In fiction, as in a cemetery, there’s a limited number of plots. We just aren’t sure how many. Carlos Gozzi, a 18th-century Italian playwright, thought there were 36 dramatic situations, but ever since then, the number has been going down, cratering with Christopher Booker’s popular 2004 The Seven Basic Plot Structures.
But now, with the help of CERN-level mathematics and computers, researchers have evidence that the appropriately named Booker was off by just one, probably.
“I did some distance similarity metric calculations and machine clustering to see if I could identify archetypal plot shapes,” Matthew Jockers told me over the phone. “The short answer is, yes I did, and there’s six or sometimes seven.”
That little ambiguity, Jockers explained, is because the data collecting and sorting technique “involves picking at random from 50,000.”
“There’s six about 90 percent of the time,” Jockers said. “Ten percent of the time, the computer says there’s a seventh [plot shape].”