It isn’t news to most writers that there are only a finite number of stories in the world. If you distill a novel down to its core, to its very basic structure and motivations, it will fall into one of several basic plots, though how many there actually are varies according to whom you ask. Seven seems to be a popular number, though some will argue there are even fewer. If you’re interested in learning what these plots are, you can take a gander at Christopher Booker’s THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS: WHY WE TELL STORIES, or, if you’re more of a purist, Aristotle’s POETICS. But the point is, whatever you’re writing, chances are that you have not reinvented the wheel. Your story will adhere, in some fashion, to the classic storytelling structures we have enjoyed through history.
So how do you write something new? And what does it mean when an agent or editor says your work isn’t fresh, or that your story has been done? Of course it’s been done — they’ve all been done, right?
The catch is taking those tried-and-true plot structures and bringing your own experiences and influences to your interpretation. In his recent essay for The Millions, Madison Smartt Bell writes about arriving in New York City in 1979, a Southerner with an Ivy League education and a love of classic authors, but without a real sense for the state of modern urban fiction. His writing grew out of his own experiences of New York — his time spent in Washington Square Park, his view of Manhattan from Williamsburg in the days before gentrification, the economic and political and social issues of the period that he likens to a kind of war. These influences combined with his background and education to create his personal outlook — one that enabled him to write with fresh perspective and details.
It’s easy to see how writers have taken popular subjects and plots over the course of time and turned them on end, making them new. Take vampire fiction. If you go back and read Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, you get a very specific type of novel that addresses good versus evil, looking at the darker side of human nature through various elements, including sexuality (as perceived in Stoker’s day). Next take a look at Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. Again, vampires are portrayed as evil, but Rice takes you inside of their perspective, their lives, looking at the price of immortality and the consequences of having to live a restricted existence over centuries. Human beings play very little part in Rice’s vampire chronicles. While Stoker’s story pits man against evil, Rice places the vampires in the role of man and sets them against nature, albeit a twisted version of nature. More recent popular vampire fiction has made vampires the heroes, misunderstood creatures with needs that have enslaved them, but who love and yearn for a human-type life. Teen fiction, in particular, has taken the sexual nature of the vampire mythology and romanticized these creatures, making them more human and less monster-like.
But even fresh ideas can be used and reused to the point of saturation. When an agent or editor says an idea is stale, it does not mean your novel is identical to those already on the market. However, the chances are that you have fallen into similar patterns as the latest popular fiction, and they are more interested in a story that goes in a different direction. To continue with the vampire premise, the “good” vampires have appeared in many, many novels over the past decade. A writer searching for a way to write within the vampire sub-genre might do well to look back to the original source stories and revisit the evil vampires again, instead of hopping on the current bandwagon with another heroic vamp. Elizabeth Kostova’s THE HISTORIAN, while published in the midst of the vampire craze, did just that.
Modern stories that update classics are also a popular way of revitalizing traditional plot structures. Romance writers turn old fairy tales on their heads; sf/f writers look at classic quest stories and give them a futuristic spin; mystery writers look at old noir classics and give them creative, fresh surroundings. This doesn’t mean you rewrite Cinderella or The Thin Man; but if you have a favorite classic, there’s a reason you identify with that particular plot. Take it apart, poke at its components, see what makes you return to it again and again. Use what you love as the foundation for your own work, then let your imagination roam.
As a child, I loved the books that were split into three sections — top, middle, and bottom — where each section was a different part of a person on every page. You could flip the heads, the feet, the bodies, back and forth, creating your own combinations. Maybe you’d have a woman’s head with a straw hat, a man’s vest and arms, and a little girl’s legs with striped tights and black mary jane’s. Or the head of a tiger, body of an elephant, and legs of a dog. Creating a fresh, exciting take on one of the traditional plots that make up our literary history is very similar. You mix and match pieces of story, characters, locations, adventures, pasting them together in different ways until you discover something fresh that excites your imagination.
The world revolves around the same series of plots, the same stories we have all loved and grown up with over the centuries. The hero’s journey. Boy meets girl. Man against nature. The list goes on — but it’s still a fairly short one. What makes these old stories new is the writer. Take your dreams and aspirations, your experiences, the places you’ve seen, the people you’ve met, the conversations that have made you laugh, cry or scream; take the things that make you unique and pour them into your story. That is how you will write something that is purely your own. Happy writing.