Finding a voice – and a story
This afternoon while driving, I heard an interviewer on the radio mention a famous quote that referred to ‘something like every story is either a man on a journey or a stranger coming to town”. The line as said in passing and the conversation quickly passed by I was intrigued. In fact, I was curious enough that when I returned home, I immediately began a search to identify the source and the exact quote. That led me on a bit of a chase.
For one thing, I was not able to find a verified source for the stated quote, though is no shortage of references to variations on the statement. I found attributes to both John Gardner and Leo Tolstoy, as well as ‘proof’ that is not a quote from either of them. But it is frequently identified as a famous quote or prefaced with a statement such as “as have often been said…” and a variation of this statement:
It is said that all the best fiction has one of two plots:
- A character goes on a journey
- A stranger comes to town
Other writers have spoken of more, but still limited plot options. In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker, analyzes dozens of works to demonstrate that all stories can fit into seven basic structures: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. He further suggests that the first 5 can probably be grouped under the single umbrella of comedy because they typically have happy endings or the promise of renewal.
Georges Polti, a 19th-century French writer described 36 situations found in many stories, which he based on the list from Goethe, who credited Italian Carlo Gozzi.
Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations
Even a simple Google search turns up many more examples for the structure of a story.
Kurt Vonnegut offers an entertaining lecture on the shape of story with charts and diagrams. The shapes he describes are captured in an infographic on Open Culture in the article Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago
A journey or a stranger?
For this post, I am sticking with the original dichotomy:
- A character undertakes a journey – the protagonist is forced to take a metaphorical or actual journey to solve a problem or answer a question
- A stranger comes to town – something arrives to disrupt the path or anticipated path of the protagonist. The ‘stranger’ is often represented by an object (a mysterious package, an anonymous letter, a box of treasures in the attic…)
Although these choices are not truly a clear dichotomy and muddied. If, for example, a character is on a journey, they most likely will also play a stranger who comes to town in some parts of the story so they could have the opportunity to tell stories from both perspectives.
Similarly, the two sides of this choice could represent two views of the same story. This is the case in The Hobbit; Bilbo Baggins goes on a journey after the stranger, Gandalf, comes to town. Throughout the adventure, the two stories are linked, often parallel, but distinct.
Which best reflects your story?
Today’s challenge: consider some of your on stories through the lens of these two options.
Here are a few writing prompts to get you started.
- If you had to choose, would you describe the story of your life (so far) as more a character on a journey or a stranger coming to town? Take some time to write the story from that perspective. If you see it as a combination, explore that or select one of the options to explore first.
- If you see yourself more as a character on a journey, describe it in detail:
- What type of journey did you take or are you taking?
- Why did you start in that direction?
- Where has the journey taken you?
- Is your journey complete? If not, do you have a final destination or outcome?
- Have you travelled alone or have others joined you on all or part of the journey? Which do you prefer and why?
- If others have travelled with you, write about them? Who were they? When and Why did they join you? What impact did they have on your journey or its outcome?
- Did you prepare for the journey or was it a spontaneous decision? Describe the detail of any preparations.
- If you see the central story being one of a stranger coming to town, tell how that story shaped your life:
- Who – or what – was the stranger?
- How did the person or event disrupt your path or your plans?
- What changes were you influenced to make and why?
- Did you tell the ‘stranger’ about the impact that they made on your life? Why / why not? If so, how did you let them know?
- Do you recall a particular time when you were the stranger who came to town?
- Do you have any mementos of the trip or the visitor/object that are still meaningful to you? Do you have things that you kept but no longer spark specific memories or reflect your experience as you now see it? Describe the details of objects that you associate with your journey or the stranger. Record your current relationship to those items and make a plan to display them or discard them.
Make your stories your own
Of course, this is for the fun of a writing exercise of writing. While it might well be argued that there are no new stories, I am not convinced that you can break down all stories with a fixed number of structures. Admittedly, I can definitely see the appeal of trying and playing with the examples from books or films to try and prove or disprove any of the proffered collections. You might choose to take on that challenge yourself.
Everyone has their own story to tell. Even if there are only a limited number of plots, you can seek to speak with your own voice and tell your personal and unique angle. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
I hope you have fun with your journey – whether you are heading off on a voyage of discovery, or playing the stranger coming to town.