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How do you write a best-selling novel or an award-winning screenplay? You might say, great writing or unique characters or thrilling conflict. But so much of writing a great story is knowing and mastering the type of story you’re trying to tell.
What are the types of stories? And how do you use them to tell a great story?
In this article, we’re going to cover the ten types of stories, share which tend to become best-sellers, and share the hidden values that help you master each type.
But first, what do I mean by “types of stories”?
Definition of Story Types
As stories have evolved for thousands of years, they began to fall into patterns called story types. These types tend to operate on the same underlying values. They also share similar structures, characters, and what Robert McKee calls obligatory scenes.
But Wait, Do Story Types Really Exist?
First, I want to address some discomfort you might be feeling with this idea. If you think that stories are magical and mystical, and the idea of putting them in a box feels terrible to you, I just want to say, I get that. I feel like that about stories, too!
You see, there are two ways you can figure out the patterns that stories take—the different types of stories.
You can start with stories themselves: looking through hundreds or even thousands until you get to four, seven, twelve, or even thirty-six master plots. This is what Christopher Booker did with his excellent guide The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, and you can get breakdowns of each of his types here.
And that can be helpful, certainly, but what about stories that are a little strange, genre-breaking, or out of the box?
Do they not have a “type”?
The other way you can figure out the types of stories is by going deeper, to the underlying reasons humans tell stories in the first place, the reason we’ve been telling stories for thousands of years, all the way back to the campfire stories our ancestors told each other.
Why do we tell stories? The reason humans have always told stories (and always will) is because we want something.
Maybe we want something as simple as to stay alive. This was one reason our long-ago ancestors told stories about surviving attacks from ferocious beasts.
Maybe we want love or belonging, so we tell great love stories about couples destined (or doomed) to be together.
Maybe we want to become the best version of ourselves. We tell stories about how people have overcome adversity, even pushed back against their narrow-minded communities, to fully self-actualize.
Or maybe we want to tell stories about what it’s like to transcend, to go beyond yourself and your circumstances and serve the good of the whole community, the whole world, and so we tell stories about sacrifice and great heroism.
In other words, basic story types arise from values, from the things humans want, and the great thing is, there has been a lot of research into the values humans find to be universal.
Story Types Are Defined by 6 Values
Great, bestselling stories are about values.
Value, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
In other words, a value is something you admire, something you want. If you value something, it means you think it’s good.
Values in Stories
Here are some examples of things you might value:
- A sibling
This could easily become a never-ending list.
But if you think about it, every value can be distilled to six essential human values. Building off of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, these values are as follows (credit to Robert McKee and Shawn Coyne for introducing me to these concepts):
- Survival from Nature. The value of life. Because if you don’t have your life, you don’t have much.
- Survival from Others. Surviving crime, other people, even monsters, you could say.
- Love/Community. The value of human connection.
- Esteem. The value of your status and hierarchy within a community.
- Personal Growth. The value of reaching your potential.
- Transcendence. The value of going beyond yourself to discover a larger purpose.
Once you distill these values, you can turn these values into scales, because these values are usually in conflict with their opposite.
- Survival from Nature > Life vs. Death
- Survival from Others > Life vs. Fate Worse than Death
- Love/Community > Love vs. Hate
- Esteem > Accomplishment vs. Failure
- Personal Growth > Maturity vs. Immaturity
- Transcendence > Good vs. Evil
In fact, it is the conflict between these values that generate the movement and change that makes the story work.
These are the same values that drive good storytelling.
If you take them a step further you can take these value scales and map them to different types of stories—or plot types. Here’s how it works:
- Life vs. Death: Adventure, Action Stories
- Life vs. Fate Worse than Death: Thriller, Horror, Mystery Stories
- Love vs. Hate: Romance/Love Stories
- Accomplishment vs. Failure: Performance/Sports Stories
- Maturity vs. Immaturity: Coming of Age stories
- Good vs. Evil: Temptation/Morality Stories
These plot types transcend genre. You can have a sci-fi love story, a historical thriller, a fantasy performance story, a mystery romance story, or even a young adult adventure story.
Your story’s plot type will determine much of your story: the scenes you must include, the conventions and tropes you employ, your characters (including protagonists, side characters, and antagonists), and more.
How does that work practically? Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Adventure Story Type Example
Let’s look at a classic example, The Hobbit, one of the best-selling novels of all time, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
When you’re trying to understand the type of story you’re trying to tell, the first question to ask is, “What value scale do a majority of the scenes move on?”
The question constantly coming up in The Hobbit is this: “Is Bilbo Baggins going to survive the run-ins with the spiders and trolls and orcs, or is he not going to survive?”
The Hobbit, at its core, is an adventure story, and that means that a majority of the scenes move on the Life vs. Death Scale.
While there are certainly scenes that fall on the Good vs. Evil and Maturity vs. Naïveté scales, it is the Life vs. Death scale that most of the scenes move on.
The 10 Types of Stories
Now that we’ve looked at an example, let’s break down each of the ten main story types and talk about how they work.
Each of these plot types has typical archetypes for their inciting incidents and main event/climax. While you can certainly tweak or even re-work these archetypes, it’s best to understand how they work and ensure that your new version of the event can bring out as much of the conflict as the typical method.
For more on this, check out our respective guides on inciting incidents and climaxes.
These ideas are not new, and I also have to acknowledge a huge debt to the story theorists who have gone before me, especially Blake Snyder, author of Go to Source