The Two Kinds of Story

John Gardner, the author of one of the greatest craft books of all time, THE ART OF FICTION, once said there are only two kinds of stories in the world: “a person goes on an adventure” or “a stranger comes to town.”

I thought this was a gross generalization when I heard it quoted at a writer’s workshop, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. Stories “happen” when the normal is upended and the protagonist’s life changes irrevocably, so the engine of pretty much any plot you can think of is somebody leaving their comfort zone, willingly or not, or having the outside world thrust into their comfort zone, usually in the form of another character. So it should come as no surprise that the plots of most of the most enduring stories in our Western tradition follow one form or the other. Stories like:

Person Goes On An Adventure

Star Wars
The Lord of the Rings
Hansel and Gretel
Little Red Riding Hood
The Odyssey
Beowulf
The Road
Jane Eyre
Heidi
Huckleberry Finn
Harry Potter

Stranger Comes to Town

Little Women
The Cat in the Hat
Shane
Snow White
The Pied Piper
Lilo and Stitch (Stop laughing. That movie is GREAT.)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

What’s astounding to me is that most readers don’t realize they’re reading variations on these two simple themes over and over, and most writers don’t realize they are writing them. I’m a perfect example: I didn’t plan it this way, but my two books fit neatly into each these categories. In THE LOST GIRLS, both protagonists leave their homes and go to a lake — one for a summer vacation, the other in a desperate attempt to flee her boyfriend — and have “adventures”. In LOVELOCK, the protagonist’s quiet life in a small desert town is turned upside down by a “stranger” who shows up, teaches math at the local middle school for a few months, then dies mysteriously. In fact, we are so primed to respond to these two story types that we don’t even consider a collection of sequential events a story unless it fits one of those models.

Why is that? Why do these two story types — and only these two — resonate with us so profoundly? I think it’s because both are rooted deeply in our past, at the very beginning of storytelling, when the only security available was the security of home and the security of the tribe. In those unsettling times, when more people were killed by other people or animals than died “naturally”, security would be the most precious of commodities. So surely the very first stories our ancestors told around the campfire — the stories that captured their imagination and engaged their hopes and fears — were stories about the loss of that security, a loss which could only happen in one of two ways: people could leave their community and strike out on their own, or their community could be threatened by forces from the outside. That makes sense to me, because plot is about change, about challenge, about emotional upheaval, and about the irrevocable. So even in our modern storytelling, it ends up being about those who go away, and those who come to stay, because both of them change everything that matters.

What about you, fellow writers? Is your work in progress a “person goes on an adventure” story, or a “stranger comes to town” story? Can you think of any examples hat don’t fit either of these archetypes?

 

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 7 Comments

  1. I think that, in general, mysteries don’t fall into either if those categories. A minority are “a stranger comes to town,” and a few are about going on an adventure, but I think, in very broad terms, mysteries are a result of urban living, where the mystery, and possible danger, is not the stranger from out of town, but the people down the hall, or across the street, who you kind of know but don’t really know.

    Because the murderer usually isn’t the stranger (the stranger can be a great red herring, though 🙂 ), but the person who’s always been there, quietly, but whose inner life you don’t actually know anything about.

    1. That’s a great point, Anthony, but I think most mysteries do indeed fit the trope. The murder is the inciting element, but usually it happens before the story even begins. The story itself is the story of the person who solves the crime, and that story is either “stranger comes to town” if it’s told from the perspective of the people he or she questions or investigates, or “person goes on an adventure,” if it’s told from the perspective of the investigator. Think of Tana French and Elizabeth George as classic examples of the “person goes on an adventure” mysteries, told from the very intimate perspective of the detective, and Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” as a classic “stranger comes to town” story, as the train passengers interact with Hercule Poirot as an outsider coming in to mess with them.

      1. Interesting. Some mysteries have two visitors — the killer and then the detective. But some don’t. And then there are the situations where everybody is a visitor from “outside” — like And Then There Were None and The Hateful Eight.

        I’ve also been thinking about Shakespeare. I may write more about this on my blog. I think the theory would have to be stretched quite a bit to cover King Lear or Othello. It does cover Hamlet quite nicely, though.

  2. I love how you cite fairy tales and The Cat in the Hat as examples! And I also appreciate how you’ve connected your theme to the security we are all thinking of this week.
    My novel-in-progress indeed is about what happens when two strangers separately come to town–except one turns out to have an awkward history in the town she left long ago, which she needs to spin as she runs for office.
    Your post sets me wondering what perspective has to say about whether a book fits into the adventurer or stranger-in-town category. If I write from the stranger’s point of view, it could be construed as her adventure.

    1. I thought about the perspective issue, too, and I think it is determinative. If you’re telling a “person goes on an adventure” story, you’re going to be telling it from their perspective, whether you write in first or third person. But what’s interesting is that, as you say, from the perspective of the people he or she interacts with, they are the stranger who comes to town. Which kind of reinforces the whole idea, that as humans our stories always boil down to one or the other, depending on our point of view.

      And yes, Donald Trump is telling a lot of “stranger comes to town” stories right now, isn’t he?

  3. “a stranger comes to town” is much more exciting I think. This choice is prescribed by your ability to create something mysterious. I would rather describe person with many secrets from past who tries to pretend someone else using a fake name. Nowadays bookshelves are full of adventures.

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