It’s commonly held that in storytelling there are 8 Basic Plots from which all tales spin. Any story you can think of – be it Cinderella, Paradise Lost, or Thelma & Louise – fits into at least one of them.
8 plots doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? And then when you consider the fact you only have some 171,000 words of the English language to play with, the possibilities of carving something new and original into an 80,000 word novel dwindle to something far smaller than you first imagined.
In fact, writing a wholly original story is impossible. But fear not.
Recycling Is Good!
It’s a fact that in writing your novel you’ll accidentally use many plot points, tropes, ideas, cliches and themes that have already been used hundreds of times, and this will, in places, make your work similar to other works out there. Perhaps you’ll have a young character who has been orphaned and goes to live with unpleasant relatives, or a detective with a drinking problem. Maybe your novel will have the structure of an heroic quest, or feature a use of Chekhov’s Gun as a plot device. These are all things that have been done hundreds of times before, but that doesn’t mean you’re stealing, or that you can’t come up with anything original yourself. It’s just the natural disseminating and recycling of ideas.
Shared Human Experience
It’s partly down to the shared human experience of being alive. No matter how individual we think we are, we actually tend to live very similar lives and have very similar experiences: the food we eat, the gadgets we use, the TV we watch. So we write what we know, which is often the same as what someone else knows.
Beyond experience, we use our imaginations, but our imaginations aren’t as unique as we’d like either. We tend to think of stories as intangible infinite matter, limited only by our imaginations. But our imaginations are limited, because they’re shaped by the stories that already exist. So we feed off those existing stories in order to create new ones. It’s a bit of a literary ouroboros, and it’s the fuel of any writer.
Writing With Lego Bricks
Every writer is playing with the same set of Lego bricks. You have the basic building blocks that everyone else uses – character, plot, locations, words – and it’s up to you to arrange them into a shape that looks new enough to impress people.
If that sounds a bit depressing it shouldn’t. Just as you can build some incredible things with Lego, so you can create incredible tales with the raw verbal materials. The trick is to take those well-known components and build them into a story that people aren’t familiar with. That’s where the skill in being a writer lies.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have an original idea in a story, simply that it will inevitably be part of a tapestry of other, unoriginal, ideas. No story is completely new, original, virgin-born, and that’s fine. Every story is a collection of components from other tales and our shared human knowledge.
That’s the nature of writing. Accept it, stop worrying, read and create.
Please share your thoughts and comments below!
Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.