A Stranger Comes to Town
& Other Newly Iconic Plots
Depending on the source, there are as few as three or as many as thirty-six plots. (Foster-Harris’s trio includes “happy ending,” “unhappy ending,” and “super unhappy ending” AKA “tragedy,” while George Polti’s more nuanced selections range from “daring enterprise” to “slaying of unrecognized kin.”) Seven seems to constitute the happy medium: story arcs such as overcoming the monster, the quest, voyage and return, rags to riches, and rebirth, along with the basic duo of comedy and tragedy.
I’d like to suggest four new variants from books and film that may deserve to be added. The reader will probably notice how often the work of Stephen King appears in this proposed evolution of plots. Coincidence? I think not. King is arguably our greatest living storyteller, and his imagination has shaped and added to the iconography.
Note: Many entries could be listed in either the book or film category, which I think further illustrates how iconic their plots have become.
A Stranger Comes to Town. The key element here rests on the uneasy detente between insider and outsider, an experience of alienation perhaps uniquely suited to the centuries in which immigration surged in many first-world nations.
Book: Needful Things by Stephen King. A new business has opened, complete with mysterious proprietor and even more mysterious stock. As the townspeople overcome their New England reticence and drift into the store, they find that their greatest dreams—or needs—can be fulfilled here. But nothing comes for free, as any good businessman or consumer knows.
Film: Witness written by William Kelley, Pamela Wallace & Earl W. Wallace. When the stranger arrives in a community that deliberately strives to keep people out, the potential for conflict runs high. This Edgar- and Oscar-winning script brings to life the advantages of Amish culture without idealizing or romanticizing away its limitations. And once the stranger in question has become an instrumental part of his new world, the true cost of assimilation—on both sides—is revealed.
The Peculiar Little Town. Yes, another “town” type of story. In this one, it’s the town that’s strange, while the new arrivals are necessarily the opposite: utterly normal, unsuspecting, and at first resistant to recognizing the travesties of this place to which they’ve come.
House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy, in which a New York City transplant and his family must battle for their lives while rehabbing a mansion in a mountain village that is itself in danger of dying. Also, short stories by Stephen King: “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” and “Rainy Season” in Nightmares & Dreamscapes. In the first, a couple takes a wrong turn and comes to a town that is magical, first wonderfully, then horrifically, until leaving becomes even harder than their arduous drive in. King makes wonderful use of dynamics any couple can relate to: the husband who won’t ask for directions, the desire for a break from the everyday. In the second, King shows the condescension of the rational city dweller for the superstitious country bumpkin. A couple arrives in town only to be warned of horrors about to unfold, which, of course, they dismiss, subsequently paying for this dearly. Would you have listened?
Films: Many entries in the subgenre of “house horror story” qualify, from Burnt Offerings to The Conjuring or the recent sleeper hit Get Out, but let’s use The Firm, written by David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfield, in which the workaday practice of law turns out to be a front for much darker dealings. So the “town” can be anything from individual dwellings to a whole profession.
Everything-Changes-with-the-Last-Line-or-Scene. Plots whose twist or secret is revealed only at the end carry an artistic risk, for there is a lot of material to get through, a long time to wait to be surprised. But when this structure works, it makes for an unforgettable read or viewing experience.
Book: Winifred by Doris Miles Disney. This oft-overlooked mystery takes the story the reader thinks she’s been reading and utterly reverses it at the end. In this case, the mousy and increasingly disturbed protagonist turns out to have a childhood secret nobody suspects. The transformative final scene rests on one last line—and really one word in that line—to flip-flop what was believed throughout. The impact is hard to overestimate.
Film: The Sixth Sense written by M. Night Shyamalan. Did you guess? was the question everybody was asking in the wake of the writer/director’s first smash hit. This story of a psychologist and the young boy he must treat treads the line of the supernatural—the boy believes he can talk to the dead—while giving us a lens into the vulnerabilities of childhood that is undeniably authentic and real.
Mash-up of Sacrifice by a Group and Reality TV. Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” created a reality where human sacrifice becomes a mundane and shared endeavor. There are four different sacrifice offerings (pun intended) in Polti’s list of plots, but none could anticipate the contemporary ingredient that takes this notion to an absurd—yet chillingly possible—level.
Novella: “The Long Walk” by—you guessed it—Stephen King. In this story, rapacious viewers watch as contestants walk for their lives. The winner is literally the last one standing. As with the film entry below, this new category of plot shares a reliance on a dystopian future to make the outlandish scenario realistic. And as with all great speculative fiction, as the years go by, the outlandish becomes conceivable. Anyone watched an episode of “Naked and Afraid”?
Film: The Hunger Games written by Suzanne Collins. Here the sacrifice exists on two levels—the televised games in which human contestants fight to survive, and which viewers from multiple facets of the social divide watch avidly, and the initial trade that heroine Katniss Everdeen makes when she chooses to participate in the Games in her little sister’s place.