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The Greatest—and Only—Story Ever Told

It's an honored literary tradition—and a great way to procrastinate—for writers to argue over how many stories there are. Some say there's an infinite number, others say forty-seven or twenty-three or fifteen. George Polti says there are thirty-six. My personal favorites of his are: # 4: vengeance by family upon family; # 27: discovery of the dishonor of a loved one; # 19: kinsman kills unrecognized kinsman; and especially, # 31: conflict with a god.

But I contend there's only one story—and that if you recognize it, or more precisely, recognize that this structure that underlies how people like to receive stories, you'll understand the power of plot and be able to make it work for you. This is how it goes.

There once was a woman who had a terrible problem enter her life (inciting incident). She decided that she was going to solve/get rid of her problem so she devised a plan (goal). But whenever she put this plan into action, everything around her worked against her (conflicts) until the problem had grown even worse and she seemed even further than ever from reaching her goal. At this darkest moment (crisis), the woman made a decision based on who she was and what she had learned in the story. Through this decision and the resulting action (climax) her problem was resolved (resolution) in either a positive (happy ending) or negative way (unhappy ending).

So, if there is only one story, how come there are so many books? My answer is that this story is the essence of plot: it's the skeleton of the body, the notes in a symphony, the features of the face. It's up to you, the writer, to put on the skin and organs, the scales and chords, the eyes and nose and mouth.