Try as we might to generate completely new ideas, the truth is that almost every plot line boils down to one of several root stories. The “original” root stories, or at least the oldest recognized forms of them, come from ancient mythology or classic fairytales. They operate as basic frameworks of storytelling, but they can be easily disguised by unusual settings, secondary plots, and extra or altered characters. The following seven root stories can serve as great building blocks as you create your own story. They could also help you characterize a story you’ve already written.
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Achilles is one of the most talked-about narrative archetypes, thanks to everyday use of the term “Achilles heel.” Each Achilles story features a character with a tragic flaw that causes him or her to meet a tragic end. The Great Gatsby, MacBeth, and Hamlet are a few examples.
Stories based on this root don’t necessarily involve a Prince Charming-type rescue figure, or even a rags-to-riches theme. The Cinderella archetype is a character whose virtues are overlooked or outright denied until the end of the story. Films that immediately came to my mind were James and the Giant Peach, A Little Princess, Matilda, and Pretty Woman. But after getting in touch with my inner paleontologist and scraping off some narrative dust with a proverbial toothbrush, I realized that The Tortoise and the Hare also falls into this category.
This root, named after the minor Greek goddess, is the story of the seducer or the temptress. In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe invited Odysseus’ men to her home and served them poisoned food that turned them into pigs. Apparently she had also been known to cut off certain body parts belonging to her lovers. So, you can see how she got a bad reputation.
Mary Howitt’s poem “The Spider and the Fly” is a perfect example of Circe’s root story. Some films that follow the Circe template include Cruel Intentions, Basic Instinct, Poison Ivy, and To Die For.
Faust stories are about debts that must be paid. The semi-historical figure Johann Faust was said to have sold his soul to the devil. Phantom of the Opera, Ghost, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and Ghost Rider exemplify this root story.
The Orpheus root story concerns a valuable gift that is somehow lost. The story might end with the loss, or it might begin with the loss and follow the characters on their quest to find the gift. Virgil’s Aeneid, The Wizard of Oz, and Jason and the Golden Fleece are notable examples.
6. Romeo & Juliet
This archetype barely needs explaining. Two lovers meet; at some point, they become separated. In the end, they either happily reunite or lose each other forever, depending in the tone of the story. West Side Story, Titanic, Friends With Benefits, and many movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels fall into this category.
Films like The Graduate, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Closer follow the Tristan root story, which is about the classic love triangle. Tristan was sent to bring the beautiful Isolde (or Iseult, or Essylt, depending on who you talk to) back for King Mark to marry. Unfortunately for the king, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drank a powerful love potion during the journey, and they fell madly in love with each other.
And now a little public service announcement about making marriages last: Watch out for those love potions, people.
If you read this post, you’re probably a writer. Which means…you should probably – no, make that DEFINITELY – apply for Summer Session of our 3-Week Intensive. The session will run from July 13 to August 3. We’re only accepting applications until July 6, so act fast!
Did we miss a classic example of a root story in modern film? Let us know in the comments!