A stage play, a movie, and a comic book can all have the same plot. And this despite being very different mediums physically, and even if they are set in completely different fictional universes.

Consider the following:

  • a traditional stage adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet",
  • the 90s gangster adaptation "Romeo + Juliet",
  • the exact same story but placed in Medieval Japan between warring Samurai clans.
  • a hypothetical cartoon version with the exact same story, but with none of the original dialogue, and where the Montagues and the Capulets are replaced by the Carebears and the Avengers where the 2 protagonists are BFFs instead of lovers.

They would all have the same plot - and this plot would be an objective entity - yet this plot doesn't seem to have any concrete existence nor do the individual performances refer to any physical objects or events in common. It is even possible that the author of the Japanese tragedy had no knowledge of Shakespeare at all, and the fact that the plot is the same is pure coincidence, and yet people would still recognize it as having something in common with the Shakespeare play.

So what exactly is the ontological status of a plot? Scientific theories and abstract social constructs at least refer to general classes of real world physical objects, but story plots don't, yet still seem to have some real existence? How can one be a "movie plot realist"?

If movie plots aren't real, then what empirical fact do they reflect that allows us to determine that the plot in the above mentioned 4 example is the same? Does the reality of story plots have any implications for other forms of realism?


We may split your question as follows:

  1. What is the relation between a play and different instances of it?
  2. What is the ontological status of the play?

The answer to the first is that it is the relation between types and tokens:

The distinction between a type and its tokens is an ontological one between a general sort of thing and its particular concrete instances. (SEP)

This of course applies more broadly than your example. Consider the following:

  • There are different tokens of your question displayed on screens of Phil.SE users around the globe. These are different tokens of the same abstract question type.
  • There are different performances of Beethoven's 6th symphony by different orchestras and conductors. These are different tokens of the same piece of music.
  • People say "good morning" to each other everyday. Each such utterance is a different token of the same type.

You get the idea.

Note also that this relation may be vague. For example, change 1 note of Beethoven's 6th. Is it still a token of the same type? Change 2. Still the same type? Change 3, 4, etc. At some point we get a borderline case for which it's not clear whether it is a token of the same type or not.

The answer to the second may be more complicated. It can now be reformulated as follows:

  1. What is the ontological status of types?

Well, what kinds of things are types anyway? Also, types are usually thought to be abstract. So do they exist, and in what sense? This latter question is of course another realism vs non-realism debate. For discussion of these two questions see: What is a type? and Do types exist?.

  • How different may two tokens before they're not instances of the same type? For example modernized versions of an old play. Or fan fiction with the same characters doing different things? Or versions with alternate endings? I don't know type theory so my question is at a naive level.
    – user4894
    Jun 17 '16 at 2:01
  • @user4894 It's a good question. As I said in my answer, the relation between a type and its tokens is vague - there are borderline cases for which it's not clear whether they are tokens of the same type or not.
    – Eliran
    Jun 17 '16 at 8:21

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