There Are Only Two Plots: (1) A Person Goes on a Journey (2) A Stranger Comes to Town

Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Leo Tolstoy? Mary Morris? John Gardner? David Long? Ernest Hemingway? Deepak Chopra?

jounrney09Dear Quote Investigator: A provocative remark about stories has been attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, John Gardner, and others:

There are only two plots in all of literature:
1) A person goes on a journey.
2) A stranger comes to town.

Are you willing to follow plot number one and embark on a journey to discover the origin of this adage?

Quote Investigator: Writer and educator John Gardner died tragically at age 49 in a motorcycle accident in 1982. His influential work of tutelage “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers” was released posthumously in 1984. Gardner included exercises “for the development of technique”, and the following was listed fifth. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Write the opening of a novel using the authorial-omniscient voice, making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).

The exercise above did not assert that the two possibilities referenced exhausted all plot choices. Also, the statement was only about the beginning of a novel. Nevertheless, these words were the earliest pertinent published evidence known to QI.

In September 1986 “Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter” published an article by writer David Long titled “Notes from a Contest Judge”. The excerpt below included the first articulation located by QI of the eccentric claim that collapsed all plots to two archetypes: 2

John Gardner once observed that there are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and A man goes on a journey. I think he’s right: there’s no such thing as a new plot, and I don’t expect to find one in the stack of manuscripts. But I do crave an original telling—one of our shared stories done again, ablaze with new detail.

The phrasing used to express the assertion has varied considerably suggesting that later propagators were not referencing a fixed textual source.

A citation in 1998 claimed that Gardner made a remark similar to the one under investigation circa 1978 during a “Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference”. Yet, memories of events twenty years in the past are often malleable. Details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1987 author Mary Morris wrote a column in “The New York Times” that included an instance of the adage attributed to Gardner. This article in a prominent high-circulation newspaper was an important locus for the dissemination of the saying: 3

John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature: you go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town.

Since women, for so many years, were denied the journey, we were left with only one plot to our lives – to await the stranger. Indeed, there is no picaresque tradition among women who are novelists. Women’s literature, from Austen to Woolf, is mostly about waiting, usually for love. Denied the freedom to roam outside themselves, women turned inward, into their emotions.

Also in 1987 Jon Davis wrote an article in the Spring issue of “Literary Magazine Review” discussing a journal called “Cottonwood”. Davis invoked the statement tentatively ascribed to Gardner while examining the fiction published in the journal: 4

John Gardner once said (I am told) that there are really only two plots: “A stranger rides into town” and “A man goes on a journey.” Both of these plots examine a man or woman’s ability to deal with an unfamiliar culture (and the culture’s ability to deal with an unfamiliar man or woman).

In 1989 a journalist at “The Miami Herald” named Deborah Sontag referred to the words of Mary Morris while sharing the increasingly popular adage with her readers: 5

Morris is fascinated with journeys, internal and round-the-world. In her last book, Nothing to Declare, she offered a frank, gripping narration of her own travels in Mexico and Central America. And in a column that ran in The New York Times in 1987, she wrote:

“John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature: You go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town. Since women, for so many years, were denied the journey, we were left with only one plot in our lives — to await the stranger.” Always, the stranger is a man.

In 1991 The “Los Angeles Times” printed an anonymous instance of the saying: 6

It has been said there are only two themes for all the stories in the world: A stranger rides into town, or a friend goes on a journey.

In 1996 journalist John Taylor writing in the pages of “Esquire” magazine credited Gardner: 7

The late novelist John Gardner once said there are only two kinds of stories: A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. The latter is the account of an invasion. It begins when the wanderer’s shadow first darkens the doorway.

By November 1996 the intriguing efflorescence of attributions had begun. The musician and mystery writer Kinky Friedman was interviewed in “The Cleveland Plain Dealer”, and he assigned the statement to a famous Russian novelist: 8

“Song writing is the hardest thing there is. But country and western songs are especially helpful if you’re writing literature because they deal with so much heartbreak, pity and longing. Dostoyevsky said there’s only two stories: one, a man goes on a journey, and, two, a stranger comes to town.

“I’ve written them both. But the best thing about writing novels is that I can do it anywhere I go. The inventory is all between my ears,” he says.

In 1998 a periodical called “The World & I” printed an article by Robert Gingher who referred to the testimony of a friend named Jim Schaap when presenting an interesting assertion about the provenance of the saying: 9

The late John Gardner, among others, often wrote and lectured about the basic plots of fiction. According to my colleague Jim Schaap, about twenty years ago, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, Gardner defined these as two: (1) “man goes on a trip” and (2) “stranger comes to town.” Gardner, whose works on the nature of fiction are probably as well known as his novels, noted that the first plot was more interesting because readers like active protagonists who either triumph or fail in their journeys.

In 1999 an article in “The Capital Times” newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin ascribed the saying to the prominent Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: 10

The basic story line is pure Tolstoy. Tolstoy said there were only two plots in all of literature — a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Pokemon is primarily a quest with some fascinating little strangers popping up along the way.

The 2003 edition of “The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature” included a variant of the adage which employed a parallel structure with a stranger appearing in both plots: 11

After all, according to author John Gardner, there are only two plots: a stranger rides into town and a stranger rides out of town.

In October 2007 an article in “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Sydney, Australia provided a variegated list of possible attributions: 12

Thriller writer John Gardner (or was it Tolstoy? Or Hemingway? Or Deepak Chopra? I can’t remember) once said there are only two kinds of stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. There is, in fact, a third kind of story, which is when a man goes on a journey, takes along his best mate, two really hot motorcycles and a film crew, and makes an amazing seven-part series that sells to television stations all around the world.

In November 2007 an article in “The New York Times” also expressed uncertainty about the ascription: 13

Someone — it’s been attributed to everyone from Dostoyevsky to John Gardner — once said there are only two possible stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.

QI believes that the words of John Gardner catalyzed the construction of this adage, but it was not clear whether he ever made a matching statement. The remark might have been based on an over-interpretation or misremembering of the exercise in “The Art of Fiction”. Alternatively, Gardner may have made a comparable statement that was not recorded or has not yet been located. The 1998 citation suggested that possibility.

The linkage to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and others is currently unsupported and appears to be spurious.

Image Notes: Mountain path image from Unsplash at Pixabay. John Gardner circa 1979 via Wikimedia Commons. The accompanying analysis states that the image is in the public domain

(Great thanks to Evan Kindley whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to discussants Sean Higgins and Carl Robert Anderson. Special thanks to Carl Robert Anderson who located the important citation in “The Art of Fiction” during the discussion. Many thanks to Charles Doyle who accessed the key “Coda” and “Literary Magazine Review” citations.)

Update History: On May 22, 2015 the 1987 citation for “Literary Magazine Review” was updated to indicate that the pertinent issue was the Spring issue.

Notes:

  1. 1984, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner, Section: Exercises, Quote Page 203, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. Year: 1986 September/October, Periodical: Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter, Volume 14, Number 1, Article: Notes from a Contest Judge, Article Author: David Long, Article Subsection Number: 7, Start Page 20, Quote Page 21, Publisher: Poets & Writers, Inc, New York. (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)
  3. 1987 April 30, New York Times, Hers by Mary Morris, (Hers was a regular column; Mary Morris was the guest writer for a few weeks; Morris was described as the author of “Nothing to Declare” to be published by Houghton Mifflin), Quote Page C2, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. Year: 1987 Spring, Title: Literary Magazine Review, Volume 6, Number 1, Article: Cottonwood (Review of “Cottonwood” literary magazine), Article Author: Jon Davis, Start Page 11 Quote Page 11, Publisher: Kansas State University Writers Society, Manhattan, Kansas.Kansas. (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)
  5. 1989 June 18, The Miami Herald, Article: A Young Woman’s Escape from Life on Hold, Author: Debbie Sontag (Herald Staff), Quote Page 9C, Miami, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)
  6. 1991 October 8, Los Angeles Times, The Whitewashing of the Valdez Oil Cleanup by Rick Bass, (Book Review of “Out of Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound” by John Keeble), Quote Page 8, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  7. 1996 April, Esquire, Volume 125, Number 4, Sorcery, Sunsets, Corpses, and Whores by John Taylor, Start Page 82, Quote Page 84, Published by Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  8. Date: 1996 November 17, Newspaper: Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: Sunday, Article Type: Interview, Article: Five Minutes of Nonstop Chat with Kinky Friedman, Article Author: Michael Heaton (Plain Dealer Reporter), Quote Page 6, Newspaper Location: Cleveland, Ohio. (NewsBank Access World News)
  9. 1998 April, Periodical: The World & I, Volume 13, Issue 4, Section: Commentary, Article: Trouble Comes to Town, Author: Robert Gingher, Author description appended to article: “Southwatcher Robert Gingher, at work on a study of contemporary magical realists, is editor of an anthology of southern writers entitled The Rough Road Home”, Quote Page 244. (NewsBank Access World News)
  10. Date: 1999 September 25, Newspaper: The Capital Times, Article: Pokemon Just Too Much Fun, Author: Joel McNally, Quote Page 6A, Newspaper Location: Madison, Wisconsin. (NewsBank Access World News)
  11. 2003, Title: The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, Editors: Steven R. Serafin and Alfred Bendixen, Edition: Reprint, Article Author: David Kirby, Quote Page 831, Publisher: The Continuum International Publishing Group, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  12. Date: 2007 October 29, Newspaper: Sydney Morning Herald, Section: The Guide, Article: TV previews – Saturday 3, Author: Tim Elliott, Quote Page 28, Location: Sydney, Australia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  13. 2007 November 4, New York Times, Town Without Pity by Stephen Metcalf, New York. (Accessed nytimes.com on May 1, 2015) link