GOOD QUESTIONS / A beginning, a middle and the absolute end

ANOTHER instalment of our intellectual agony column, with a curious selection of readers' problems, all held together with sticky- back plastic.

I keep coming across Media People saying, as a rule very smugly, something along the lines of '. . . all literature is derived from seven basic plots, of course'. I can only some up with three: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl; Boy gets girl, boy loses girl; The Journey. So which are the others? (J D Holzhauer, London W4)

That's a good question. The seven basic plots of fiction, like the seven basic jokes, seem to be one of those old deconstructive wives' tales that provide a ready-made excuse for lack of creative inspiration. There is no shortage of taxonomies for narrative structure, but no two theorists seem to agree on any single system. Even if one does end up with seven basic plots (and there are several ways to do so) there seems to be no standard set.

Aristotle was the first to lay down criteria for a plot. It had to be whole (that is, have a beginning, middle and end), have unity of action, in the sense that the removal or displacement of any single part would disjoint the narrative. He stressed the importance of change of fortune with or without 'peripeteia' (a sudden reversal) or 'anagnorisis' (ignorance giving way to knowledge).

Those components alone could be said to provide seven plots, with fortunes changing or not changing, sudden reversal or no sudden reversal, and ignorance overcome or not overcome. Of the eight possibilities in that schema, only no change, no reversal and persistent ignorance is excluded as a possible plot.

More modern writers, following the formalist approach of structural linguistics, have analysed the plots of myth in various cultures. Vladimir Propp, in Morphology of the Folk Tale, identified seven 'spheres of action' and 31 'functions'. The former, which could (very loosely) be considered as seven basic plots, may be identified with primary characters such as a villain, helper, sought-for-person, donor, etc. From the point of view of the structuralist, it makes no difference whether the 'villain' is a wicked witch, a dragon, or a bowl of porridge. The essential action in the story is contained in the 31 functions, such as 'villain harms hero- figure' (witch casts spell on Sleeping Beauty, or Dragon singes Sir Lancelot, or porridge burns Goldilocks).

Propp's taxonomy was later developed by Claude Levi-Strauss and reached its simplest (or possibly most complex) formulation in A J Greimas's Semantique Structurale (1966), in which the spheres of action are replaced by three pairs of 'binary oppositions' to account for the basic patterns of narrative: (a) desire or aim (subject/object); (b) communication (sender/receiver); (c) additional support or hindrance (helper/antagonist). Again this could be said to provide seven basic plots, defined by the presence or absence of each of the three oppositions, excluding the case with everything absent. So 'Boy meets girl, boy gets girl' is likely to be a and b, while 'Boy gets girl, boy loses girl' is predominantly a and c. 'The Journey' may be pure a.

For a sub-plot that explores simultaneously both extremes of category c, we need look no further than Humpty-Dumpty, whose ostensibly supportive behaviour turns, with sudden peripeteia, to verbal hindrance, providing no anagnorisis for Alice. Anyone who finds seven plots too restrictive, however, should refer to Souriau's Les 100,000 situations dramatiques (1950) for a wider variety.

For an even simpler classification system, we can recommend Kabuki theatre which, in modern Japanese, is written with three characters: ka, signifying 'song'; bu, 'dance'; and ki, 'skill'. That would give naturally give rise to eight categories, unless we exclude that large body of modern work which appears to have been executed with no discernable song, dance or skill.

Principal sources: Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Encyclopaedia of Linguistics.

When you unroll sticky tape, why does the adhesive only adhere to one side? (Alan Stewart, Lymington, Hampshire)

The simple answer is PVODC. It is a release coating applied to one side of the plastic film to prevent the adhesive bonding to it. Sellotape, incidentally, make all their rolls of sticky stuff initially in rolls 1.5 metres wide, which are then sliced down to the required widths.

Could somebody kindly explain what the saying 'cheap at half the price' means? It seems to me to be a perversely inverted statement of the obvious, but it can't be - can it? (Nigel Dark, Eye, Suffolk)

Yes, it can. It seems to have started as a piece of jokey sales patter in London street markets, as a demonstrable truth that, on close inspection, says exactly the opposite of the meaning likely to be imputed. It was then brought into general misuse, probably by the same people who describe fast gabblers as 'talking ten to the dozen'.

For analogous misleading truths, we can recommend the reviewer's 'This book fills a much-needed gap in the literature', believed to have been coined by the Polish-American mathematician Mark Kac, later embellished with 'I shall lose no time in reading it'; or 'He leaves a gap it will be hard to replace' (heard at a retirement ceremony).

What is the origin of 'by a long chalk', and how to explain its meaning easily, especially to foreigners? (Jean M Gilchrist, Oslo)

Sources differ as to whether the chalk referred to was that used to keep a tally of the number of beers drunk in a public house, or the score at darts, or the tally, marked on the floor, of some other sporting contest. The expression 'by a long chalk' seems a more recent form of the older 'by long chalks'. In any case, the greater one's line of chalk marks, the greater one's score, or final bill. On the whole, we would advise against even trying to explain such things to foreigners.

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map