According to Chris Booker there are only 7 stories ever told. Overcoming the Monster (Jaws, Beowulf, King Kong), Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland, The Time Machine, The Wizard of Oz), Rags to Riches (Aladdin, Cinderella, Slumdog Millionaire), The Quest (Lord of the Rings, The Iliad, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Tragedy (Macbeth, Requiem for a Dream, Anna Karenina), Comedy (Dumb and Dumber, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Big Lebowski) and Rebirth (Groundhog Day, A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast). Every successful myth, movie, novel and TV show can be placed in one of these categories.
From Aristotle’s 3 act structure to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, humans have tried to reverse-engineer what makes a good story for millennia. William Foster-Harris asserted there were only 3 basic plot patterns, Ronald Tobias identified 20, and Georges Polti topped that with 36. So far only Kurt Vonnegut has had his theory fed into a computer. Researchers at the University of Vermont coded the words in 1,737 fiction texts by happiness, and found 6 core ‘shapes’, mapping precisely to Vonnegut’s thesis. By extracting the shape of the story, you see patterns you otherwise wouldn’t. The tale of Cinderella is no obvious match for Christianity’s origin story. Yet looking at Vonnegut’s graph, “the tales were identical”.
It starts with a staircase-like climb in good fortune with Cinderella’s fairy godmother — which “looks like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth” — deities imparting incremental gifts. The stroke of midnight lines up with ‘let there be light’, Cinderella’s curfew is a mirror image to Adam and Eve’s rejection from the Garden of Eden, and the rise to bliss at the end lines up with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity. If this exercise seems academic, Vonnegut insists this is “the most popular story in our civilization.” and “every time it’s retold, someone makes a million dollars.”
Hollywood has taken this lesson to heart. If you look at the 100 highest grossing films at the US box office in each year between 2005 and 2014 (1,000 films in total), only 39% were truly original, i.e. not a sequel, remake, or retelling of an older story. Looking at the top ten films by box office numbers, all but three are a sequel/franchise film. And those three non-sequel/franchise films are all new versions of previously told stories. “They already know these brands, and these combinations have worked on one generation and, if written properly, will work again…” explains Anita Busch of Deadline.
Many of the movies we believe are original, are actually retellings of an older story – recycled memes. The Lion King is Hamlet with Lions. Avatar is Dances with Wolves with blue indians. Titanic is Romeo and Juliet on a boat. Batman is Zorro in New York. Iron Man is Batman in California. Seriously – in 1963 Marvel decided they needed their own billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist, orphan, vigilante after seeing the success of DC Comics’ Batman, released in 1939. As Blake Snyder says in ‘Save the Cat’, his book on screenwriting, “You can’t tell me any idea that isn’t like one, or dozens, found in the movie canon. Trust me, your movie falls into a category. And that category has rules that you need to know”.
A Story of Stories
Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus
How original are Hollywood movies?
Kurt Vonnegut graphed the world’s most popular stories
KURT VONNEGUT GRAPHS THE SHAPES OF STORIES
Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories
Save the Cat!: The Only Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need
Story structure – the hidden framework that hangs your story together
The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes
The Seven Basic Plots
The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I.
Understanding The Seven Basic Plots
What is Dramatica?