So you’ve got an idea and you are beginning to work on it. You can sense the story coming to life. You know the thrill of being a creator. It’s exhilarating. This story is a new world, your world, and you feel you can do whatever you want with it. You are the driver, and you’ll set off into the wide horizons any way you want.
But can you?
In theory, yes. You write whatever words you want, in whatever order you want. Your characters will be whoever you say they will be, and you can do whatever you like with them.
In practice, other powerful influences are already at work. They are to do with our collective idea about what a story is and what pattern it should follow. There are an enormous number of possible designs of chair, but they all have to support a person in a seated position and there is only a limited number of ways you can do that. Similarly, if a story is to be satisfying, there are a limited number of lines it can possibly follow.
(How many? Christopher Booker counted seven basic plots. Others have suggested three, twenty, thirty-six etc. It depends what you mean by a ‘plot.’ And that’s a delightful argument but let’s not have it here. )
Detective? Or Heist?
The choice of basic plot is made very early, often before you are aware of having made it. And it profoundly affects how you are going to tell your story. Taking our olive-pitter example, we seem to have a choice between
- a detective story with a crime, suspects, clues, false leads, maybe further murders, climax and denouement, or
- a heist-type story, with target and motive, preparations, maybe selection of a team, danger of discovery, the actual dramatic event and then escape.
Sure, you can graft on other plots. You could have a love triangle in there, for example, or a tragic hero whose fatal flaw leads him to ruin as the story proceeds. But if you stray too far from these recognisable story-lines you run the risk of losing the plot, literally.
This is because we tell stories for a reason. They allow us to rehearse, in our imagination, the critical life experiences that we will have or that we hope to have – growing in power, finding a mate, facing difficulty, or disaster, or death. We have done it over and over again, through the centuries.
It’s also why so many successful stories are in fact old ones told in new ways. The Curse of the Ferryman, which I’ve just put up on this site, has a number of classic elements. It has a prophecy (the curse). It’s a misty-moonlight ghostly spine-chiller. But beneath all that it’s the good old redemption story we’ve heard so many times and love so well. It’s St Christopher, and everything like that.
So this story you are working on… Yes, it’s your story. You’re the driver and the map-reader. But there’s ten thousand years of story-telling in the back seat, telling you where to go.