All Stories Fall into 1 of 4 Categories

I discovered an interesting concept the other day, and thought I should share it with my fellow writers. I love having the ability to articulate story theory, and story structure, and this bit of information has encapsulated a concept that I can firmly say I detest.

All stories fall into one of four categories, and I enjoy three of these said categories, but deeply dislike the last. To determine the category of any given story, you simply need to answer two question.

FIRST QUESTION: is your story a simple story, or a complex story?

Basically ask yourself, how much information is in the story? How many characters are there? How many plot twists? How many surprise reveals? The higher the numbers, the more complex the story. The lower the numbers, the simpler the story.

SECOND QUESTION: is your TOLD in a simple manner, or a complex manner?

Now ask yourself, is the narrator reliable? Is the chronology of events out of order? Are there dream sequences and tangents? Did the author use flowery language or hide meaning in poems? The more complex the narrative, the farther you get away from a simple story telling.

Thus, there are only four categories a story can fall into.

A simple story

Told simply

A simple story

Told complexly

A complex story

Told simply

A complex story

Told complexly


A Simple Story Told Simply

Think children’s books or blockbuster movies. Simple narration following a single character as they make their way through a story that unfolds one piece at a time.

Some might say this is the “worst” category to fall into, but some of the most engaging (and successful) works of all time would fall here. These are easy books with fun characters. They engage and almost everyone can read them.

Noteworthy examples:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone


A Complex Story Told Simply

Think of adult commercial fiction. Most fantasy and urban fantasy novels meant for adults have lots of characters, with great backstories, twists, and reveals. But most of these stories are told through the viewpoint of easy to understand characters, and typically in chronological order.

I would say that most of my works fall in this category. I love sprawling tales that involve lots of people.

Noteworthy examples:

Game of Thrones

The Black Jewels Trilogy

A Complex Story Told Complexly

Think philosophical science fiction. These stories tend to have a lot to say, and they say it very abstractly, or poetically. These are often praised for their deep insights, but most are difficult to get through, and time consuming. Because of this, they’re taught in schools, and hardly read outside of education.

I would say it’s difficult to write a novel that fits into this category, but some people (foolishly, in my opinion) think this is the best category. Sometimes it’s fun to watch a simple story with a simple narrative, and not everything needs to be about something abstract and difficult to comprehend.

Noteworthy examples:

Atlas Shrugged

Infinite Jest

A Simple Story Told Complexly

And this, in my opinion, is the worse category. I think it can be summed up in one word: pretentious. It’s a simple tale told in a complex way—in a way to make the reader question what’s going on, even when nothing is going on. The author is more concerned about the prose and the tricks of narration, rather than delivering an epic tale.

Now, this is just my opinion, because some of the examples I’m about to list are all-time favorites. However, these novels all share the same thing: they’re more about the “experience” than they are the story itself.

First example—The Catcher in the Rye

As Kyle from South Park once said, “It’s just some whiny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is.” And he’s right. That’s what the book is. However, it’s told in a striking narrative style that focuses in on the poetic narrator of the main character. He tells everything from first-person, and often in a vulgar manner. It’s about his perspective. His memories. It’s personal. But that’s it.

Second example—Wuthering Heights

It’s a romance that involves the struggle of a woman considered less than a man. The story is simple, but the novel is awkwardly structured, extremely depressing, and focuses on those facts than the actual story itself. Ask anyone that’s read it–what stands out? Depressing. It’s almost a universal answer because that’s the experience.

I explained these examples to showcase what I mean about complex narratives and simple stories (and to explain why I hate both of those listed novels). I think it’s given me a better understanding of what I appreciate in writing.

I appreciate the story more than the way it’s told.

Maybe others are different, and that’s fine. Life is filled with variety—I just like having the words to express all the differences.