Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back to Basics

This week I wanted to discuss something most of us learned in freshman english: the three basic plots.

When I was fourteen I found this whole idea terribly depressing. Not only had every story already been told, precluding any chance of originality, but there were only three of them?  The Universe was unspeakably cruel. Now, some years later, I find this truth fascinating. All stories as we know them are windows into the three conflicts of human experience. 

Just to review, the plots are these:

1. Man Against Nature. 

Obviously this encompasses all stories dealing with terrain, weather, and animal life. Think Moby Dick or Call of the Wild. Though I do not write, and only very occasionally read, such material what I do find interesting in them is the trick of the writing. Novels which feature this conflict as its central element are often written in such a way that the setting itself becomes yet another character and foil. 

2. Man Against Man.

This is the bulk of fiction I think. It is essentially any work which features two people at odds. Interestingly, it is this category, and not the third, which holds most fantasy. Even that dealing with 'supernatural' beings such as Elves, Dwarves, et al. This is because such beings are essentially taking the place of other human beings. Because they are written by humans, any being of higher sentience will act in accordance with basic human behaviors. We may dress them up in fancy trappings but, as with everything, we only have our own experience as a point of reference. Take Lord of the Rings for example. The Elves could be replaced with simply another sect of humanity without any significant changes to the plot. (LOTR fans everywhere will have my head for that assertion I am sure.) What I mean to say is that, though they may be a different species, such characters fill the same roles within a story as a human would.  

3. Man Against God / Self / The Supernatural.

Now, here is where I am going to be a bit ornery. Many would say that Self belongs in the second plot category and not the third. Obviously, I disagree. Even putting aside the schools of thought which assert that the Self is God, I believe that Self belongs here because it is an intangible struggle. This third category is where a character faces the wider Universe, the Numinous, the Supernatural Other. I believe Self belongs here because the main experience of these stories is the widening of awareness and, oftentimes, the fear which accompanies such widening. And what is a conflict with Self but a widening of awareness? And is it not often filled with a great deal of fear? The conflicts here do not necessarily involve a physical struggle or a linear plot. 

Most fiction incorporates elements of all three because human experience incorporates all three. Even our earliest stories, folklore and myth, are profound examples of  this. Oftentimes they are a chaotic, intense mix Nature, Man, and the Supernatural coming against the protagonist in a large and unknown world. We may have refined our sensibilities over time but there is no denying that humanity has simply been telling the same stories throughout the ages and across all cultures. 


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