Three Types of Stories

There is already a breakdown of plots into three types of conflicts – man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self. The “man” there is used super loosely. However, I want to argue today for a different breakdown of story types.

  1. That which was.
  2. That which is.
  3. That which could be.

I’ve spent a lot of blog posts exploring and defending and fighting for the genres I love, for science fictionfantasysuperheroes, and Romantic Literature. For the types of stories that fall in the “that which could be” category. And that’s the place where I have the most to say – so let’s get back to that.

The first two are more obvious. Stories about the past, historical and such, are the stories about that which was. Although, many that I can think of that seem like this category were written as stories about that which is – about the current world at the time, which is now our past. And the best of these seem to become the canon of books that are read in schools, the “classics.” Those books which were about the current life and times, now our past. As a way to try to learn history in a “fun” way.

I’m not a huge fan of the classics.

So maybe that means the most obvious are the stories about that which is – about life around us. After all, the number one writing advice is “write what you know.” That gets you the vast majority of books in this vein. And yes, tons of these are fiction, and it’s made up – but the goal is to create life-like, realistic, “real” characters. To mimic that which is. To give insight into how we see things.

And the stories that are really written about how things were… well, maybe these blur in with ones about that which could be. Maybe a good example is The Da Vinci Code – sure, it’s set in the present, but it’s also a treasure hunt digging up (fictional) hidden facts about the past. So it’s really about this secret history.

A lot of fantasy could be considered a combination of stories about that which was and that which could be. That which could have been… Steam Punk even moreso fits in this, as could alternate history. They’re stories about a different world, but also constrained in a society like our past.

But when it comes to that which could be, well, the sky is the limit.

So we still tend to see realistic characters. Plenty of things we know. But then, to fit this type of story, we see things we don’t know. Things from the imagination. Not just a fictional version of what could be a real person in our world today – but a person who would be a real person in their fictional world, if it were real.

And sometimes, it’s just that that world is different from ours. Maybe the people really are a lot like we are today. Maybe this is to show us something about how we are – maybe it’s the writer writing what they know. Or maybe it’s the interpersonal relationships: maybe they’re just like what we’re used to. Reminds me of a point made on the PBS Idea Channel: Do we spot and process fictional interpersonal relationships the same way as real or realistic ones?

I would say, for all of these things… maybe the answer should be that they should be different from what we’re used to.

If a story is about what could be, then maybe it doesn’t need to resemble our world now. Maybe instead of putting in realistic racial problems, we could show a world without them, a world that’s solved them. I say this during a week when people have started calling for a boycott of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on racist grounds. I reply both that it’s fiction, and that it’s important that it’s imagining who could be a hero – instead of falling back on known formulae.

I feel like there’s always a level of backlash when some diversity makes its way into these stories set in the world that could be. But why? The point and purpose is to be different from the world we’re in. Maybe to be a little better. To do things we couldn’t do now.

Representation matters a TON in stories about what could be – because if the best we can imagine for a world that could be anything is a world exactly like where we are now – then that’s a different kind of story.

What do you think? Can stories be considered one of these three, or some combination of several? And what do you think about representation in these stories? Let us know in the comments below!

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