Monday, November 14, 2011

How do the Seven Story Plots and Plot Elements Affect the News?

[Think of this as an exploration piece that raises questions about how news is packaged and the affect that has on our understanding of the world.]

Digsalot-ga responded at Google questions to the query, "The Seven Main Plots in All of Literature = ???:

1 - [wo]man vs. nature 

2 - [wo]man vs. man [I suspect this should be [wo]man v [wo]man]

3 - [wo]man vs. the environment 

4 - [wo]man vs. machines/technology 

5 - [wo]man vs. the supernatural 

6 - [wo]man vs. self 

7 - [wo]man vs. god/religion 

Presumably literature mirrors life and so I thought it would be interesting to see how many of those plots showed up in today's newspaper.  Today's Monday so there's not much news in the Anchorage Daily News.  When I was picking stories, I did have these seven plots in mind and decided not to keep adding the rest of the short AP pieces that had the same plots. I wasn't thinking at all of Cecil Adams' three topics (see below) or the story-line needs (also below.)

I've put the stories and the plots on this table and checked the plot I thought the story told.  I would assume that there could be more than one such plot in a story, but that didn't appear to be the case today.  Perhaps reporters are focused on one plot per story, unless it's a really long one.

(Some links are to the same story from other sources because the Anchorage Daily News doesn't post AP stories in their online version.  Also I've used the hard copy headlines, which are not always the same as the online headlines.)

I don't claim to be correct here, but this is what it seems like to me.

Stories Seven Plots "Man v. ______"

Nature Man Envir Tech SN Self God
Redistricting could lead to GOP majority in legislature

Aging populations mean millions more diabetics

Syria calls for Arab summit after suspension

Wind energy project faulted

Foreign policy trips candidates

Rocket to space station launches flawlessly

Missing man found dead in rubble of home

Supercommittee at cross purposes

Police drive protesters from park

Kotzebue teen leads the charge to prevent suicide

✔* this could be v. nature or tech but the story was focused on human mistakes

I think I'd add another plot line, particularly with the Supercommittee story - man v. ignorance - but I guess that is covered in 'self'.

This is a pretty small sample size.  I suspect the emphasis on man v. man would continue in a larger study.  It's also clear that the same story could be written with a different plot.

Are there only seven plots?  Cecil Adams, at The Straight Dope, thinks not:
My point is, never mind the 36, 20, 7, or whatever basic plots--take out sex, violence, and death and you lose 90 percent of literature right there. 
Sex is absent from this selection (No sexual harassment or Penn State stories today), but five of the ten include death and three touch on violence.  I'd add money to the mix.  Three of the stories touch on money (either $ amounts or 'banking.')

The forum writer also supplies 'seven basic needs for a story line.'

1. A hero – the person through whose eyes we see the story unfold, set
against a larger background.

2. The hero’s character flaw – a weakness or defense mechanism that
hinders the hero in such a way as to render him/her incomplete.

3. Enabling circumstances – the surroundings the hero is in at the
beginning of the story, which allow the hero to maintain his/her
character flaw.

4. An opponent – someone who opposes the hero in getting or doing what he/she wants. Not always a villain. For example, in a romantic comedy, the opponent could be the man or woman whom the hero seeks romance with. The opponent is the person who instigates the life-changing event.

5. The hero’s ally – the person who spends the most time with the hero and who helps the hero overcome his/her character flaw.

6. The life-changing event – a challenge, threat or opportunity usually instigated by the opponent, which forces the hero to respond in some way that’s related to the hero’s flaw.

7. Jeopardy – the high stakes that the hero must risk to overcome his/her flaw. These are the dramatic events that lend excitement and challenge to the quest.

All the stories but the Rocket story have clear opponents (though the hero and the opponent are not usually clearly identified).  All  have a life changing events, and all have some jeopardy.

And clearly, who is chosen by the reporter as the hero or the opponent will affect our perception of events, especially events we know little about.  

Do we want to read/hear news stories that don't have these plot lines?  It could be boring. How does that affect the accuracy of our understanding of what is happening in the world?

I'm reminded of the recent report that most types of crime in the US were down significantly, but that people don't feel that because the news still highlights the crimes  (jeopardy, the deaths, the opponents.)


  1. I think there is a lot of current work that's trying to show how central narratology is to our understanding of the world. This post reminds me a bit of Jerome Bruner's 'Narrative Construction of Reality'—

    As I have argued extensively elsewhere, we organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative—stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on. Narrative is a conventional form, transmitted culturally and constrained by each individual's level of mastery and by his conglomerate of prosthetic devices, colleagues, and mentors. Unlike the constructions generated by logical and scientific procedures that can be weeded out by falsification, narrative constructions can only achieve "verisimilitude." Narratives, then, are a version of reality whose acceptability is governed by convention and "narrative necessity" rather than by empirical verification and logical requiredness…

    It's a really interesting line of thought.

  2. Yep, as I was just saying the other day, G_d is story. And we still tend to think the arts are ornamental.

  3. I don't understand the difference between man vs. nature and man vs. environment.

  4. Mark, Here's a quote from Bruner (Making Stories) I used in an article on Native American law and stories people have about Indians. He writes about "[t]he power of the story form to shape our conceptions of reality and legitimacy." "[N]arrative, including fictional narrative, gives shape to things in the real world and often bestows on them a title to reality . . . So automatic and swift is the process of constructing reality that we are often blind to it. . ."

    In part that's why I wanted to make explicit the story formats used in the news in hopes people might start looking for the plots and story lines and recognize them as they read the news. Thanks for bringing Bruner into this.

    Jacob, If we got rid of all the music we hear every day on the radio and tv and online, and all the artwork from ads, packaging, menus, cars, clothing, stamps, etc. to actual art objects, and all the theater - whether in the legislature, in church, in the classroom, on television - it would be a grey, barren existence.

    Kathy - Possibly environment actually refers to one's physical, social, economic, cultural environments. Uncle Tom's Cabin or Eugenides' Middlesex (about a transgender teen) might be man v. environment narratives in that sense. But I didn't see more explanation than I posted so it's just a guess.


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