Storytelling & Design: On Finite Plots and Narrative Essentials

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Editor’s Note: The following article continues Johan Liedgren’s series on storytelling and its role in crafting narrative in design, advertising and film.

On New Research Suggesting There Are Only Six Plots To Any Story, And How Gravity Explains Falling In Love.


The math department at University of Vermont recently applied machine learning to 1,737 texts of fiction from the digitized Gutenberg project and concluded that the number of plots in stories is finite. And that the number is six. But it doesn’t tell us anything interesting about the world or about us as storytelling humans. There is a more constructive way to discuss commonality in narrative and avoid having the real story get lost in looking too closely at too many plots.

This is naturally not the first time we have tried to categorize stories. The self-proclaimed narrative thinker Christopher Booker in 2004 suggested that the finite number of stories in existence is seven. Joseph Campbell is less mechanical and looks at all stories as one and the same: The Hero’s Journey. Aristotle finds two: comedy and tragedy. Ronald Tobias came up with 20 “master plots,” and topping the list in sheer volume with 36 is Georges Polti—all of them listing different types of struggles such as “rags to riches,” “Icarus” (rise-fall) etc.


This iconic 1984 Apple ad illustrates one of Christopher Booker’s seven plot lines—”Overcoming the Monster.”


My personal favorite, however, is that of author Kurt Vonnegut, who in 1965 submitted a thesis to the University of Chicago for a single “common shape” to all classic stories and used Cinderella as the leading example. It was rejected, he famously speculated because “it was so simple and looked like too much fun.”


Image by mayaeilam, from Visually. See a larger version here.

What if the lab rats are actually right?

It is hard to doubt that the computers at MIT and in Vermont got their numbers wrong. It is much easier to question the basic approach of the study. As much as the researchers state that “shapes have not been imposed.

The method looks at negative and positive association we have with words. Death and Bankruptcy will get a negative rating, Kisses, Rainbow, Kittens and Unicorns will get a positive rating. Then the computers sift through thousands of narratives and look for emotional clusters over the arc of the story. Lots of presumptions and emotional filters applied. One can probably use a similar arbitrary methodology and show conclusively that there are only five types of bananas based on curvature and color. Answers found are no doubt highly constructed by the question asked.

But let’s just forget precision for a second and assume that there is commonality to all stories. If we instead of clustering everything, try find a core to story by extract all that isn’t necessary for a story to be a story. Left will be at least 1) context, 2) an obstacle to overcome, and 3) a non-obvious set of actions that tackle the obstacle. All three work together. If we change one element, our interpretation of the other linked elements will change automatically. Any element that doesn’t change is superfluous to the core story.

Oh, my God! What happens next!? And what does that mean for creative professionals?

If we use this as a basis for understanding commonality in story, at least three aspects become of interest:

Narrative is how we make sense of the world.

Why can’t a story be just two of the three core elements? Because what you are telling someone else at that point simply makes no sense. “Tiger approaches bus stop” is not a story. If we were told that, we would all ask for more information. We need context—where, when, who was there—for the story to be meaningful. That said, context is not literal and as the closing example of this article will illustrate, have endless ways of being established. Anything is fine as long as it is not simply missing.

There is no story without conflict.

Slicing the story-cake into layers is ultimately arbitrary at best. But what all stories will have is conflict. Why? Because if there is no conflict in the story or implicit in the context, there is simply no reason for anything to happen. And if nothing is happening, there is no reason for us to tell anyone else about it. Boy stands at bus-stop is not a story. It is context. We need the tiger element (the conflict) for the story to be of interest. Want more conflict? Well, then let me tell you that the boy waiting at the bus stop can’t see the tiger approaching. The little boy is blind. The bigger the conflict, the bigger the story. Always.

Story is always personal.

Experimental filmmakers Eisenstein and Kuleshov in 1920’s and 1930’s show
ed how we create more meaning from two juxtaposed visuals than we do from one. The most famous example shows two unrelated clips in sequence: one of a bowl of soup, and the next of a young girl in a coffin. This suddenly has us try make sense of the sequence by creating stories to explain how the first image led to the next (the Kuleshov effect).

It also helps shed light on why we care about the fictional protagonist in a good story told well. Why every fiber of our body want to know what happens next. We project ourselves onto the story and the characters in it. Story acts like a dream. It allows us to experience something hypothetical—to remind us through emotions and imagery that the world and how we move through it could be different. Story pushes us forth as individuals. Makes our world larger and richer.

The equation of narrative structure isn’t as precise as it is in math and should never be as complete. Unlike traditional sciences, it is the lack of information in story that creates the real and highly personal meaning. Filling in the blanks, creating our own story to tie together pieces of narrative is what has us invest in what comes next and provides the real reward: not answers, but emotions.

Story is just as simple as sex.

Let’s not reject the Vermont study because “it is so simple and too much fun.” Mathematical clusters, much like narrative archetypes, are likely to provide a platform for interesting discussions. Let the study be a reminder of story as an imprecise and slippery embrace of complexity and shared humanity. Emotions we garner from story are no more a construct than the dreams we have at night. Akin to sex, dreams, and how we invest in stories are the very personal emotions and experiences that we share with everyone. Here’s to the true power of narrative as a war-cry and evergreen promise that hints at a bigger and more interesting world lurking in the shadows of everyday life.

There is nothing wrong with letting computers take us deeper into the mysteries of narrative. But unlike math, it will not scale obediently. We cannot explain falling in love by gravity alone. Case in point: a simple story can be the most complex to analyze. Let’s promote a more ambitious analysis of narrative by ending with this humbling and infinitely complex six word story by Ernest Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”