to their plots, but the intricate details that come along with each story allow the reader to experience a completely new world each time they pick up a book. The world of wizardry that J.K. Rowling creates in Harry Potter, the deep heart ache and longing readers are presented with in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the fear towards the totalitarian government in Nineteen Eighty-Four are sparkling examples of the rich intricacy that comes with each individual novel and that keeps readers coming back for more.

Images: The Telegraph, BBC Culture

Carina Bryan