Story Archetypes: Patterns, Pyramids & Pinchpoints
An article looking at the building blocks of stories
What is a story? Dictionary.com has the definition of ‘a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the reader or hearer.’ Absolutely true, of course, and ideal for a broad opening definition of the word. We are looking at stories in this sense, but in a slightly narrower one too. Definition four of the dictionary would even better describe the kind of story we will look at, and the one that springs most to mind when we think of what a written story is: ‘the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, drama, poem etc.’ A lengthy joke told to mates at a pub is a story, and would fall under the first definition. But we are looking at stories that also fall into the second, the ones we expect when we read fiction, watch a movie, or see a play. They are more intricate, structured, and polished.
Stories of this kind have been told for millennia ( The Epic of Gilgamesh is over five thousand years old). For thousands of years humans have been imagining them, and the number told throughout history is countless. But countless more could be told in the future. The mind boggles to think of the possibilities before a storyteller when he or she sets out to conceive one. The choices are endless, and a story could be told about almost anything. So that means stories are all different, right?
Yes and no. Those we have come to expect in a novel, a film, or a drama, although drawn from an infinite array of possibilities and each different in its own particular way, nevertheless follow certain patterns and structures that we see repeated again and again. When we start to look at a story from an overarching perspective, doing away with the detail and viewing it from a generic point of view, and in particular, looking at its development in stages, we see that many mirror each other, and sometimes remarkably. It’s easy to think of a story by its detail – a particular setting, time or place, or a hero or villain; or, perhaps more accurately, by the sequence of scenes these details are set in. But when we begin to summarise a story without particular details, a rough overview if you like (as a vista of a broad landscape for instance, with all its hills, valleys and forests, less the blades of grass and individual flowers and trees), similarities between many stories begin to appear that we never drew a parallel from before. A perfect example of this is illustrated in Stephen Booker’s popular book titled The Seven Basic Plots . Booker draws a remarkable parallel between Jaws & Beowulf :
Life is normal for a small seaside community (Long Island vs Heoret)
A monster of almost supernatural power bursts onto the scene and starts killing (A great white shark vs Grendel – who also lives underwater!)
The community is thrown into fear and confusion. The killing continues as the monster cannot be stopped. People are helpless, unable to figure out how to thwart a seemingly invincible enemy.
Finally, when the threat is almost too much to bear, a hero sets out to destroy the monster (Brody vs Beowulf). After a climactic and gory battle, the monster is killed.
Normality may again resume in the small seaside community.
Despite these two stories being separated by 1200 years, they show exceptional similarities. But stories have been mirroring each other throughout the world and throughout history, across time and space. Consider King Solomon’s Mines vs. Indiana Jones , or Cinderella vs. My Fair Lady , or Macbeth vs. Bonnie & Clyde .
Stories are an intrinsic part of the human condition. They are in our psyche. We feel compelled to them and never tire of them. Many of us need them and would suffer without them. Indeed, they can be a drug. But what is an even more remarkable phenomenon is that there is a particular blueprint we feel they must have to satisfy us. It’s as if we are born with this blueprint in our minds. And when a story deviates too much from this print (or never followed it at all), we know it; the story risks falling flat on its face. (That is not to say a story automatically suffers merely by deviation from an expected pattern. Indeed, if done well, it can bring something fresh and exciting.) This article deals with this ‘blueprint’ and the different ways we can look at it.
At its most basic level, we can say that a story (its blueprint) has 3 stages – a beginning, a middle, and an end. This illustrates that a story must begin and end somewhere and that there is a journey in between (physical, spiritual, or both), a development from one point to another. We can go further with these 3 stages and say that there are 3 ‘acts’– a setting of scene and the inciting event of the story, the consequences of this event and build up to a climax, and the climax and resolution to finish. But we can break it down even further from 3 to 5. These 5 parts would be best explained as ‘stages’, and can be broadly applied to many popular stories. It is perhaps best described as how a story is plotted , and can be a called the meta-plot, a theory attributed to Booker .
Anticipation Stage: The hero is called to adventure.
Dream Stage: The hero enjoys success, gaining an illusion of invincibility.
Frustration Stage: The hero suffers a major setback and his illusion of invincibility is lost.
Nightmare Stage: The showdown with the ‘enemy’, the climax of the story, where all is in doubt.
Resolution: The hero overcomes the ‘enemy’ against odds. What was lost is regained and there is the ‘happily ever after’.
Of course, the descriptions of these stages are generalised and should not be literally taken in most cases. But when broadly taken, many will fit the template in some significant way. Stories will show deviations, and some too much for the template to apply. But it is the surprising number that it does apply to, whether more literally or analogously, that affords special significance to these 5 stages. Let’s look at a popular example that clearly follows the 5 stage archetype.
Star Wars, A New Hope
Anticipation Stage: Luke is called to go on a mission with Ben Kenobi to save a princess in danger. A clear and urgent path is laid before him. (Also note that Luke at first refuses the call – another trope common to this stage of stories)
Dream Stage: Luke escapes the Empire and flees his home planet. He is introduced to the Force and learns he is endowed with a magical ability. Overcoming grave danger, he frees the princess from her captivity.
Frustration Stage: Ben Kenobi his mentor is killed. His companion Han Solo seemingly deserts him soon after. He feels alone and helpless.
Nightmare Stage: Against great odds, and when hope is almost lost, he calls on his new magical ability and both destroys the Empire and saves the Galaxy in one swift stroke.
Resolution: Both the spirit of Kenobi and Han Solo returned and aided Luke in his darkest hour, resolving his loss and loneliness. Most of all, he has restored hope to the universe as a hero!
Star Wars owes much of its fame to this pattern our psyche inherently knows, recognises, and favours. Star Wars is brimming with story archetypes, harking back to ancient stories and fairy tales, and works on a whole other subconscious level. Another way of looking at the 5 stages is to see it as a ‘pyramid’ (though really it’s just a triangle). The theory of the story pyramid was invented by Gustav Freytag, who applied it to ancient Greek and Shakespearian drama. The pyramid, although similar to Booker’s 5 stages, therefore follows classical drama patterns, and is described below:
Exposition: The story setting and characters are introduced and we learn what the hero’s goal is and what is at stake.
Rising Action: The inciting incident takes place, catalysing the conflict of the story, and moves towards the climax. The hero has some initial success towards his or her goal.
Climax: This is not the climax or showdown of Booker’s 5 stages which takes place towards the end of a story, but more a midpoint. The hero clears away initial barriers and engages with the enemy. At the end of the climax, neither hero nor villain has won against the other. It is described as a climax because the hero shows his true moral quality and makes a choice that decides his ultimate fate.
Falling Action: This stage consists of events that lead to the ending. The conflict between the protagonist and antagonist unravels, where the enemy usually has the upper hand to begin with, while the hero has never been further from accomplishing his quest. The moment of greatest suspense falls into this stage, where the final outcome of the story is in doubt.|
Denouement: Either the hero or villain has won, the conflict is over, and the story may show what happens afterwards as a result. The denouement gives a sense of release and resolution, in which the threads of the story have been wound up.
Going further than 5 stages, we may also trace a story plot by further stages or points. It all depends on how you look at it. But essentially it is the same structure or pattern, just a different way of seeing it. For instance, the novelist Veronica Siscoe differentiates 9 points along the course of a story:
Introduction: Back story
Inciting Incident: Something happens that sets up the main conflict of the story
Plot Turn: Hero’s point of no return
Pinch point: Hero suffers setbacks
Midpoint: Hero reaches her lowest ebb, but discovers something crucial and changes tack
Crisis: The showdown between hero and villain, but the hero is seemingly defeated and hope is lost
Pinch Point: The hero turns the situation around (by something foreshadowed in the story)
Climax: The hero finally defeats the villain
Denouement: The story threads have been tied up and the questions posed by the inciting incident have been answered
In the next, upcoming article, we look at the same remarkable phenomenon but from a different angle: that of certain types of stories that have been followed and retold time and again throughout the world (Booker has distilled them to 7 categories). These types we will all be familiar with.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider voting on it, thank you.