Sunday, February 21, 2010


So it's often said that you can't write a new story, because all the plots have been used. The number of plots laid out by Aristotle is usually quoted as twelve, but I can't find a source for it: in his Poetics, he defines six components of tragedy, of which plot is the most important, and later divides plots into simple and complex. At another point he defines three possible character types and two possible movements or trends, resulting in six possible plots.

A more recent source lists seven plots:

1. Overcoming the monster -- defeating some force which threatens. e.g. most Hollywood movies; Star Wars, James Bond.

2. The Quest -- typically a group sets off in search of something and (usually) finds it. e.g. Watership Down, Pilgrim's Progress.

3. Journey and Return -- the hero journeys away from home to somewhere different and finally comes back having experienced something and maybe changed for the better. e.g. Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels.

4. Comedy - not necessarily a funny plot. Some kind of misunderstanding or ignorance is created that keeps parties apart, and is resolved towards the end bringing them back together. e.g. Bridget Jones' Diary, War and Peace.

5. Tragedy - someone is tempted in some way (vanity, greed, etc.) and becomes increasingly desperate or trapped by their actions until the climax, when he/she usually dies (unless it's a Hollywood movie, with an escape to a happy ending). e.g. Devils' Advocate, Hamlet.

6. Rebirth - the hero is captured or oppressed and seems to be in a state of living death until all seems lost, when miraculously he/she is freed. e.g. Snow White.

7. Rags to Riches - self-explanatory. e.g. Cinderella & derivatives

(Note: Wikipedia credits this list to Christopher Booker, "The Seven Basic Plots", but doesn't give any more information about this source. I don't know if it's a book, an article, if so where published, or a publication date.)

I'm inclined to agree that it's hard to come up with a new plot, unless you slice the definition of “new” extremely fine. A story about a poor-but-honest boy who wins fame and riches through the clever schemes of his talking dog? Not new. Giving Puss-in-Boots a canine grin doesn't change the story. (Actually there's already a similar story about a Russian prince and three dogs... never mind.)

But there's more to story than plot, as Aristotle recognized. The modern novel doesn't tend to include song and spectacle, and doesn't rely nearly as heavily on speech (dialogue) as classical Greek drama (although movies may include any or all of the above). For now I suggest that besides plot, character, idea, theme and setting are important pieces. Now, obviously these areas overlap quite a bit, and especially in fantasy and SF, the idea often creates the setting. But it'll do to go on with.

SF and fantasy still come up with new ideas and settings pretty regularly. (For the purpose of this discussion, I'll call something “new” if I think it's unique to 20th/21st century literature.) Consider Robert Adams' On. Consider it carefully if you're prone to vertigo; I'm not, and I got dizzy reading it. The idea there is that gravity's been distorted such that the attraction is experienced at right angles to the force.


Gravity is parallel to the surface of the planet, instead of perpendicular to it. People in On experience the earth as a huge cliff. Every day the sun appears at the top of the cliff and rolls downward. I'm sorry to report that this fascinating book ends unresolved-- on, wait for it, a cliff-hanger...

Anyway. Novel and intriguing idea, great setting. Plot? Boy sets out to save world from evil wizard. Sound familiar?

A couple of other examples: Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters, which postulated that classical Greek understanding of the physical world was literally true: Aristotelian mechanics, Ptolemaic astronomy, etc. The part where the spaceship crashes into the crystal spheres is great. Stephen Baxter's Flux, which is set inside a neutron star. I love the part where the inhabitants are thinking about us-- so huge and tenuous... China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels starting with Perdido Street Station, and his more recent The City and the City.

Okay, the “science” on which Garfinkle's book is based is classical, not “new”. But the way the concepts are brought to life in the settings of all these books is new, and brilliantly imagined.

There's nothing new here plotwise. Celestial Matters is about a desperate mission during wartime, with spies, betrayals, disasters and victories, and ultimately at least the hope of a peaceful solution. I don't remember much about the story in Flux, but I think it was mostly a young person's wanderjahr, in the course of which many expository lumps are dispensed. Perdido Street is a monster novel, a classic Thing Under The Bed story. The City and the City is a whodunit with a cop for a hero.

So, what about characters and themes?

They don't come along nearly as often as ideas do. The most recent brand new character type I can think of for sure is the Good Robot. Traditionally robots had been viewed as soulless, not very bright, and either carelessly or maliciously destructive-- cf. the Golem of Prague. Asimov and others pioneered the robot as morally equal but socially subordinate, and as a sympathetic character. A characteristic cluster of themes revolves around this character type: what is a soul? What is the essence of humanness? What is free will? And most important-- as a robot, do I have any of the above? Heinlein's Mike, Clarke's HAL, and Asimov's R. Daneel all might have paused to ponder these questions between chapters.

More recent literary generations of robots and AIs seem to have outgrown the question rather than solved it. One gets the impression in Iain Banks' Culture novels that the AIs regard humans with the kind of exasperated affection one usually has for one's out-of-it, but dear, elderly relatives. The ones who keep asking you to fix their computer.

Arguably, the Alien is a new character. Here I mean Alien in a very specific sense: beings of intelligence comparable to humans, but with a distinct biological origin and with no (or only very recent) shared history. That lets out various mythological beings from elves to centaurs; we're supposed to have had lots of history (and in some cases, shared ancestry) with them.

I'm not sure (and here we get into “how fine do you split it”) whether the Alien in this sense should be regarded as a different character than the “folks over there”, the Other, who's always been a part of our mythology and folklore. But if so, then the First Contact story may actually have qualified as a brand new plot when it came along.

Another possible candidate for new character: person of human biological origin, but whose personality is completely programmed. Is such a thing even possible? Depends where you stand on nature/nurture-- but as an SF-nal premise, it's perfectly reasonable.

Cherryh's azi stories, especially Cyteen and the recent sequel Regenesis, are the most fleshed-out treatment of this concept that I've seen. (Probable first appearance, Huxley's Brave New World). Cherryh doesn't take a pure nurture-over-nature stance: the azi programming overlays the gene-set and interacts with it, but ultimately neither genetic potential nor behavioral programming is the whole story.

Another character who's been showing up a lot lately is the Bad Angel. By this I mean, not a Fallen Angel or demon: those have been around in literature for a long time. I mean an angel who's at least nominally in God's service, but is nonetheless a real SOB. The first place I remember noticing these types was Gaiman's Sandman: Duma and Remiel show up to take over Hell. Duma's resigned and dignified. Remiel is a complete jerk. (He gets worse in the Lucifer spinoff.)

Bad Angels have been all over DC Comics (Preacher, Hellblazer) and have showed up in a couple of fantasy novels/series. Plus I keep seeing the trailer for this movie Legion...

I don't know if this is a new character, or if it's just new to be able to portray such a character in mass-market fiction. If you don't attribute free will and human personality traits to angels (classically, they're not supposed to have much of either), then this kind of fiction implies some things about God that religious folks may find disturbing. Like, in medieval times, burn-at-the-stake disturbing.

Angels in medieval writings were instruments of God's wrath at least as often as His mercy, and even when they were on your side, they were pretty scary. But I think it's modern, although maybe not exclusively 20th-century modern, to imagine angels who take personal and sadistic pleasure in dispensing divine retribution.

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