Are There Really Only Seven Stories?

An examination of the common meme that there are only seven stories.

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Anyone who reads regularly, will probably have seen, at least once, and possibly many times, the assertion that there are only seven possible stories. What they will almost certainly not have seen, is an enumeration of what these stories are.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The meme almost certainly originated as a throwaway remark that was passed on and on, and assumed a certain vague authority, because no one ever bothered to challenge it.

Looking at it more closely, the first problem in trying to pin down some fixed number of basic stories is that, whilst we may never give it much thought, even defining what a story is proves to be by no means straightforward. At its simplest, it merely needs a protagonist who or which undergoes some transformation.

A woman sits in a chair, thinking.

Most unsatisfactory. No one would consider that to be anything of note. We want embellishments: Who is the woman, what are her attributes, physical and in terms of personality, how old is she, what is she thinking about, what about her environment, does anything external influence her thoughts, does she come to a conclusion, what is it?

With these additions, a skilled author can make a fascinating and thought provoking story, full of colour and intrigue.

But, what happens when we examine such an expanded story? We find that the story is, as are so many things in nature, a fractal. Starting with what is being presented as ‘the story’ many of the embellishments required to produce something worth reading are smaller stories in themselves. These smaller stories can contain yet smaller stories. That disassembly can continue until you end up a set of the most basic stories – each one, standing alone, utterly banal.

Indeed, many large novels are not even one story. War and peace is a collection of stories; you could encapsulate those stories with an overall description, but not specify a single story structure.

If we add to our most basic definition, that some conclusion must be stated or implied, perhaps we can come up with the nine most basic plots:

The protagonist is in a situation that is or initially becomes, (with respect to the story), good, stable, or bad.

Something or some things happen and she or he finishes up in a better, similar, or worse, situation.
Of course, it may be necessary to consider both short and long term outlooks in deciding whether you consider the protagonist to be in a better or worse situation at the conclusion.

As well as its fractal nature, a story can also have multiple viewpoints, and the basic plot may be different depending on viewpoint – particularly if it is not clear who or what is the primary protagonist. An impartial historical account of a battle or war is a perfect example.

And despite the fact that it is a completely pointless exercise (because, apart from anything else, when taking the broad overview, you will omit all the things that actually make the story interesting), if you select a consistent protagonist (two people setting off on a quest may have completely different outcomes, so each viewpoint is effectively a separate tale) and ruthlessly pare down the story, it will always fit into one of the nine possibilities implied above.

He is a computer scientist, born in London but spent most of his life living in Kent.

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