Monday, March 11, 2013

Story Tips # 6 - Eight Basic Stories

By Jax Hunter

We're delighted to be able to offer further episodes in the Story Tips series from Jax Hunter. This monthly column explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story.

Image by OCAL,

Shakespeare said that there’s nothing new under the sun. That was Shakespeare, wasn’t it? Or was that in Proverbs? No matter. Whoever said it was right, and Shakespeare managed to come up with some great stories, didn’t he? There really are no new stories, only new people playing out the age-old patterns.

Michael Hauge (Writing Screenplays that Sell) says there’s only one type of story: David and Goliath - man against impossible odds.

Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Believed there were only two: fish out of water and the odd couple.

We’ve all heard these: man vs. himself, man vs. man, and man vs. nature.

Ray Frensham (Teach Yourself Screewriting) contends there are eight classic plots, which we'll explore in this post. He titles them with classic story titles, many of which come from ancient mythology.

1) Achilles: A character flaw leads to destruction of either the hero or the villain.

2) Candide: You can’t keep a good guy down - optimism will triumph.

3) Cinderella: Dreams come true, transformation brings the reward.

4) Circe: The classic chase story - spider and the fly - the innocent pursued by evil.

5) Faust: The extent to which man will go to get what he wants - selling your soul to the devil.

6) Orpheus: Tragedy of loss, or looking for that which is lost.

7) Romeo and Juliet: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back (or doesn’t).

8) Tristan: The love triangle.

So why do we need to even think about these classic plots? Does anyone out there actually sit down to write a story and think, “Gee, I think I’ll write a Circe story.” Well, there might be a few who do, but I’d wager that to be the exception to the rule.

I believe that most of us come up with a what if - what if someone woke up in a car by the side of the road and didn’t know who they were - first, and find the pattern second.

So why bother trying to stick your story into one of these patterns? Many screenwriting tutors believe that this process helps us to know the general direction of our story. Knowing the components of the classic stories, then, can help us determine which pieces our story needs. 

Knowing the pattern that your story fits also helps you to twist the plot. It’s all about ideas, isn’t it?

Once we know the category, we can also add elements of other categories to our tales. You will find that many stories - in this case, movies - fit more than one pattern.

Fatal Attraction fits Achilles and Tristan.
Erin Brockovich fits Candide and Cinderella.
The Graduate fits Romeo & Juliet and Tristan.
And Miracle (a movie that this hockey fan cried all the way through) fits Candide and Cinderella.

Your assignment, then, is to start watching for these patterns. Maybe keep a small notebook beside the Lazy Boy and start sticking every movie you watch into its category or categories. How about your current work in progress? I write romance so, of course, every book of mine fits Romeo and Juliet. The current WIP also has Cinderella and Orpheus elements. 

Also, keep in mind that any of these patterns can be written in any of the many forms: comedy, drama, suspense, mystery, romance, noir and the like.

I encourage you to study these formats and let them be frames on which to hang the meat of your stories.  Don’t let them bog you down.  Instead use them as tools to spark ideas.

Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard) 

Cheers, Jax (

(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)

About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.

1 comment:

  1. Great list-- thanks for sharing. Reminds of similar advice in Save the Cat.


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