Two types of stories

In a Facebook message this week, a friend asked, “Do you buy that there are only two types of fiction stories: a stranger comes to town and a hero goes on a journey?” I wrote back, “Yes and no. But it will take me longer to explain.”

This is my explanation.

First of all, any time you attempt to categorize art forms, you’re only looking for trouble, especially since many artists live or die on their ability to push beyond their audience’s pre-conceived notions of art. Tell an artist that there are only two types of anything and you’ll only inspire their next work of art, the one that says, “Oh yeah, well what about this?”

At the same time, the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” pairing communicates a key element of (virtually) any story — namely, that the story-world begins one way, and then something happens (in my creative-writing classes, we call this the inciting incident). In a stranger-comes-to-town story, the “something” is an external element that agitates the placidity of the story-world. In a hero-goes-on-a-journey story, the “something” usually forces the main character to depart from the placid world into the chaos beyond.

Here’s an interesting question: What kind of story is JAWS? It starts off as a stranger-comes story, with the shark playing the role of the stranger; but then Brody, Hooper, and Quint get on the boat, and it becomes a hero-goes story, with Brody playing the role of the hero. Should there be a third kind of story then? One that combines the other two?

Returning to my “first of all,” comment above, I don’t believe that the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” pairing defines the only two types of stories (though with enough effort, a critic could probably squeeze most stories into either of those categories). I’d rather simplify that pairing and say instead:

There are only two types of stories:

  1. Stories in which something significant happens
  2. Stories in which something significant does not happen

The former is self-explanatory, but the latter needs a little help. Allow me to enlist the words of Mark O’Connell, who just wrote an article titled, “On Not Going Out of the House: Thoughts About Plotlessness.”

The form [of the novel] tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people…go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them….but there is a small but fascinating niche…, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere.

O’Connell explores the books that make up this quiet backstreet, novels by John Banville, Samuel Beckett, Ivan Goncharov, and Nicholson Baker. He then concludes:

The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off.

For my own part, I am inspired by the idea of the plotless novel, but less as a fan of the genre and more as a philosopher of force and form. In fact, one of my works in progress is an attempt to write a story where “something significant” both happens and doesn’t happen, where the “plot points” are present yet invisible, happening and not happening, except in the reader’s head.

Which is to say, as an artist, I’m inspired and challenged by my own theory of the two types of story.

So, to my friend who asked the original question, I both believe and disbelieve in the “stranger-comes/hero-goes” theory. I think it gets close to the heart of our understanding of story, but in its attempt to reduce the art of fiction, it only inspires us to create, as the great Jack Donaghy said, that “third heat.”