What Do All Great Stories Have In Common?

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As an author and soon-to-be publisher, I’ve been wrestling with this a couple of months.

I began looking at some of the greatest stories of all time, both books and movies, and I’ve asked myself, what makes them great?

And to take it a step further, “What do they all have in common?”

Surely there’s some underlining theme, or common thread, that connects all the great stories together?

Stories like, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, Frozen, and (I hate to admit) Avatar. 

(Though that last one FINALLY got it’s but kicked in the box office by the amazing Force Awakens!!!)

If you’re going to help me answer this question, you have to be unbiased. You have to be willing to admit that The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest books of all time, even if you don’t think it’s that great.

There’s something in these renowned stories that draws millions of people to them, year after year, and generation after generation.

So, what is the one theme that attracts millions? Consider two of the highest grossing animated Disney movies, Big Hero 6 and Frozen. Hiro had to learn to let go of his brother (who lives through Baymax), and Elsa’s life-changing act was, well, letting go.

But does “letting go” have anything to do with The Lord of the Rings? Forrest Gump? The Hunger Games?

It’s a process-of-elimination kind of question. I want to hear your thoughts! It’s killing me!

WHAT is it that all great stories have in common?? Leave your comments and suggestions below. Let’s discuss!

Follow me on Twitter: @atoy1208 and Facebook and watch my adventure in starting my own publishing company! 

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About Andrew Toy
I'm in the beginning stages of starting my own publishing company that's unlike anything you've ever heard of in the industry. The direction of AdoptingJames is taking a 90-degree turn and will be more writing/publishing-focused. Stay tuned for huge updates and exciting news!

51 Responses to What Do All Great Stories Have In Common?

  1. I don’t know if you’ve read the Save The Cat books on screenwriting, but they address your questions. The author (a successful screenwriter) does some interesting story analysis and describes what he considers the major story categories. I found it interesting and helpful.

  2. bikurgurl says:

    I love the idea of this post! {However, I can’t agree with you on ‘Frozen’}

    The thread that ties them all together for me is finding meaning after loss; essentially, gratitude. In many of these stories, there is a maturation — coming of age — that allows for perspective, growth, and change. While the characters may not be *happy* in the end, the characters are changed and oftentimes, satisfied with the outcome.

    I can’t speak to Avatar {haven’t seen it} nor Hunger Games {but I battled my way to about a 1/4 through the first book before I just had to ‘Let it Go’} nor was I a fan of Forest Gump {although I know many people are}.

    I can agree with Big Hero 6 having a good story line {but the beginning almost had me bail with the unexpected violence} and The Lord of the Rings is a timeless classic.

    I really reach further back to classics like Homer, Shakespeare, the Bible – to me, these literally stand the test of time with struggles that are transcendent. What concerns me about modern stories, other than the fact they are whitewashed in screen portrayals, is that women are largely marginalized {obviously, not so in the aforementioned Hunger Games, which is why I plan to try to read it again this year}, objectified, or reliant on a man to make their way in the world {Princesses, Damsel in Distress storyline}.

    Thank you for starting the discussion!

    • Great thoughts. My thoughts also tend to lead toward the whole lost/rediscovery theme as well, because I think every one of us is on that same journey, but I’m still trying to keep my options open to other ideas.

  3. First, yes, “The Great Gatsby” should be the all-American novel. For me, all the literature that is great has characters that I can relate to because they are real human beings facing problems that are universal.

  4. Little Miss says:

    Characters you fall in love with.

  5. Well written, realistic dialogue is a must. I will stop reading a book if the dialogue is written poorly. It takes you right out of the story and distracts the reader. That, and great writing prompts discussion. There are many factors that make writing great, though. Excellent description, themes that get the readers to dig deeper, sentences that flow well, and interesting story. We could go on and on =)

  6. I would tell you to check out Joseph Campbell’s book Hero of a Thousand Faces, which discusses the different character and story archetypes in the universal story.

  7. Good question, and now it seems to me your business will succeed! We have only “real problems that are universal” from the prof there for a start, though having unique-nesses is also universal. There are common characteristics to great stories, like we enter into their world, see our world in its terms, and it changes us, or we learn, hopefully for the better. Joseph Campbell looks for what is common to all heroes. In the genres, there is tragedy and comedy, so happy and sad and things of that sort won’t be common to all that are great. History and a fourth unnamed, called “pastoral” or tragicomedy are the sections of Shakespeare. Do they all have a villain? a challenge and a purpose, successor failure that shows a human greater than us, from whom we draw improvement and confirmation? Certain particulars examples really show the universal, the nature of man, or something about this, and beauty makes us better. Jung’s Psych is based on the thought that there are archetypes, common patterns, and Socrates, knowledge in the soul. When the particular touches the knowledge in the soul, it awakens us, and we experience this as beautiful. Beautiful too is when a healthy and fertile place to live is seen by wandering tribes in our evolutionary past, beauty tells us we have found it.

    Man is one thing, good man another. Story is one thing, good story another. The great stories cultivate virtue, and to do this must be based on knowledge. We do not know the good, but do our best!

    What makes comedy funny is a similar question. We seem to be able to get this down to a few things all have in common, but not quite one thing, so we do not quite know what makes funny things funny. That is funny!

    I thought you might be capable of reading Aristotle’s poetics and the second half of Plato’s Phaedrus!

    We watch few movies, but enjoy Grand Torino!

    • Thank you so much for this insight. It is refreshing and eye-opening to see someone dive deeper. Indeed, what DOES make funny, funny? What DOES make good, good. Questions, perhaps, that can be tapped on the surface, but not at all fully answered?

  8. mileyblitz says:

    Well I feel like all great stories have to have the common characteristics of a novel: a protagonist dealing with a conflict (whether it be external or internal) and in conclusion, a life long lesson. All of these books have great and enthralling story lines. They all also use common elements of writing such as personification, similes, metaphors, and so on. Like others have said, these books find meaning after tragedies, creating lessons. Make sure your book is intriguing from the start as well. My biggest pet peeve has to be a wasteful book. Whenever I begin a novel and I’m already 100 pages in and bored out of my mind, I stop. An author should be able to get his main ideas across and captivate the reader in less than 100 pages, which all these books have done. They’re all well written novels that don’t go into useless details of the weather or this persons useless backstory.
    Another note I would suggest is not to make the book so cliché. In Hunger Games, Katniss isn’t the hero that goes and saves all the people. Half of her people and friends are died by the middle of the series! Sorry btw, I know the titles should be italicized but I’m on my phone and don’t know how to do that.
    Love this topic by the way!

    • I understand the not being able to italicize – bugs me when I can’t do it too. I feel like the reader might not know that I KNOW they’re supposed to be italicized. I love your thoughts here, and how you span the length of a book from beginning to end. I think all of these elements you point out are equally important.

  9. Sandy W. says:

    I think it’s the way each story is willing to confirm and give applause to the human vulnerability we feel everyday in our hearts. We don’t like to admit to each other that we are vulnerable, so we watch movies with such characters to commiserate.

  10. sptchmom777 says:

    For me a book takes me somewhere. Another time, another setting, another emotion. It allows me explore thoughts and feelings. A well written book follows all necessary elements…and engages the reader in ways not expected. The beauty of books is that they are as individual as those reading them.

  11. Interesting theory! It makes sense that there is some underlying theme that draws us to books like that, but finding it might be quite tricky.

  12. I believe that it all boils down to good vs. evil. We are all both good and bad. Thus making (or even recognizing) the “right” choices can be difficult at times. I think that conflict between the two resonates with all of us, so we LOVE it when the characters fight the good fight and make the “right” choices.

    • Again drawing on Jung, the heroes like King Arthur, say, fight an inner struggle in the outside world, confronting them as fate. It is possible but rare to be like Merlin, able to overcome evil without fighting it directly, tripping over oneself. Jung writes about the “shadow,” The parts of ourselves we do not look at, and one answer above hits on this. Jesus has the teaching of the log and the splinter in the eye. First remove the log in your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in the eye of your brother, and “guard you brother like the pupil of your eye.” The soul seems to have a natural impulse toward self knowledge, and when we do not see our own darkness, we will be confronted with it outside as a “projection.” The best fiction is the best at serving self knowledge. King Arthur fights his opponent to a draw, saving the kingdom at the cost of his own life. Incidentally, for all our sociology which teaches that there is nothing true and knowable about right and wrong because it is all culturally relative, no one, for the most part, ever mistakes the hero and the villain while taking in a story. That is because we all have an innate sense or perception of right and wrong, though we are often mistaken in our daily worlds. Great literature cultivates this perception, refining it like gold, even in fire. Drama, per Aristotle, brings particular examples that especially show the universal, and the imagination produces and refines these spontaneously. The universals do not appear so clearly in the particulars of history, but they do appear. Consider Churchill v. Hitler, or Lincoln v. Slavery.

  13. thewriteedge says:

    I think it comes down to a protagonist with a set of circumstances that feel real to us. In some cases we even empathize with the protagonist. That person’s problems are relatable, and everything else about that world becomes gravy.

    Someone mentioned _The Hunger Games_. The premise of the series is pretty simple: protagonist Katniss wants to keep her sister safe. That’s it. From the time she volunteers in her sister’s place all the way to the end of _Mockingjay_, that is her main motivation. Yes, she becomes a figure for the revolution and even embraces that role at some point, but it all starts with her deep love for Prim.

    We can all identify with that idea, with wanting to keep our loved ones out of harm’s way. Doesn’t matter if that’s by telling the teen who rolls his/her eyes to buckle up before driving or if it’s by volunteering in our sister’s place in a gladiator-style game so that said sister can definitely stay alive while we would probably die. I think that’s why _The Hunger Games_ was such a huge success long before the movies. In our heart of hearts, we all hope we can be that brave should the situation ever arise.

    I could go on with tons of other examples, but for me what makes books and movies great is the heart of the piece that makes me stop and say, “I know how that person feels.”

  14. bp7o9 says:

    Mmmmm….There is a certain honesty that some writers have the ability to convey. I can acknowledge that even in ‘great’ literature I don’t enjoy. With that honesty, they can impart a yearning to the reader. Let’s face it: Lord of the Rings isn’t all that brilliant in the narrative sense. But who can read it and not WANT it to be true? We yearn for these great stories to never end, and coming to the final page feels like a little death to avid readers.

    If you want to rip away the curtain, tho, I think it boils down to some key ingredients. Something familiar and something unfamiliar. Something internal and something external. And if you want that blockbuster, always add hope. Because audiences need to believe in hope; they always have. We want to believe the magician really did cut his assistant in half. We want to believe that in the end, everything will work out ‘okay’. That we will be loved, cared for, missed when we are gone. ‘Simple’ stuff – which somehow is never all that simple.

  15. Great question and one that every writer surely wants to answer. Stories like the children’s books “Black Beauty” and “Lassie” also figure into equation. Heroes (human or animal) suffer disappointment and/or abuse, win over incredible odds, and good triumphs over evil. That’s part of the answer, I think.

  16. ktulu007 says:

    I don’t think it’s something thematic that ties the stories that strongly resonate with people together so much as what goes into them.

    To clarify, I think that great stories have three major things in common. The first is passion. There’s a reason that the summer blockbuster films that are just cynically trying to cash in on name recognition tend to come and go while films like Citizen Kane, Nausicaa or even some based on other works like the Godfather or Metropolis (the 1927 film) are remembered as classics. Because the people making them were doing something they wanted to do and clearly had passion for.

    The second aspect is an element of risk. Even if you’re passionate about your work, if you’re doing the same thing that a bunch of other successful people have done, it’s not going to be particularly memorable for a lot of people. Take super hero films. For me, the one that stands out is Big Hero 6. The reason is that most other super hero films try to be conform. They try to be grim, gritty and dark with the source material. Big Hero 6, in contrast, takes something that was pretty grim and gritty and makes it light-hearted, heart warming and really epic.

    Finally, there’s the aspect of what the book/film/graphic novel/series is doing. If you look at those works that resonate strongly with audiences, they have something to say. There’s something beneath the surface that the author wants to convey. maybe it’s an environmental message like the ones you get in so many Ghibli films or maybe it’s something social like you get in Orwell’s literature or Rodenberry’s work on the first two Star Trek series, but there’s something there that audiences pick up on and gravitate to.

    That’s what I would put forth as the answer to what all great stories have in common. they’re written by people who are passionate towards their craft. They take some risks and they have some message inherent to them.

  17. mariaholm says:

    I haven’t seen many of the movies, but just now I am reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” and I understand why it became so famous. The way the author describes the children’s way of understand a difficult world and using a different language for the characters. I suppose it’s like that in good quality movies that you understand or love the characters and feel the hatred or hypocrisy and you are held in suspense not wanting the book or movie to end.

  18. Arohii says:

    I am no writer but I read books and I guess, it is always a sad ending. People somehow like barenaked emotions served on paper, all love stories with sad ending has been massive. Although I prefer Happy ending always. Thank you, Best regards.

  19. For me personally, the characters of a story are the essential part. I love a story when I love the characters, especially when I get emotionally attached to them. I believe that the characters we sympathize with reflect a part of ourselves, especially parts like fears, struggles and weaknesses. We see a character facing a certain emotional struggle, and we can relate to it, which makes us sympathize with the character. And when we see how the character deals with whatever struggle he has to face, it gives us hope and faith that if he/she can do it, we can do it too. Interesting, complex and especially relatable characters are an important component of a great story, not the only one, but a very essential one.

    (It’s a great question by the way, something I’ve been thinking about a lot, too.)

  20. My apologies if someone wrote this already. The common theme is evolving. It could be a character, a world, a group or a combination of any of the 3.

  21. Sandymae says:

    At the moment I don’t have time to read all the other comments, but will do so. Next to the movie and book, To Kill a Mocking Bird, I will forever be a fan of the movie “A Few Good Men”. I have watched it many times and I still want to watch and discuss it more. It is just of those stories where you want so much for the ending to be different, but you know that there is no other way for it “to be fair”. I keep living the story over and over again trying to figure out if I would have or could have made a different decision if I had been the Judge or Jury.

    I just finished reading Book 1 of a Series by Michael Phillips – Wild Grows the Heather in Devon (Series – Heathersleigh Hall) and I must say that the author “got me” in his introduction and, though the book was very, very long, I enjoyed every single page of it. It is very well written and kept me interested all the way.

  22. mn6363 says:

    It’s sacrifice! Sacrifice makes the best stories from Harry Potter to To Kill a Mockingbird. Sacrifice makes us feel. It makes stories relatable. It makes us hope that we would have the ability to release something for something greater. This could be love or justice or peace. Those are the stories that we love, that resonate, that last.

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