Top critical review
All Plots Are One
29 April 2016
There are a number of books around about the ten, or nine or four or fifteen or however-many basic plots, but this one claims to have found the _single_ ‘underlying structure’ to storytelling, and claims furthermore that it’s an archetype that we know already. In short: the empathetic (but not necessarily nice) protagonist one day has a problem (the ‘inciting incident’), refuses to confront it, then does and looks like failing, then succeeds (or, in a rarer variant, fails).
The problem takes the protagonist to a new environment (literally or metaphorically); opponents may be ‘internal’ (psychological) and external; there will be reversals/ surprises/ turning points (at least two: a ‘call to action’ and a ‘realisation of consequences’, spaced around the mid-point); there may be episodic sub-goals, with sub-problems and sub-reversals using the same structure; even individual scenes follow the same setup-to-conflict-to-crisis pattern (but the first and last of these can be implicit in earlier or later action, so sometimes the scene is only the conflict).
The protagonist has a flaw and changes, which means their eventual goal may change too; but nonetheless they use their new knowledge at the final climax which resolves the original problem (or, rarely, the flaw leads to tragedy);
These structural claims are the key part of the book. But it also contains sections on: showing not telling; using psychological theories in characterisation; making the most of characters’ facades; using dialogue that tells the viewer important background (without being obvious about it); and more. And there are interesting analyses on things like the structure of TV series (where characters have to have forgotten what they learned the previous week), and the issue of why humans tell stories in the first place.
The book nods to various forms of high culture every so often, but most examples are from TV and Hollywood films. The style is somewhat buttonholing, but I was won over by the writer’s enthusiasm and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. There are quite a few sentences like ‘We are all identical – yet we are all different,’ but often I was just beginning to speed-read when a really sharp sentence or idea brought me up short. I liked the idea of narrative structure as dialectic, for instance… It was a good read and I guess possibly useful for writing synopses and doing early structures on what’ll happen in your screenplay…