More Than Simply A Number

By Katie Lewis

Humans like finite answers. It’s a trait we all share. How many people live in your house? How many beans are in the jar? How many types of stories exist in the world? Something is pleasing about putting a number to these questions. However, the answer to the last can vary from 6 to 36. And even those higher numbers need to be extended. The very nature of art is to change, to evolve, to expand. Writing is no different.

First Thing’s First

There are several reasons why assigning a definite number to how many stories exist doesn’t work. However, even if you disagree with everything else I’m about to say, I’d like to take a moment to highlight my fellow blogger Renate Hancock’s excellent post, “One Overwhelming Reason To Write.” If you still need to read that one, pause here and do so (maybe not while you’re hungry). Back? Great!

Spoilers, but the condensed version of Renate’s post was that even if a story has been told a hundred times before, no one can tell it how YOU can. You may have re-read The Lord of the Rings every year since you were twelve, like I have, and high fantasy is your thing. Go for it. You may want to be more experimental but can’t let go of this one idea you’ve had forever that perfectly fits The Hero’s Journey. Nothing wrong with that at all.

There are more story archetypes out there than you might have ever thought. At the same time, I’m not suggesting you reinvent the wheel. Narratives that fall into the “6 Kinds of Stories” aren’t trash.

But I’m confident that we can do more. 

The Digital Age Demands Change

Let’s see how we got from 6 to 36 in the first place. Several studies have been done over the last century, including feeding text to an analytical program. Each of these studies has come up with a different number, often higher than what came before it. That shouldn’t be surprising, considering how the media landscape has changed.

As a Millennial, I grew up with the internet. I’m old enough to remember a time without it. The internet and I went through puberty at the same time. So, the first audience I learned to write for was an online one, a very different audience from a print one.

In some ways, we’ve gone backward in that respect. The popularity of self-publishing and programs like Kindle Vella has necessitated a return to the penny dreadful. Most of us have been taught to write character-driven stories. Still, digital consumers are more interested in plot-driven tales.

The point is that digital readers are more likely to browse a genre on Kindle and search for precise keywords. They like one thing and want to read as many variations as possible.

I can attest to this as someone who spent a year writing self-published novellas. I tried my hardest to keep my series driven by the characters. Still, every book needed certain elements to appeal to an online audience. Certain tropes. There’s a formula for appealing to an online audience.

While you might think a plot-driven story would fit even more neatly into the original 6 stories idea, truth is stranger than fiction. These aren’t your grandfather’s plots anymore. There are whole genres out there now that are simply “Mafia stories” or the current flavor of Vampire/Werewolves or viral hits on BookTok.

Combining character and plot-driven stories, it’s easy to see how the number of story types might explode well into the two digits. The real trick is that those numbers only really apply to Western literature.

Literature is a Global Melting Pot

Those studies I mentioned earlier were guilty of the same sin: too narrow a focus. They concentrated on American and British literature, with some classic European fairy tales thrown in for good measure.

The world is so much bigger than that, though.

As much as I remember the internet’s infancy, I also remember the hype around its introduction. The entire vibe of 1998 revolved around this “information super-highway” that would connect people globally. That goal has been achieved, though sometimes people ignore the cultural implications.

Today, we have more access than ever to stories from cultures beyond America and the UK. That story graph some middle school English teacher taught you once. The one about inciting incident, rising action, climax, and falling action. That thing. Throw it away when looking at stories from other cultures.

Eastern storytelling, for example, is vastly different. And my writing circle has been heavily influenced by Japanese storytelling since we were children. Between shows, games, and graphic novels, I was often more immersed in Eastern storytelling than Western at various times. For the last two years, my attention has shifted to Chinese fantasy, and that’s basically all I’ve read (my local bookstore will back me up on that).

The very structure of these stories is different. The inciting incident is still there, in essence, but the rest of the story map is more like a stock market graph. Often there isn’t one villain, no single enemy like Sauron or Darth Vader. Instead, the story goes through arcs that cycle through various villains. The more significant tale is focused on returning balance to the world in general, not necessarily on a single source of evil.

Another difference is that there needs to be more falling action. The story simply . . . stops. That, admittedly, can be jarring to a Western audience. We like to see things wrapped up. The hero returns home and lives happily ever after. In Eastern stories, however, there’s often a suggestion of what will happen to the cast now but no actual epilogue.

No closing scene featuring children with awkward names. No reward for their efforts. No wedding or homecoming or final narration. The heroes simply go back to their lives. In many ways, though, that’s truer to real life anyway.

Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation is a discussion for another day. Still, there’s no denying that a large section of newer writers, myself included, grew up with equal access to Western and Eastern stories. As a result, I often find myself writing in a style that’s more a mash of both than one or the other. This fusion-cooking style of writing gives birth to yet more plots and stories.

How many stories do you think exist? Let me know what you think in the comments!


3, 6, Or 36 plots

Western And Eastern Storytelling

Published by Writing Heights Writing Bug

A blog by writers for everyone interested in books, reading, writing, and just about everything in between.

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