Loose Leaf Episode 8: Has it all been done before?
It’s been almost a month since I sat down to create a podcast. Life is moving by slowly with everyone doing their best to not get in each other’s way. My kids work, my hubby works, I seem to wander the house trying to decide if it’s worth starting one of my many projects. The fear is that as soon as I start something, the phone will ring, or one of the kids will need to talk to me, breaking my concentration or train of thought.
So, I do a lot of nothing. My Animal Crossing island is starting to look pretty awesome if I do say so myself. But, that’s not why you’re here.
I do wonder if you’re here to learn about my stories writing in general. I’m grateful for the few people that have reached out to ask me a question.
Today’s podcast topic came about thanks to an Instagram thread message from a young writer named Nathan. I met him at one of the local high schools during career day and was quite thrilled he took the time to find me and ask for some advice.
Let me share with you what he said.
“I constantly find my mind wandering into ideas, stories, and plots that sound great for books. Writing them down is the only way I stop thinking of them. But when I actually try one it always feels too played out and overused to actually continue writing.”
After a few questions to make sure I understood what he meant, we came to this.
Nathan said, “I always assume that my story ideas aren’t original. Maybe someone did something similar and I’m just too uncultured to notice.”
His insecurity and reason for not writing broke my heart, but thankfully I had an answer for him. It’s something I’ve experienced and had to get over. It’s common for new writers to struggle with the motivation to write. Even seasoned writers might question whether or not their contributions add anything to the volumes of literary work already out there. Since there is no way we can read everything ever written, there is a good chance someone has already written about what’s on our minds. Probably even did it better.
And let’s face it, we want all our time and struggle to put words on the page to mean something. To someone, anyone! We want to stand out and be noticed for our creative genius. But if it’s all been done before, what’s the point?
Is it even possible to find a new story idea that’s never been done before?
Nathan, it doesn’t matter if you’ve traveled the world or never left your hometown. Young or old, educated or not. Every story idea has been done in some form or fashion. There are basically seven story plots that we all have to work with.
Here’s the great thing about that depressing bit of news. Only YOU can tell your story in your way. Every writer may start with the same basic format, but we get to decide all the details that make that story come to life. We put our unique spin on our characters personalities, the way they speak, their mannerisms, strengths, and fears. As the writer, we get to build worlds that may be just a bit different than the one used before, or totally different all together. We choose what events push our plot forward and how our characters react to them. Those reactions create side plots that can differentiate our book from someone else’s.
So, let’s talk about these 7 plots, look as some examples from each, and put Nathan’s mind at ease.
1. Overcoming the Monster
This is where the hero must destroy the monster to restore balance to the world. But what if you don’t write science fiction or fantasy? In the real world, this could be overcoming addiction, getting out of debt, catching and convicting the bad guy, or surviving an illness. There are probably others, but you get the idea. Sometimes the monsters are outside of our characters, sometimes they are within their own minds.
For examples, I’m going to use movies as well as books. Here are some examples for overcoming the monster: Dracula, Star Wars, and Sybil
If you think about these books or the movies, would you say they were the same story?
The monsters are a vampire, an emperor from the dark side, and a woman with multiple personalities. There’s a historic setting, one in space, and one in mental hospitals.
The choices made by the authors make the fighting of the monsters feel different and unique even though they are all the same plot. The hero must destroy the monster and bring peace back to their world.
2. Rags to Riches
A modest, but moral downtrodden, character finds a way to turn their world around. The riches may not be monetary necessarily. It could simply be them finally getting to show the world their extraordinary talent or passion bringing them happiness.
Examples: Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier), Annie, Cinderella, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Flashdance, Rudy,
This is actually a very popular main plot. I could list this type of movie all day. Perhaps it’s because so many of us see ourselves as that modest, everyday character that would love to be something more. I won’t go into all these stories, but it is clear that although they are about someone coming into something that makes them more important to the world than they were, the stories themselves are quite different.
It’s the timing, setting, supporting characters, and most importantly—the end goal. None of these people went searching for money per se, but they had a desire to reach a certain goal and went for it—love, family, security, getting out of the steel mill to be a ballerina, and playing football at your dream school when you don’t have the grades, money, or stature needed.
What is important to your character and how do they achieve it?
3. The Quest
Another one of my favorites. You’ve heard of the hero’s journey? Well, it fits here. The hero, accompanied by a varied cast of sidekicks and mentors, ventures out to achieve the prize, facing seemingly unsurmountable odds. But they eventually win the treasure, girl, job, or whatever they sought.
Examples: Lord of the Rings of course, The Lightning Thief, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Do you have a favorite in there? What are some I didn’t mention. We all know and love a questing plot. They can also be set in any time period in any kind of setting. One I didn’t mention, but think fits, is an old Disney Sunday night movie called Earth Star Voyager (which I just discovered is on Disney +) Their prize is a new world to settle, but all kinds of things go wrong along the way.
4. Voyage and Return
These stories are about everyday people who are suddenly thrust into a strange world or situation and must make their way back to normal life.
Examples: Alice in Wonderland, Apollo 13, The Hobbit, Castaway, Hatchet
Don’t you love how varied each book or movie can be while still being the same plot? I’d love to sit and talk about all of these, but I won’t for the sake of time. However, we have fantasy, a real-life drama in space, and two characters stranded and fighting for survival.
My question is this. After such an ordeal, do you ever really return to normal life? Of course not, the experience or voyage changes you every time.
There are of course movies that are simply “funny.” Slapstick or whatnot. However, this comedy here is more of the Shakespeare kind. The story of people who can’t seem to get out of their own way. Complications, sometimes ridiculous, make life confusing and bring about misadventure after misadventure. The goal is to unravel the mess and find your happily ever after.
Examples: Much Ado About Nothing, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Okay, so there are two Douglas Adam’s novels in there. It was just too easy. We could add Jumanji because of their misfit trial and error. However, that one could also be Voyage and Return when you break it down.
Which brings me to this point before we move on. A good writer can take a couple of these plot devices and meld them together to create something that feels different. Oh, sure, there is still a finite number of combinations, but think about it. Every little nuance of your formula can help you achieve something wonderful and unique in its’ own right.
Tragedy is something more than simply sad. The conflict has to be a result of the character overreaching their limits, or due to overinflated egotism. Basically, the sadness and pain are due to the character’s own choices.
Examples: Romeo and Juliet, Citizen Kane, Wuthering Heights, The Lovely Bones
I’m not personally a fan of Tragedy. I hated reading Wuthering Heights (yes, I know some will look down on me for admitting that) and I stopped reading The Lovely Bones after a few chapters. I choose not to wallow in pain for the sake of entertainment. However, I know some people love the stuff. You can turn on the news and choose almost anything on there and write a tragedy.
This is more my style. Like overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, and comedy, you get a happy ending. The story might start dark. Some kind of threat looms, the shadows are on the brink of victory, when some sequence of events (often miraculous) leads to redemption and rebirth of the character or world.
Examples: A Christmas Carol, Groundhog Day, Chasing Echoes
The first two may be more obvious. Scrooge is taken on a journey, witnessing a series of events that cause him to have a change of heart. He in turn makes his corner of the world a better place. In Groundhog Day, Phil has to relive the same day over and over until he also achieves a change of heart setting him free from the loop.
You may not have heard of the last book. It’s a new to me story by Jodi Perkins that was published in 2014. It’s groundhog day with two teens caught in a shrinking time loop. There’s a curse involved in the mystery of them trying to solve their problem before they both explode into infinitesimal particles.
Chasing Echoes sort of ended my reading dry spell. It’s young adult, which I haven’t read in a while. Mostly because the angstiness of teens in my house is plenty at the moment, no need to read about it too. However, the paranormal aspect of this one caught my interest and I’m glad I gave it a try. I’m even considering grabbing the next book in the series. The darkness threatening the entire story is a vengeful uncle you learn very little about in book one. Just that he’s there and trying to undermine the father in the story. Turns out the dad is father time, and he has four daughters—one for each season of the year. He’s the one that cursed the boy, not knowing his daughter would get sucked into it a few loops in. Her powers are what cause the loop to start degrading.
Okay, didn’t mean to devolve into a mini book review, but it sort of illustrates my point. I’ve read lots of stories where a teen discovers an unknown power that will save them if only they can keep it from killing them. I’ve seen Groundhog Day. Smash those two ideas together and you get Chasing Echoes, but it still felt fresh and new to me.
The point is, we can’t let the fact that every plot has been done before stop us from writing. It doesn’t stop us from reading, or going to the movies.
Maybe that’s the question we really need to ask ourselves. Why don’t we stop reading and watching when everything is simply recycled story matter?
Look at how many different versions of Batman, Spiderman and Superman there have been. Different actors, maybe slight tweaks to the storyline, but basically the same thing. Even my beloved Star Trek has been rebooted. And I love it by the way. There are multiple retellings of Cinderella and Pride and Prejudice. And when the live action Mulan comes out, I’m more than ready to watch it.
Why? I’ve seen it before. I’ve read it before. If it’s a waste of time to tell a new story that’s basically a recycled version of something else, why isn’t it a waste of time to watch or read the same?
The simple answer is it isn’t a waste of time in either situation.
As humans, we love to have a certain level of subconscious comfort. We like it when we can recognize the plot and know, “Oh, good. No matter how bad it gets, we’ll get a happy ending.”
In fact, when a book or movie doesn’t resolve the way I think it should, I want to scream. The patterns have always been there. When an author decides to twist and break the rule simply to be different, I get frustrated.
Does that mean you can’t break the rules? No, but you’d better be bloody brilliant with how you pull it off. It can be done. It has been done.
Do you have an example? Share it with me by commenting or messaging me on Instagram or facebook.
Before I wrap up, this seems like a good time to mention that there are also six standard types of conflict that we can use in our writing. Let’s touch briefly on the difference between plot, conflict and tension.
Plot is the series of events. They are the building blocks of your story, the road signs so to speak.
Conflict is based on the individual desires and goals of your character and what stands in the way of them achieving it.
Tension is the threat of conflict. You can have tension even when nothing is going on between the elements in conflict. Many times, it’s the tension that gives you the edge of your seat feeling. Once the conflict starts, you can settle into fight or flight mode and deal with the anxiety of what was headed your way. Make sense?
A good story will have all of these.
Back to conflict. Understanding your conflict focus will help keep your plot from wandering all over the place. Here are the six along with some examples.
Man vs. self—Sybil, Call of the Wild
Man vs man—Davinci Code, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot detective novels
Man vs nature—The Old Man and the Sea, Moby Dick
Man vs society—Katniss in Hunger Games, Animal Farm, The Scarlet Letter, The Giver
Man vs machine—2001: A Space Odyssey, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the book by Phillip K Dick that inspired Blade Runner)
Man vs fate or the supernatural—The Shining, War of the Worlds
It might be a fun exercise to look at those and see what plot pattern they fall in as well. However, I’ll leave that up to you.
Hopefully this has helped some of you come to terms with the fact that everything has been done before—to some degree. Now it’s time to let that go and embrace your unique view on the world and how that dictates your characters.
Throw off your insecurity and sit down to write!
Now for some personal news….
I have a short story coming out on July 1st as part of the Enchanted Quill Presents: Love Under Lockdown.
25 authors, 25 short stories in settings where the characters are stuck together in some place for some amount of time. There is second chance love, friends to lovers, enemies to lovers, and new love.
My story is Swept Away by River Ford. I won’t tell you much about it, but there is a storm, a landslide, and a cozy cabin in the Smoky Mountains.
This is a limited time offer, so grab yours now.
To celebrate, I want to give away 5-10 copies of my story before release day in the hopes of helping get reviews ready to post on July 1st. If you’re interested, email me at , and I’ll send you a copy.
Thanks for listening. Enjoy the rest of your week, and please be kind to one another because we have more in common than we ever choose to see. Until next time!