Every now and then a critic of lit or film or whatever will slag a new work of art for not really being new, but rather falling into some standing category. One person claimed that Star Wars is essentially “a buddy movie.” Another claimed that Alien is essentially a “haunted house movie.” One’s first reaction to this last is disbelief: How could someone think a movie about an alien infesting a spaceship is a haunted house movie?!

Then one realizes these people are thinking in terms of gross similarities of structure. Suppose your education trained you to ignore details of a movie you were reviewing and attend to the broad shape of the plot. For someone trained this way, interpreting Alien as a “haunted house movie” is not outrageously stupid. After all, the plots are the same, at a sufficiently high level of abstraction: some people are trapped in an enclosed structure with a dangerous non-human entity and are picked off one by one. To a person for whom ignoring details is not only not a bad thing, but is in fact a point of pride (“I’m seeing through the details and focusing on the essence”) categorizing Alien in this way is not unreasonable. In fact, taken strictly on its own terms, such taxonomy makes sense.

However, it is easy to see what is wrong with this approach: at a sufficiently high level of abstraction, all plots are the same: Some events occur. Does this mean all stories are “really variations of the same story”? Or how about this, which fits the vast majority of published fiction: Some conflicts occur. Then they’re resolved. So again, most stories are really variations of the same story?

Hmmm, something’s not right here. Details do matter, at least for the enjoyment of the audience, which is the ultimately the whole point.