It is said in writing circles that there are only 7 stories that can be written
You might think that is a crazy claim to say there are only 7 basic stories, but actually, there is a crazier claim – there is only ever one real story.
Fish Out of Water
This is when you have the character, setting, theme, style, and you take your character from its everyday environment, and place it somewhere else, hence, ‘a fish out of water’.
When you think of all the great stories out there, this rings true. Life is pottering along fine for Frodo, and boom, he suddenly has to leave his home and travel miles away; Lucy is happily playing hide and seek when she is suddenly transported to a winter wonderland; Elizabeth is happily growing up when adulthood brings the requirement to marry and the introduction of the moody Mr. Darcy. Arya Stark is expelled from her life as a lady and daughter of a respected man, to a life on the run, and the daughter of a traitor.
The fish out of water technique brings an action to a story, your character has to react to this change and resolve it. There is a certain amount of jeopardy in this new environment. As a reader, we are enthralled by these stories. Placing your character in some kind of jeopardy can provide lots of inspiration for moving your plot along towards the resolution.
The 7 basic stories in one book
But when you break the fish out of water theory down in relation to all stories, it doesn’t always ring true. Not all stories are about a fish out of water, sometimes they’re very much about a fish in its water! Where would we be without observational stories, diaries, real-life situations? We demand more as readers, and as writers, we are learning to mix things up, not following the norm. Letting our creativity go wild.
In 2004, Christopher Booker wrote a book called The 7 Basic Plots which details the 7 basic plots of storytelling, throughout history. They are, in no order; Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Tragedy, Comedy, Rebirth and Overcoming the Monster.
In the writing world, it is a truth universally acknowledged that most of these stories will intertwine.
Game of Thrones as an example of using all 7 stories
Returning to the story of Arya Stark, Game of Thrones, we find it contains the 7 basic stories within its frame. It’s a great example of how to intertwine different stories, how to keep a reader turning the page. And possibly how to become one of the most successful TV shows of all time. What it does to achieve that status is a prime example of modern day storytelling that has broken the basic rules of storytelling.
We are surrounded by quest stories in this day and age. It seems you cannot move for fictional characters setting out with good intention, climbing mountains, trekking terrains, and fighting every conceivable monster, inside and outside of their heads, to reach their goal. The truth is, we adore quest stories. They are super entertaining. The change of scenery and environment in Game of Thrones provides so much potential. It has the potential to move the story, surprise the reader, catapult characters to the forefront of challenges to overcome, to reach The Holy Grail. Long live the quest.
Rags to Riches
In the book, this basic story plot is played forwards, and backwards. We see many characters go from rags to riches and from riches to rags. Arya Stark is one herself. In the 7 Kingdoms, riches are easily lost as the characters fight for the throne and its power. Jon Snow is on his way to riches, Daenerys is introduced at the start with a claim to the throne, but no riches. As her story progresses she gains riches and monsters.
Overcoming the Monster
Overcoming the Monster is a moving theme in Game of Thrones. For each character, the monster changes, yet ultimately they will all unite to fight the same monster at the end, the White Walkers. The biggest fear before the White Walkers become apparent, is Dragons, but we’re told repeatedly the Dragons have been dead for years. Enter Daenerys Targaryen, aptly named The Mother of Dragons, who on her quest, from rags to riches, and as part of her rebirth, emerges with three dragons of her own. (I say, is that another reversal of plot?!)
We see many characters go through a rebirth in Game of Thrones, Daenerys, Arya, Jon, Tyrion and Jaime Lannister, Sansa Stark, as part of their ‘heroes journey’ or Quest. For a character to be believable and for a reader to cheer for the resolution of the character, the character must change, or rebirth. But rebirth is not without tragedy, and GOT is full of that.
Game of Thrones is littered with tragedy, it oozes from every season, usually thick and red. We meet the story with a death, that of Jon Arryn, Hand of the King. Ned Stark is called to the King’s side, and so travels with members of his family. Soon he receives word that John Aron had not, in fact, died from natural causes, but was murdered. As Ned investigates, it becomes apparent that he is captured in a spider’s web that will cause tragedy for many as it unravels.
There is a respect for writers who can write all of the above, and manage to weave comedy through pages, too. But the genius of Game of Thrones is that it manages in all the thrills, drama and tragedy to lighten the mood with gags. A great source of amusement is Tyrion Lannister with his sharp wit, and the camaraderie between members of the Black Watch and various armies.
Voyage and Return
As we head into the final season, as yet unwritten as a book, but eagerly watched on TV, we have one set expectation from Game of Thrones’ story – The Return. The return to order, a resolution, and the natural order restored. Could we call this the one true story of the books? No. How could we when we have so clearly seen the way the 7 basic stories have interlaced throughout the saga?
Yet, there is a strong argument to be made that is ultimately a voyage and a quest. I believe that we could say it’s a sad quest, about people who go from rags to riches and back again, which changes their character, and provides humour to keep our spirits up, so we can return to order, after overcoming the monsters. Or something like that.
While we wouldn’t publish a short story like Game of Thrones at the Friend, we certainly like you using your creativity, and we hope you continue your quests as writers beyond our magazine. Read more writing tools here