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
The Lord of the Rings
Hansel and Gretel
Little Red Riding Hood
Stranger Comes to Town
The Cat in the Hat
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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