only 36 stories
Scott Stoops  

Are there only 36 stories?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“We tend to prefer stories that fit into the molds which are familiar, and reject narratives that do not align with our experience.”

Andrew J. Regan et al., The Emotional Arcs of Stories are Dominated by Six Basic Shapes.

Only 36 stories? I first heard this startling statistic several years ago. It seemed impossible to imagine that, with all the books being written and the almost uncountable number of books already written, that there are only 36 stories. Is this true? How is it possible? If it is true, then how can I tell a story that hasn’t already been told a myriad of times?

It turns out that there might be even fewer than that.

Only 36 stories

This all began with Georges Polti in 1895. Polti examined classical Greek texts, plus classical and contemporaneous French works, and a few non-French writers. Polti claimed to be furthering the work of Carlo Gozzi.1 Polti’s book, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, lists the dramatic situations that he found in his analysis.

His list is fairly extensive, leaving plenty of room to continue telling stories. It might actually be an interesting exercise to take each of his situations and write a book based on it. In her book, Story Structure Architect, Victoria Schmidt gives ideas of how to do that2

Georges Polti may have been extremely generous.

What’s the deal, Kurt?

“There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers; they are beautiful shapes.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut submitted his master’s thesis to the University of Chicago in which he described the shape of plots. They dismissed it. It wasn’t until much later that computer technology could be used to test his ideas.

Turns out, he was right.

According to Kurt Vonnegut, these are the six character arcs:

  • Rags to riches (an arc following a rise in happiness)
  • Tragedy or riches to rags (an arc following a fall in happiness)
  • Man in a hole (fall-rise)
  • Icarus (rise-fall)
  • Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)
  • Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

What, as writers, can we do?

In the end, whether there are three or thirty-six or thirty thousand stories doesn’t matter. By distilling stories down, we gain an understanding of who we are and what appeals to us. We get a clearer picture of the stories that appeal to us. For anyone one who is interested, the most popular story arcs are:

  • Icarus (rise-fall)
  • Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)
  • Two sequential ‘man in a hole’ arcs (fall-rise, fall-rise)

It is best to think of these things as the foundations or building blocks for stories. They are fundamental. What we build on top of these basic story plots is up to us.

Can we be original? The better question to ask is, how can we not be original? If we are trying to tell the stories we envision – and not plagiarizing someone else’s work – then we will be original. We cannot be anything but original. This is true even in heavily formulaic genres. We are telling the stories of our characters in their settings, dealing with their issues. That someone can reduce our story to one of these patterns only goes to show that we have touched the heart of stories themselves. We have told stories using patterns we know appeal to readers.

That should be what we want as writers, anyway.

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