Here’s a classic pattern that most stories follow:
A protagonist, usually a young boy or servant, is missing at least one parent and is being brought up by a close family member or social superior. Early in the tale, he encounters an old man with a stick who orientates him to the antagonist, opening up the basic premise of the story. A journey or quest commences, usually physical, during which the protagonist is scarred, wounded or otherwise damaged; he also acquires a comic companion who becomes pivotal in the journey, as well as often meeting a female companion, a warrior king - an older companion with particular characteristics - and some kind of shadow - a character similar in many ways to the protagonist but also a kind of opposite. (There are actually seven of these archetypal figures, but I’ll have to talk about that another time.)
A war between 'good' and 'evil' is taking place as a backdrop to the story. Eventually, the protagonist meets and defeats the antagonist, usually at personal cost, and usually by finding a close familial or psychological connection between them. The protagonist then transcends the world in which he has lived, leaving the companions behind.
I used to ask the classes I used to teach which story this was. There were always the usual answers: The Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars films, the Harry Potter books, the King Arthur stories, and so forth. But other stories that might not spring to mind immediately but which hug this template closely include:
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014
There are many, many others. I’m sure you can think of more than a few. They cover a range of forms and media, but all possess the above points in common. This template outlines a story with which we are very familiar, appearing constantly in various forms, repeatedly reinvented around us through Hollywood, in the bestseller lists, on television and elsewhere. Many other writers have traced some or most of the patterns, either knowing or unknowingly.
No one seems to ask why it works or how come it is repeated almost without deviation, time and time again. My book How Stories Really Work is an attempt to understand the principles behind the template.
You may have noticed that there are some stories which don’t seem to fit exactly into the model just described: their endings are dark, or the centre of attention doesn’t appear to be what you might call a ‘normal’ protagonist. That’s because there are four basic genres, Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy. The classic pattern above is that of the Epic, which forms over 90% of most stories. In each other genre, that template is slightly altered. Almost all the elements remain in each other genre, but with a different emphasis.
For example, in a tragedy like Macbeth, the centre of attention is the figure of the warrior, Macbeth himself. Usually in stories, this figure accompanies the protagonist on whatever the protagonist’s quest is, and in doing so emerges from a dark past and becomes a leader. But in tragedies, this character fails to emerge from the darkness and makes a series of wrong choices, which ultimately lead to his death.
In an irony, everything is switched around: heroes become villains, villains become heroes, the line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is blurred. In Great Expectations, for example, Pip would appear to be a classic protagonist, but he fails to make correct choices and ends up in serious trouble. The book almost ends in total despair, as most ironies do: Dickens throws in a ray of hope in the final sentence, which was an alteration to his first, more dismal draft.
Comedies alter everything again: now, more often than not, the star of the show is the female companion. She frequently ends up marrying the emerging warrior figure. Other subtle tweaks to the classic template can be found too.
These four genres fit on a circle, which I have called a Wheel of Fiction: Epics then Tragedies, then Ironies, then Comedies, leading back to Epics. What could be said about that circle would fill a book, and certainly occupies a major section of my book How Stories Really Work, but the basics are that an Epic or a Comedy are designed to create a happy ending, whereas a Tragedy and an Irony result in sadness and even despair. They are the patterns used by major authors to produce those basic effects.
Trainee writers would do well to learn as much as they can about them, not to create ‘copycat’ stories but to maximise their ability to employ skills used by writers throughout the ages.