I have no idea where the urge to claim that all stories can be reduced to a small number of ur-tales came from. But I do know that it was inevitable that someone would try to figure out a way to claim that there’s just really one plot at the heart of every story. This very thing happened on 1 January 2016 when John Yorke, of all people, published this claim in The Atlantic: “All Stories Are the Same.” Within a week, another writer, Lincoln Michael, took Yorke to task for his gross simplification of literature’s myriad plots on Electric Literature with “The One Underlying Substance of All Story Structure Models: Bullshit.”
I’m glad I waited to read both at the same time; the debate makes for some interesting brain-fodder.
Yorke reduces plots to a basic formula. A character makes some kind of journey. On the journey, the character meets an obstacle. The character achieves resolution. Michael’s rebuttal is that this formula only works if you do a lot of work shoving almost square pegs into mostly round holes. Michael writes:
“Yorke says, “though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical,” but he is exactly wrong. These stories are drastically different in tone, style, message, structure, and everything else, and are only “identical” on the most superficial level. Yorke has zoomed out until the elephant and SUV each appear as a single grey pixel, then declared them essentially the same.”
Then Michael asks a really interesting question: why does this matter? What use is it to find the 14 or seven or one basic plot(s)? He posits that discovering the ur-plots (if they exist) is only useful to people who create stories. Tapping into archetypes is powerful and helps to transcend cultural and historical barriers. For readers, it’s worse than pointless. If there are only a limited number of plots, why bother reading more than one, seven, or 14 books?
I’ll answer for the readers. We read more than one, seven, or 14 books because it’s the variations that matter. Each change, alteration, and deviation teaches us something new. After all, we wouldn’t say we know every person because we all share the same skeleton. It’s an absurd oversimplification.
Finding connections between stories, for the purposes of literary analysis, only helps in so much as parallels help us understand the society that created the story. The variations provide differing perspectives in conversation with each other. But, if you have to, as Michael terms it, zoom out until everything looks the same, you’re lose sight of what’s really there.