They (specifically Christopher Booker) say there are only seven basic plots (overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth, since you ask). Considering the sheer amount of stories that have been told over the millennia humanity has entertained and educated itself with fiction, that might seem surprising. We’re used to the concept of infinite variation growing out of finite tools in music, or most spectacularly in genetics, but the ingredients of stories feel much more open to possibility than base-pairs and octaves. Our lives are essentially narratives we invent, and we’re used to thinking that they are totally unique (whether they are or not is probably a discussion best left for another time) so why not all stories? To be honest, most of the time it doesn’t matter. Trading Places and Aladdin are both rags to riches tales. So what? It mattered not a jot to Kit Marlowe that all seven plots had been used by Ogg the Clever around a neolithic campfire. Only critics and academics ever desiccate stories to this level. Not real people.
Even in an infinite universe convergence is likely. Look at the eye. Or pyramids.
I’ve finished drafting my third novel and I’m looking around for my next book or two. I’ve been sketching out ideas, filling in details, writing synopses to show to my agent and my publisher. One idea I had for a crime novel grabbed me. It grew out of a short story I could never quite get right – mainly because it was the opening chapter of something, not a short story at all. I’ve spent the last few weeks fleshing it out, getting into the characters and the world. Then this week I was asked to read an unpublished manuscript. It’s not the same story but it’s close enough to blow mine out of existence. The disappointment is treacley. I hadn’t started writing anything so I was spared the kind of heartache Simon Sylvester suffered, but I still spent the day scrabbling around trying to salvage something. It’s no good. The premise is almost identical. The elevator pitch would be an echo. If the other book gets published, mine is too similar to co-exist. If it doesn’t get published I’d open myself to a massive law suit. Courts tend to frown on coincidence as a defence. Instead it goes on the ‘might have been’ pile.
Fortunately there are more where that came from. Six more to be precise. In the meantime, here’s another theory about stories: