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View Full Version : There are only two plots, or: How to have an existential crisis in writing



VonBradstein
October 22nd, 2017, 02:14 AM
Generally attributed to Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but actually the genius of John Gardner...

"There are only two plots in all of literature: 1) A person goes on a journey. 2) A stranger comes to town."

Since hearing this some years ago this evil piece of wisdom comes back to haunt me at least once-for-ten-seconds every time I read anything new and I have yet to find any work that cannot be covered by one of the two Gardner plots. Even the most original ideas are actually just those with unusual takes on one or more of 'person', 'goes', 'journey', 'stranger', comes' and 'town' and so the basic concept prevails. And, of course, there are an abundance of great novels out there which are literally just either about journeys or strangers-in-towns...

So what do you think? Are we all doomed to run on hamster wheels within Gardner's Newtonian laws? Is there any work out there that cannot be fit into one of the two? Is it possible?

I appreciate the view that it does not matter & that a good book is a good book no matter how conventional it is or is not, so really no need to weigh in with that view - I suspect you would be preaching to the choir. This post is simply to discuss whether Gardner has been or could ever be proven incorrect in his hypothesis and what that might look like. Ultimately I think it is interesting (though not necessarily healthy) for every writer to know what, if any, rules exist when it comes to storytelling.

ppsage
October 22nd, 2017, 02:59 AM
Those aren't plots.

VonBradstein
October 22nd, 2017, 03:02 AM
Those aren't plots.

Do explain?

Bayview
October 22nd, 2017, 12:35 PM
I think it depends on how figuratively you're willing to interpret the word "journey". If you mean it in the physical sense, then, no, obviously it won't work, but if you use it in metaphorical sense, an emotional "journey" in which a character grows and changes because of events, then I'd say every novel I can think of would fit, with no need for the second category at all!

VonBradstein
October 22nd, 2017, 12:43 PM
I think it depends on how figuratively you're willing to interpret the word "journey". If you mean it in the physical sense, then, no, obviously it won't work, but if you use it in metaphorical sense, an emotional "journey" in which a character grows and changes because of events, then I'd say every novel I can think of would fit, with no need for the second category at all!

My interpretation is that it is describing the dualism of reality - either an entity does something (which would be the journey) or something happens to the entity (the stranger).

To that degree I cannot think of a story which would not fit into one of the two but I don’t believe the intent was for the journey or stranger to be meant in a solipsistic, intangible way (though it could be, particularly in a more modernist take). I am really interested in hearing about ideas either conceptualized or realized that either do not fit into these molds or at least push them to breaking point. But is that possible?

When such a mighty world as fiction can be coldly broken into two distinct plot lines it is a little humbling to say the least...


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Bayview
October 22nd, 2017, 01:53 PM
My interpretation is that it is describing the dualism of reality - either an entity does something (which would be the journey) or something happens to the entity (the stranger).

To that degree I cannot think of a story which would not fit into one of the two but I don’t believe the intent was for the journey or stranger to be meant in a solipsistic, intangible way (though it could be, particularly in a more modernist take). I am really interested in hearing about ideas either conceptualized or realized that either do not fit into these molds or at least push them to breaking point. But is that possible?

When such a mighty world as fiction can be coldly broken into two distinct plot lines it is a little humbling to say the least...


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I guess I see the two "plots" as being so broad that there's nothing too remarkable about them covering everything. I could say every story in the world fits into the plot "something happens" and I'd probably be right, but it wouldn't be all that useful...

EmmaSohan
October 22nd, 2017, 09:00 PM
The Martian. He doesn't go on a journey, he gets left behind on Mars.

Lot's of books, really. When I have a character begin the book by moving to a new school, that's both a journey (for her) and a stranger coming to town (for everyone else in the school). But really it's just a cheap plot device, it eliminates a lot of explanations and flashbacks to have my MC starting out new.

VonBradstein
October 23rd, 2017, 12:00 AM
The Martian. He doesn't go on a journey, he gets left behind on Mars.

Lot's of books, really. When I have a character begin the book by moving to a new school, that's both a journey (for her) and a stranger coming to town (for everyone else in the school). But really it's just a cheap plot device, it eliminates a lot of explanations and flashbacks to have my MC starting out new.

Ah, good, but is being left behind in a strange place not really the same as going on a journey, just without the deliberate choice? He still went on a journey to go to mars, right? The theme of the familiar character versus the strange environment is the same as a quest. Are not Martian et al just a macabre twist on the quest plot?


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Bayview
October 23rd, 2017, 01:02 AM
Ah, good, but is being left behind in a strange place not really the same as going on a journey, just without the deliberate choice? He still went on a journey to go to mars, right? The theme of the familiar character versus the strange environment is the same as a quest. Are not Martian et al just a macabre twist on the quest plot?


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I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but I think the character was ON Mars at the start of the story? His quest was trying to get home?

I don't think there's any prayer of this construction working if you interpret it as a physical journey. There are loads of books that don't involve physical travel, either by the main character or by someone else moving to the main character's town. The only way it makes any sense is if metaphorical travel is included.

In which case I'd say the journey in The Martian is from despair to hope or something like that (again, haven't read the book or seen the movie!). But I'd also say that interpreting the structure that broadly makes it fairly meaningless.

VonBradstein
October 23rd, 2017, 01:26 AM
I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but I think the character was ON Mars at the start of the story? His quest was trying to get home?

I don't think there's any prayer of this construction working if you interpret it as a physical journey. There are loads of books that don't involve physical travel, either by the main character or by someone else moving to the main character's town. The only way it makes any sense is if metaphorical travel is included.

In which case I'd say the journey in The Martian is from despair to hope or something like that (again, haven't read the book or seen the movie!). But I'd also say that interpreting the structure that broadly makes it fairly meaningless.

They were, however the central plot does not have to entirely happen on screen, right? If so every movie would probably be ten hours long. Just because the movie begins arrived at the destination does not mean the story is not about traveling to a strange place, does it?The crux of the matter is the plot is still about a familiar, benevolent entity entering the malevolent unknown. Essentially Martian it’s the photographic negative of a traditional invasion story like War Of The Worlds when the malevolent martians (strangers) come to benevolent town (earth). According to the quote there is no such story on earth that does not involve a version of one or the other.


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VonBradstein
October 23rd, 2017, 01:28 AM
I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but I think the character was ON Mars at the start of the story? His quest was trying to get home?

I don't think there's any prayer of this construction working if you interpret it as a physical journey. There are loads of books that don't involve physical travel, either by the main character or by someone else moving to the main character's town. The only way it makes any sense is if metaphorical travel is included.

In which case I'd say the journey in The Martian is from despair to hope or something like that (again, haven't read the book or seen the movie!). But I'd also say that interpreting the structure that broadly makes it fairly meaningless.

It is correct that most modern works do not have the physical journey, particularly simpler non adventurous dramatic or romance stories, however I think they still include the journey or stranger motifs in clear ways, albeit metaphysical ones, as distinct from the earlier view that “everything’s a journey in a way, isn’t it?”


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EmmaSohan
October 23rd, 2017, 01:55 AM
Occasionally we have a discussion about whether every book needs a goal, or conflict, or whatever. With a broad enough definition, the answer is always yes. I am not sure what that accomplishes, though. Yes, every hero takes a metaphorical journey. And ends up trying to accomplish something but there is some obstacle.

I was reading a trading-places book, and I thought that trope was completely used up, but they did it in a creative way. (A hockey player traded with a figure skater). So it was old but new.

Bayview
October 23rd, 2017, 11:52 AM
They were, however the central plot does not have to entirely happen on screen, right? If so every movie would probably be ten hours long. Just because the movie begins arrived at the destination does not mean the story is not about traveling to a strange place, does it?The crux of the matter is the plot is still about a familiar, benevolent entity entering the malevolent unknown. Essentially Martian it’s the photographic negative of a traditional invasion story like War Of The Worlds when the malevolent martians (strangers) come to benevolent town (earth). According to the quote there is no such story on earth that does not involve a version of one or the other.


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So we're broadening this even further, so that the central plot no longer has to appear "on screen"?

That's a whole lot of work in order to make a classification system work. If it helps you understand fiction, I guess it's useful to you, but there's too much stretching required to make it useful to me.

bdcharles
October 23rd, 2017, 01:29 PM
One of my favourite novels (actually it might even be a novella) - and the subject of a conversation here a few months back - was Rage by Stephen King / Richard Bachman. It barely leaves the room settingwise, although there are flashbacks and anecdotes that refer to some vignettes from the characters' pasts. Barring that gunshot it is pure character, so excepting the most extreme interpretation, no-one goes anywhere, and no stranger arrives. The Handmaid's Tale; I'm reading it now. Again, no-one journeys anywhere, but things, and people, have changed.

Personally I think there is only one plot, namely: Something Out-of-the-Ordinary Happens.

Kyle R
October 23rd, 2017, 03:35 PM
Google led me to Quote Investigator's breakdown (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/) on the origin of this quote.

It appears that Gardner wasn't actually saying there are only two plots—rather, he seemed to be giving two examples of an Inciting Incident. Somewhere along the way he got misquoted, and the misquote seemed to just . . . stick.

Still, it's pretty neat how the two examples can describe a lot of plots. My WIP seems to fit into both. With some stories, though, you might need to do a bit of mental gymnastics in order to stuff everything into one of the two categories. The sprawling The World According to Garp comes to mind. Is it a journey, or the arrival of a stranger? Who knows.

I bet a lot of great books defy plot simplification.

(Also, the dark, mysterious tone of "A stranger comes into down" makes me immediately think of Stephen King.)

VonBradstein
October 24th, 2017, 11:26 PM
Interesting. Learned something new!

Cran
October 25th, 2017, 02:22 AM
(Also, the dark, mysterious tone of "A stranger comes into down" makes me immediately think of Stephen King.)
Funny, it makes me think of every second Western story I've ever encountered (watched or read).

VonBradstein
October 25th, 2017, 04:19 AM
Google led me to Quote Investigator's breakdown (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/) on the origin of this quote.

It appears that Gardner wasn't actually saying there are only two plots—rather, he seemed to be giving two examples of an Inciting Incident. Somewhere along the way he got misquoted, and the misquote seemed to just . . . stick.

Still, it's pretty neat how the two examples can describe a lot of plots. My WIP seems to fit into both. With some stories, though, you might need to do a bit of mental gymnastics in order to stuff everything into one of the two categories. The sprawling The World According to Garp comes to mind. Is it a journey, or the arrival of a stranger? Who knows.

I bet a lot of great books defy plot simplification.

(Also, the dark, mysterious tone of "A stranger comes into down" makes me immediately think of Stephen King.)


I'm going to go on a limb and guess the Stephen King guess was sparked by 'Salem's Lot?

Phil Istine
October 25th, 2017, 05:32 AM
Funny, it makes me think of every second Western story I've ever encountered (watched or read).

That's exactly what flashed through my mind - particularly those Clint Eastwood 'man with no name' films.

joshybo
October 25th, 2017, 10:44 PM
The general essence of that quote seems pretty correct, but I don't know why it would incite much of an existential crisis. As depressing as it might sound on the surface, everything in life generally boils down into nothing more than a handful of essential components rearranged in different ways. That's kind of where the old adage that there's nothing new under the sun comes from. If we want to painstakingly break everything down to its most basic form, these types of generalizations are unavoidable. In fact, even those two "plots" are really just the one about someone going on a journey. If a stranger comes to town, then I'd imagine he or she is on a journey from their perspective. I believe someone else already mentioned how all of these, and anything conjectured as to the contrary, can be broken down to merely as, "Something happens." Of course, if we're being liberal with how we define "journey" as someone else mentioned, then the story itself is the journey from its beginning to its end. Basically, yeah, the quote has some merit, but I wouldn't let it negatively affect your view on writing or stories or life in general because all any of us are really doing is plodding along to the end. Again, sounds depressing, but that very fact should make the story, the journey from one point to the other, all the more exciting and valuable because the story is what matters most. Without the story, all we have are beginnings and endings and those things are only truly worthwhile because of the context of the greater story. How everything breaks down behind the scenes is just a matter of consequence and not incredibly vital to the overall process of storytelling.

ppsage
October 27th, 2017, 05:17 PM
But a plot, to have any utility at all, is much more than a generic summary boiled-down to the nth degree. These are not plots, they're just the sort of smart-ass wise cracks writers love to tell journalists.

joshybo
October 27th, 2017, 05:46 PM
But a plot, to have any utility at all, is much more than a generic summary boiled-down to the nth degree. These are not plots, they're just the sort of smart-ass wise cracks writers love to tell journalists.

Agreed. They are not plots, but that was probably just easier to say for the sake of a quick little quotation.

VonBradstein
October 28th, 2017, 02:33 AM
But a plot, to have any utility at all, is much more than a generic summary boiled-down to the nth degree. These are not plots, they're just the sort of smart-ass wise cracks writers love to tell journalists.

It's not about 'utility'. Obviously there is more to it than that. Obviously very few stories, at least now, follow verbatim the two variations however in a broad sense most still follow one of the two. The intent of the discussion isn't really about the phrase in itself but rather about the general limits of crafting a story and of writing it...

ppsage
October 28th, 2017, 04:58 AM
Generally a story that has a worthless idea of what constitutes a plot is pretty limited.

andrewclunn
October 29th, 2017, 02:45 AM
What if I give my main character absolutely zero depth or development? Then I could write "a stranger goes on a journey."

VonBradstein
October 29th, 2017, 02:49 AM
Generally a story that has a worthless idea of what constitutes a plot is pretty limited.

And generally the alphabet makes for pretty dull reading, yet it is still interesting to me that from a handful of letters springs every written word in the world. I still think it is interesting to analyze the limitations of fiction where they seem to lie. People study atoms as building blocks and there’s little more boring than an atom. Nobody said you had to find it interesting.


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VonBradstein
October 29th, 2017, 02:51 AM
What if I give my main character absolutely zero depth or development? Then I could write "a stranger goes on a journey."

How about you give them all the depth and development in the world?

You could, and probably would, still write “a stranger goes on a journey”.


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EmmaSohan
October 29th, 2017, 02:58 PM
Probably because of this discussion, I realized my WIP was a quest, which didn't help me with anything, and she picks up people along the way to join her, which is a basic trope.

But then I realized that the character growth focuses on the people who join her, and she doesn't change much at all. That was useful -- I now can better focus on the mythic elements of my book based on that.

So -- maybe there is a value in thinking about "standardized plots", but the value comes when we find the ways we differ from them.

Or, to be more general, realizing what we are adding to the standardized plot that is special. Man goes on a journey -- but it's to the center of the Earth. She finds out she's a princess -- but she doesn't want to be a princess (Princess Diaries). Falls in love with the cute guy, but he's a vampire.

qwertyman
October 30th, 2017, 10:25 AM
but if you use it in metaphorical sense, an emotional "journey" in which a character grows and changes because of events, then I'd say every novel I can think of would fit, with no need for the second category at all!

Poirot?

Terry D
October 30th, 2017, 02:12 PM
Poirot?

And Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes, and every other 'drawing room mystery' where the sole purpose of the book is the puzzle contained within.

This discussion takes me back to my youth in the late 60's when we used to sit around in basement 'coffee houses' with their black painted walls adorned with black light posters, drinking coffee, smoking, listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez while we talked for hours about the military industrial complex and reveled in just how insightful we were. Thanks for the bit of nostalgia.

As Kyle mentioned above somewhere, the point under discussion -- the supposed Gardner quote -- really isn't a quote from Gardner, or anyone else. It's a moot point. When I read a question like this one, I ask myself, "Self, what will exploring this do for my writing? Will it help me to know if my plot is a 'journey plot' or a 'stranger comes to town' plot?" For me the answer would be a resounding "No." That's because I don't give a crap about plot. Plots are contrived. I care about story. I care about character. I care about the craft of writing. It doesn't help any of those things to try and compartmentalize the plot of my story. Just like all those coffee house conversations back in the Nixon era, these philosophical discussions about writing are just forms of mental masturbation that keep us from focusing on what is important.

joshybo
October 30th, 2017, 02:49 PM
Just like all those coffee house conversations back in the Nixon era, these philosophical discussions about writing are just forms of mental masturbation that keep us from focusing on what is important.

Certainly a fair point, but these sorts of conversations aren't completely without merit for new or even jaded writers. After all, you don't want to stumble awkwardly into the bedroom of novel writing only to find that you can't produce anything but flash fiction. ;)

We all have to take small, unimportant steps when finding our way. And if the question is there, then there's no harm in asking it. Personally, I like philosophical distractions from time to time.

VonBradstein
October 30th, 2017, 08:13 PM
Just like all those coffee house conversations back in the Nixon era, these philosophical discussions about writing are just forms of mental masturbation that keep us from focusing on what is important.

A good chunk of this forum is philosophical discussions/mental masturbation, is it not?

Look I make no claims about the extended value of this particular topic - it’s a thread not a PhD dissertation - and agree largely that meandering discussions do little or nothing to actually improve ones skills. In fact I am pretty sure by now I have railed on that subject multiple times in various posts.

I try to refrain from too much “writing about writing” and for every ten minutes I spend on this forum (which is largely time spent in critique as opposed to discussion) I have a personal rule I have to pay back those ten minutes on real writing so as not to succumb to procrastination. In an ideal world i would devote all my time to writing but sometimes a fellow needs diversions and I find I enjoy debate.

That said, I think it’s unmeritous to dismiss the validity of a discussion on the basis that you don’t care about it or don’t believe it’s worthwhile. Some people enjoy discussing the big picture, the theory, etc. so what? would you say that studying music theory inhibits musical proficiency? No, of course not. Does taking an interest in how a piano is made make you a better piano player? Probably not, but it definitely doesn’t make you a worse one.

Bottom line: Regardless of whether you care about plot, and I care little for it myself as far as my day to day writing is concerned, it exists nevertheless. It exists because the industry and endless tiresome critics says it does. Therefore it is not irrelevant to discuss it and as far as as I know doing so carries no harmful medical side effects. You still do not have to care.


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Terry D
October 30th, 2017, 08:55 PM
A good chunk of this forum is philosophical discussions/mental masturbation, is it not?

Look I make no claims about the extended value of this particular topic - it’s a thread not a PhD dissertation - and agree largely that meandering discussions do little or nothing to actually improve ones skills. In fact I am pretty sure by now I have railed on that subject multiple times in various posts.

I try to refrain from too much “writing about writing” and for every ten minutes I spend on this forum (which is largely time spent in critique as opposed to discussion) I have a personal rule I have to pay back those ten minutes on real writing so as not to succumb to procrastination. In an ideal world i would devote all my time to writing but sometimes a fellow needs diversions and I find I enjoy debate.

That said, I think it’s unmeritous to dismiss the validity of a discussion on the basis that you don’t care about it or don’t believe it’s worthwhile. Some people enjoy discussing the big picture, the theory, etc. so what? would you say that studying music theory inhibits musical proficiency? No, of course not. Does taking an interest in how a piano is made make you a better piano player? Probably not, but it definitely doesn’t make you a worse one.

Bottom line: Regardless of whether you care about plot, and I care little for it myself as far as my day to day writing is concerned, it exists nevertheless. It exists because the industry and endless tiresome critics says it does. Therefore it is not irrelevant to discuss it and as far as as I know doing so carries no harmful medical side effects. You still do not have to care.


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Okay.

I never claimed to be stating anything other than my own opinion about the worth of debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. I wasn't aware that any opinions being offered had more, or less, merit than others. Trying to decide how many 'plot types' there are is more akin to trying to define how many notes should be in a symphony than it is to actual music theory. Or how which color your new piano should be painted than how it is constructed.

VonBradstein
October 30th, 2017, 09:08 PM
Okay.

I never claimed to be stating anything other than my own opinion about the worth of debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. I wasn't aware that any opinions being offered had more, or less, merit than others. Trying to decide how many 'plot types' there are is more akin to trying to define how many notes should be in a symphony than it is to actual music theory. Or how which color your new piano should be painted than how it is constructed.

Your opinion is fine and certainly valid but probably belongs more in a thread along the lines of “does plot have value or meaning?” rather than one that debates the nature of plot-line itself.

In other words, you seemed to spend most of your response criticizing the validity of the question rather than the quote or what it was talking about. Just as you were not aware some opinions had more or less merit than others I was not aware that some discussion topics were “masturbatory”.

As it stands I’m rather bored beyond words of the entire subject but wanted to clarify my prior response.

qwertyman
November 2nd, 2017, 09:58 AM
Bottom line: Regardless of whether you care about plot, and I care little for it myself as far as my day to day writing is concerned, it exists nevertheless. Wow! care to expand?


... Therefore it is not irrelevant to discuss it and as far as as I know doing so carries no harmful medical side effects. You still do not have to care.
You might go blind?

H.Brown
November 2nd, 2017, 11:49 AM
In my opinion all writing has a plot line whether it is fiction, non-fiction, a guide, poetry or a play. They each have at least on ideal or premise that they revolve around. In fiction it is the journey that the reader is taken on. In non-fiction it is the idea that began the piece. In a guide it is the thing that is being explained.

In regards to the OP question no I don't think Gardner will be proven wrong as he has drawn upon the two most prolific qualities of writing to make his statement, therefore I believe that it will remain the same, however that does not necessarily mean that we should feel as though we are on a hamster wheel as within each new story the writer also brings something new to the genre, whether it be technology or new psychological ideals, etc.. therefore writing can still be new while using old ideas as a foundation.

ThatGuy
November 4th, 2017, 06:16 AM
you know, i've heard this before. except it was five. and maybe seven once.

and frankly, a new person coming to town is said person's journey, maybe, so how about there's just one?

but really, i think we should expand it out to ten. ten is an important seeming number, and maybe ten would be enough to actually fill a small book with that's long enough to be published, so... who's up for deciding on ten?

Pelwrath
November 6th, 2017, 01:49 AM
Sure, what ten did you have in mind. More interesting would be why or how are they an existential crisis?

VonBradstein
November 6th, 2017, 02:26 AM
Sure, what ten did you have in mind. More interesting would be why or how are they an existential crisis?

The existential crisis was sort of tongue in cheek but basically alludes to the realization that limits to creativity exist. For some people especially the seasoned and successful sorts, like Terry D, that might be an obvious or irrelevant issue. If so, this discussion is probably not of interest and I respect that. But for those of us who start our writing careers with the vaguely Disneyish notion that “anything is possible” I wanted to introduce the possibility and open it for debate that actually most of not all “original” work is simply putting together old ingredients in ways that are either new-ish or, more commonly, simply not quite as worn through as others. As illustrated - though perhaps not conclusively - by the two plot theory. I would also be interested in different views of course.

Depressing? Maybe. But liberating as well.

Pelwrath
November 6th, 2017, 05:05 AM
I agree, the basic plot lines are limited, yet a writer will always need to make the story their own. Meyer with 'sparkling' vampires. You may not like her writing but she provided her twist/take on vampires. This is where the boundaries are limitless. I mean coffee is coffee but how large is the menu at Starbucks?
For me, the writing is the story, the plot, as a driving force, is secondary or tertiary. An idea isn't a story, but is very much, the seed for a story.

VonBradstein
November 7th, 2017, 02:52 AM
I agree, the basic plot lines are limited, yet a writer will always need to make the story their own. Meyer with 'sparkling' vampires. You may not like her writing but she provided her twist/take on vampires. This is where the boundaries are limitless. I mean coffee is coffee but how large is the menu at Starbucks?
For me, the writing is the story, the plot, as a driving force, is secondary or tertiary. An idea isn't a story, but is very much, the seed for a story.

The menu at starbucks is about 40 items, not counting size variations :)

qwertyman
November 7th, 2017, 09:16 AM
...For me, the writing is the story, the plot, as a driving force, is secondary or tertiary. An idea isn't a story, but is very much, the seed for a story.

A story (or storyline) without a plot is a theme. A theme without a plot is a message. A message without a plot is masturbatory...and you go blind so you don't do it again...ask Milton.




Bottom line: Regardless of whether you care about plot, and I care little for it myself as far as my day to day writing is concerned, it exists nevertheless

Et tu?

Malachi
August 3rd, 2018, 04:50 AM
I could make a story that didn't follow either one. But it would suck.

ironpony
August 5th, 2018, 01:20 AM
I was told this to in a writing class, that there is only those two type of plots, by the professor. I suppose that is true, I looked at the stories I wrote and some were a stranger comes to town, and some were a person goes in a journey. I suppose every story can be broken down to being on or the other, but so what? They are both acceptable and shouldn't get wrapped up in if your story is one or the other, I don't think.

Darkthought
March 11th, 2019, 11:42 PM
I think you can probably fit any number of works to any number of analytical paradigms, and that all analytical paradigms are arbitrary. This is an outgrowth of the human capacity for pattern construction and recognition, not something that is necessarily inherent to a given piece of literature.
When a person says "There are only X basic plots," what they actually mean is "These are the analytical paradigms that are most comfortable for me when interpreting a piece of literature." Analytical paradigms are tools we can use to gain insight into works, not fundamental universal truths.

theoldman
March 11th, 2019, 11:55 PM
This thread is interesting to me as plotting and POV are most difficult, much like placing hexagon head into a square slot,only more so.

Darkthought
March 12th, 2019, 12:55 AM
This thread is interesting to me as plotting and POV are most difficult, much like placing hexagon head into a square slot,only more so.

What specifically do you find difficult about point of view and plotting?

MichelD
March 18th, 2019, 07:23 PM
Funny, my current WIP is both; my protagonist is on a journey to find something about his past and goes back to his home town after such a long absence that he is a stranger there.

Olly Buckle
March 19th, 2019, 12:33 AM
I can think of plenty that do fit those descriptions, from 'The Hobbit', to 'Shane', but I can also think of a fair few that don't, 'A whole life', a fictional biography, no journey, no stranger; most of Jane Austen is about relationships between people who know each other well, no strangers, no journeys. There are also a number I can think of where one or the other are involved, but that is not what the book is about; 'White fang', for example, is about a dog, it is a sled dog making journeys at times, but that is the business of the humans who are secondary to the main thrust of the book, that is about being a dog.

gene
March 19th, 2019, 05:29 AM
A good plot should never stay in one place, nor should it center around the familiar.

moderan
March 19th, 2019, 05:07 PM
Why must people depend on aphorisms? It's just overthink.

Terry D
March 19th, 2019, 06:05 PM
Why must people depend on aphorisms? It's just overthink.

But it's a great way to keep from actually writing!!!

moderan
March 19th, 2019, 06:42 PM
Oh right. I forgot! The chief aim of writing is avoiding writing!
In all circumstances, I advocate butt-in-chair. It's far easier to actually write when you are prepared to, and my ass is conditioned to start creating clouds when I sit it down. Balaam calls it Pavlov's Ass, but it works.

Phil Istine
March 20th, 2019, 08:44 AM
Oh right. I forgot! The chief aim of writing is avoiding writing!
In all circumstances, I advocate butt-in-chair. It's far easier to actually write when you are prepared to, and my ass is conditioned to start creating clouds when I sit it down. Balaam calls it Pavlov's Ass, but it works.

Let's hope it doesn't start salivating (is that another aphorism?) :)

moderan
March 20th, 2019, 04:30 PM
Rings a bell.

moderan
March 25th, 2019, 12:05 AM
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/the-six-main-arcs-in-storytelling-identified-by-a-computer/490733/

ironpony
April 1st, 2019, 08:20 AM
Generally attributed to Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but actually the genius of John Gardner...

"There are only two plots in all of literature: 1) A person goes on a journey. 2) A stranger comes to town."

Since hearing this some years ago this evil piece of wisdom comes back to haunt me at least once-for-ten-seconds every time I read anything new and I have yet to find any work that cannot be covered by one of the two Gardner plots. Even the most original ideas are actually just those with unusual takes on one or more of 'person', 'goes', 'journey', 'stranger', comes' and 'town' and so the basic concept prevails. And, of course, there are an abundance of great novels out there which are literally just either about journeys or strangers-in-towns...

So what do you think? Are we all doomed to run on hamster wheels within Gardner's Newtonian laws? Is there any work out there that cannot be fit into one of the two? Is it possible?

I appreciate the view that it does not matter & that a good book is a good book no matter how conventional it is or is not, so really no need to weigh in with that view - I suspect you would be preaching to the choir. This post is simply to discuss whether Gardner has been or could ever be proven incorrect in his hypothesis and what that might look like. Ultimately I think it is interesting (though not necessarily healthy) for every writer to know what, if any, rules exist when it comes to storytelling.

I've read this two, about there only being two kinds. As to these two types being conventional, I think you could still write a very unconventional story, whether a stranger comes to town or a hero goes on a journey. As for if Gardner was incorrect, there are lots of types of stories, but I suppose every one of them, either has a stranger come to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Unless anyone can name a story where neither of these two things happen?

moderan
April 1st, 2019, 04:27 PM
Stop torturing your syntax and send your grammar home to bake cookies. Please.

ppsage
April 1st, 2019, 06:16 PM
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/the-six-main-arcs-in-storytelling-identified-by-a-computer/490733/
An interesting article in which the word plot does not seem to occur, deliberately I'm supposing, as every imaginable synonym for it is therein discovered. My position is that that's because the word plot most properly defined is an outline device of fiction writers which orders the particular incidents of the unique work they're composing. The rest of this is semantics mostly.

Megan Pearson
April 5th, 2019, 03:59 AM
I've read this two, about there only being two kinds. As to these two types being conventional, I think you could still write a very unconventional story, whether a stranger comes to town or a hero goes on a journey. As for if Gardner was incorrect, there are lots of types of stories, but I suppose every one of them, either has a stranger come to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Unless anyone can name a story where neither of these two things happen?

Isn't this saying the same thing? Coming or going, known or unknown, it's all stated in relation to the setting. Kind of like John Stienbeck's...(err! can't remember the title, that short piece where the business man from the city settles in the country, raises a boy who then goes off to the city?)

I think Olly nailed the ultimate in stories where neither of these these things happen. I'll just repeat Jane Austen here to help with her publicity. (LOL!)

apocalypsegal
May 16th, 2020, 01:39 PM
The Martian. He doesn't go on a journey, he gets left behind on Mars.

The journey doesn't have to be literal. The character here made a journey of self growth and awareness. He had to learn to trust himself, to remain mentally fit, to challenge the circumstances of being alone on a hostile world, with little to sustain him, and to find a way to return to Earth.

vranger
May 21st, 2020, 07:01 PM
Bayview answered this correctly on Page 1, but it was two and a half years ago, and it shouldn't be forgotten just from the standpoint of intervening time and pages. As I read the page, I found that Bayview expressed the answer I was about to write. The OP's premise is correct, but the two "plots" are overly broad. Not only do I not see those definitions as helpful, but none other either. You find lists of "the seven basic plots", "the seventeen basic plots", and "the FIFTY-ONE basic plots". LOL

It's a manifestation of humanity's innate need to categorize, which is sometimes helpful, sometimes vital, and sometimes utterly irrelevant.

Are we really sitting down and looking at a list of plot types to decide what we're about to write? Well, maybe on a bad day when inspiration just isn't coming and we need an idea and we have no story in mind yet. I'm still working on a backlog of ideas, so I haven't gotten there yet. But I know that happens. If that happens to me, I'm not going to be deciding between "The hero takes a journey" or "A stranger comes to town". LOL I'm going to be heading straight for the list of 51, where there are options I can sink my teeth into.

Olly Buckle
May 21st, 2020, 08:46 PM
I'm not going to be deciding between "The hero takes a journey" or "A stranger comes to town". LOL I'm going to be heading straight for the list of 51, where there are options I can sink my teeth into.

I am reading an ancient book called "100 Best Spy stories". There are a couple set in the twenties, most are WWl or earlier, and there is some terrible writing by present day standards, but the ideas! I am sure I shall be writing a few stories that have their origins there, but not in a way that anyone would ever recognise.

vranger
May 21st, 2020, 09:34 PM
I am reading an ancient book called "100 Best Spy stories". There are a couple set in the twenties, most are WWl or earlier, and there is some terrible writing by present day standards, but the ideas! I am sure I shall be writing a few stories that have their origins there, but not in a way that anyone would ever recognise.

In my first novel, a stranger comes to town, and THEN the hero takes a journey. Both in the same book!

How much trouble am I in?

Olly Buckle
May 21st, 2020, 10:47 PM
In my first novel, a stranger comes to town, and THEN the hero takes a journey. Both in the same book!

How much trouble am I in?

Depends, how much love interest ? :)

Justin Attas
May 22nd, 2020, 04:37 PM
I would agree with Gardner on this, but would also like to point out that I think he's taking a giant cop-out. As many other commenters have mentioned, a "journey" can be extrapolated to mean any number of things. Physical. Emotional. Philosophical. The same is true for the terms "stranger" or "town". A stranger could be any manner of outsider or outcast. A "town" could actually be an entire country, or even a planet or dimension in scifi.

Using such broad mechanisms to categorize a story is like saying "All stories are made up of the same three parts. Protagonist. Antagonist. Conflict." It's so incredibly broad that of course you could find a way it holds true in every single story. It shouldn't cause you existential dread :sentimental:

vranger
May 22nd, 2020, 08:33 PM
Depends, how much love interest ? :)
Very little. ;-) Here's the sex in the book.

A girl who is assisting the "coming of age" hero performs an important task and falls from exhaustion. He catches her. Later, as he visits while she's recovering, she says, "We may have to try that again sometime when I'm not so tired."

This completes the list of sex in the book.

Olly Buckle
May 22nd, 2020, 10:35 PM
A girl who is assisting the "coming of age" hero performs an important task and falls from exhaustion. He catches her. Later, as he visits while she's recovering, she says, "We may have to try that again sometime when I'm not so tired."

Of course you know your characters, but the addition of 'When I am not so tired.' on the end seems almost immodest. In a book where this is the only sex reference the impact is , of course, somewhat disproportionate. It might, therefore, be worth considering omitting this. However, having done this the indefinite quality of 'we may have to' making it sound like something to be avoided, and 'sometime', so well known in the well known phrase 'Sometime never'. If you lose them though it leaves you with, 'We have to try that again'. and 'try' also is vague. We could say 'do', but I am almost certain this is not what you want to imply. So much is now missing 'That' has become indefinite. Your audience is going to be thinking 'But they haven't done 'that' for the first time.' It is not a good idea to confuse your readers. I suggest you leave this sordid sex business to other less able writers who need it's questionable attraction to spice up their otherwise intellectually dead work, and maintain the special quality of the rest of the book.

Lol ;)

qwertyman
May 23rd, 2020, 08:21 AM
Very little. ;-) Here's the sex in the book.

A girl who is assisting the "coming of age" hero performs an important task and falls from exhaustion. He catches her. Later, as he visits while she's recovering, she says, "We may have to try that again sometime when I'm not so tired."



Jeeez! pass the bromide.

Falls from where, a chandelier?..no don't tell me.

Assisting? Performs an important task...?

Nurse, oxygen quick before I turn the page.

vranger
May 23rd, 2020, 08:37 AM
Of course you know your characters, but the addition of 'When I am not so tired.' on the end seems almost immodest. In a book where this is the only sex reference the impact is , of course, somewhat disproportionate. It might, therefore, be worth considering omitting this. However, having done this the indefinite quality of 'we may have to' making it sound like something to be avoided, and 'sometime', so well known in the well known phrase 'Sometime never'. If you lose them though it leaves you with, 'We have to try that again'. and 'try' also is vague. We could say 'do', but I am almost certain this is not what you want to imply. So much is now missing 'That' has become indefinite. Your audience is going to be thinking 'But they haven't done 'that' for the first time.' It is not a good idea to confuse your readers. I suggest you leave this sordid sex business to other less able writers who need it's questionable attraction to spice up their otherwise intellectually dead work, and maintain the special quality of the rest of the book.

Lol ;)

Not only that. It's the last line of the book. ;-)

It makes more sense in the context of the other 100K odd words.

(I did misquote myself. She actually says 'exhausted'. I pride myself on being a wordsmith. LOL)

PS. That post was excellent. I laughed. I read it to my wife, and she didn't stop laughing. You made our day. :-)

apocalypsegal
June 11th, 2020, 11:23 AM
I think the point of knowing however-many-plots is to learn plot structure, not that you'd go down a list and pick something (though I've known a couple of writers who kind of do this, as sort of a prompt) and then write the story. Once you've learned the basics, your brain sort of fits it all together into a story, and you aren't really thinking about, "Well, I need a plot, so let's pick X...". It's like, you learn the tropes of a genre, study up on how they're working in current stories, and then you understand what the genre is about and write your story. Some people are big on the "write to market" stuff, which boils down to writing stories just like whatever is currently selling a lot, but it comes down to knowing what kind of story you're writing so you can sell it, to an agent, to a publisher, to a reader.

Olly Buckle
June 12th, 2020, 03:03 PM
Why just one or the other? A stranger comes to town, so someone goes on a journey, and as a sub plot someone goes on a journey and then a stranger comes to town.