You may have heard the argument before: There are only a finite number of possible story types.
No matter how much we might wish otherwise, creativity is as limited as we are. We can never invent something truly unique. The most we can hope for is to sprinkle a dash of novelty into the same worn-out trope and, with an illusionist’s flourish, let out a cry of ta da! and hope no one in the crowd sees through the trick.
And so, the argument goes, though there are millions or billions or even trillions of stories in existence, there are really only a very limited amount of stories possible.
I’d like to argue that there are just two.
I know. You’ve probably heard a different number before. And I’ll get to that in a bit. First, though, I’m going to deal with a more pressing question:
Why should you care?
The thing is, it actually matters. Like a chef, knowing what defines the concoction you’re about to create will help you figure out how to make it work.
And how to stop it from failing.
The two categories are:
- Stories about abnormal characters, and;
- Stories about abnormal situations.
Superman. Sherlock Holmes. James Bond. Gandalf. Shrek. All these characters have something in common.
They’re nothing like you or me.
They’re the basis of the first type of story. Books about abnormal characters—characters that are different to the average person on the street. Maybe he has superpowers. Maybe she’s unnaturally brilliant. Whatever the case, these characters have something that makes them stand out from the crowd.
And that’s the essence of what makes these stories work. Take James Bond, for example. In Thunderball, 007 has to stop a powerful crime syndicate after they steal two atomic bombs. Sure, it’s an interesting plot, but that’s not what catches your attention. Even before you read the story, you know that Bond will dodge the bullets, survive the explosions, and defuse the bombs—all while keeping his tie immaculately straight.
It’s James Bond himself that captivates the reader.
The situation the abnormal character faces is far less important. It could be an abnormal situation—like the plot of Thunderball—or even a perfectly normal situation. In Jim Butcher’s Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, a large portion of the book deals with Spiderman trying to coach a basketball team. If Peter Parker was just a regular person, a story about him trying to coach a basketball team would be pretty dull. But he’s not a regular person. He’s Spiderman.
And that makes all the difference.
The reverse is true as well. Even if the situation is so abnormal that your character struggles to handle it, the book can still fall squarely in the “abnormal character” category. The Dresden Files—one of my favorite series and also from Jim Butcher—is an example of such a story. Dresden is a wizard PI who frequently finds himself over his head, fighting forces beyond his abilities. Yet there’s no doubt that these books are all about Dresden. The plot may be intriguing, but it’s Dresden that sells the books.
More often that not, it’s these abnormal characters that those endless series get written about. Take James Patterson’s Alex Cross series, which is currently up to its 25th book. Think about that for a moment. What type of plot can be so complicated that it needs twenty five books to tell? But that’s exactly the point. Alex Cross doesn’t have that many books written about him because of the plot. He has that many books because his character is so interesting, readers want to keep reading about him—over and over again.
As a final note, books about abnormal characters don’t necessarily have to be narrated by that character. None of the Sherlock Holmes books are narrated from the detective’s point of view. Yet a book with Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a mystery—it’s a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
And then we have the other type of book. These stories are about perfectly normal people—people like you or me. They have ordinary skills, live ordinary lives, and go to ordinary jobs. They’re boring, and on their own, no one would be interested in reading about them.
What makes them interesting is the situation.
In Teresa Driscoll’s I Am Watching You, Ella—a perfectly normal person—overhears some people flirting and realizes that two of them are escaped convicts. The next day, she finds out one of the girls has disappeared, and she becomes consumed with guilt, knowing she could have stopped them but didn’t.
These stories work because they make you ask that one thrilling question:
What would I do in this situation?
These books work the way they do precisely because their characters are so normal. In Stephen King’s Cujo, the antagonist might simply be a rabid dog, but to Donna Trenton and her family, Cujo is a nightmare come to life—as evidenced in this scene:
As if aware he was being observed, Cujo looked up, his muzzle dripping. He looked at her with an expression (could dogs have an expression? she wondered madly) that seemed to convey both sternness and pity … and again Donna had the feeling that they had come to know each other intimately, and that there could be no stopping or resting for either of them until they had explored this terrible relationship to some ultimate conclusion.
Now imagine taking that scene and replacing Donna Trenton with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
Suddenly, all the horror is gone. So Cujo is a rabid dog? Terminator is a “Cybernetic organism, living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.” That ultimate conclusion Donna was so afraid of will be, “Hasta La Vista, Baby Cujo.”
But the character doesn’t have to be strictly normal for the book to still be about the situation. Frodo Baggins might be a Hobbit who wears mithril chain-mail and wields a magic sword, but The Lord of the Rings is not the tale of Frodo Baggins’ adventures. It’s all about the situation—Sauron, the One Ring, and the threat they pose to Middle Earth.
These stories don’t tend to get stretched into series. Once the character has handled the situation, we’re back to being uninterested in his or her life. Sure, we could come back and create a new situation for them, but why not create a fresh character instead? It can even be a bad idea to stick with the same character for too long. If Joe the technician keeps fighting off deadly assassins, how long can we keep reading before we begin to doubt if Joe is just a technician?
Transitioning from One Type to the Other
But your story doesn’t have to be confined to one category. Take the hero’s journey—one of the most common types of story in existence. It starts off with a normal character thrust into an abnormal situation, and the only way the character can handle it is to transition himself into an abnormal character. Rick Riordan’s The Lighting Thief is just one example of such a book.
Likewise, abnormal characters can become normal. In Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky, an entire host of superheroes lose their powers and are forced to acclimate to regular life. When they are called again to stop an unknown threat, their lack of powers creates a tense plot. How can they stop this threat as regular people, especially when they’re so used to being superheroes?
So yes, transitioning from one type to the other works.
But, failing to keep to the type you chose doesn’t.
For example, I once read a book about a man who finds out that an assassin has been hired to kill a random stranger—and he’s the only one who knows. I was intrigued, because the thought of a normal person thrust into such a crazy situation was fascinating. Will he risk his life to do the right thing? If yes, how will he stop an experienced killer?
Then, half-way through, it’s revealed that our protagonist is not quite as normal as I’d been led to believe. He’s a black-ops veteran, trained to handle crazy situations like this. In many ways, he’s more dangerous than the man chasing him.
I immediately lost my interest. I wanted to read a book about a normal person facing off against a relentless assassin. A book about a tough, deadly, trained solder facing off the assassin? Meh. The whole appeal of the book was suddenly lost.
What About the Other Theories?
Like I mentioned earlier, the idea of there being only a finite number of possible stories isn’t exactly unique. There’s an opinion that there are three, another that there are twenty, and a third that there are a grand total of thirty six. Perhaps the most widely accepted theory is that there are seven. How does my theory of two fit in with these?
However, now that I’ve explained the theory, you may already notice that they’re not exactly contradictory. It’s all about perspective. The theory of seven, for example, deals with the possible numbers of plot. My theory, however, is less interested in plot and more in what makes up the overall story.
What’s This Mean for You?
Among other things:
- It’s a new way of looking at your story—are you writing about an abnormal character or a normal one?
- Once you know the answer, stick with it. Don’t choose one and halfway through reveal that really it was the other all along.
- It helps you decide what characteristics to assign to your characters.
- It helps you decide what situations to put your characters in.
- It offers insights into whether or not your character deserves a series. Normal ones usually don’t.
The bottom line is that I believe that it can help guide you; help answer questions about how to make your story work. But the last thing it’s meant to do is limit you. Yes, there may only be two types of stories in the world.
But if you take a trillion and divide it into two, you’re still left with a lot on either side.