“It’s All Been Done Before…”

Image result for gladiator

Stop me if you have heard this one before, readers: “There are only seven/eight/ten different plots throughout all of fiction.” Whether you have been told that in person, through Skype, or the medium of a blockbuster film, it is almost guaranteed to have left more than a few of you depressed. If there are only seven to ten plots that writers can use, how can they create anything original? How will they ever stand out? Who will read stories which all rely on a handful of basic plots?

These questions and the depression they engender have led to this author’s abhorring this writing admonition. In just a few words, it reduces fiction to a staid, colorless formula. At the same time, it downgrades the writer to a mere instrument, an automaton in a sea of drones. Fiction – and, more importantly, its authors – mean nothing in this equation. Everything is a cut-and-dried or cookie cutter prescription, predictable and completely boring.

I do not know about you, readers, but I despise being bored. And I absolutely detest being told, even in a backhanded, apparently helpful way, that I am nothing but an insignificant mechanism in a sea of mindless machines. That is a bald-faced lie; everyone is unique, special in their own way. No one is born or destined to be a mindless robot; every philosophy which states otherwise is based on a lie.

That being said, the question remains: what potential is there for originality in stories if one can count the number of plots on both hands? This is a good question, future writers, and it has a thrilling answer. For within those seven or ten epic adventure plots, there remains a supernova of possibilities. Try as we might, no two authors could write the same story the same way, with the same characters, and achieve the exact same end product (a successful, wildly popular tale).

In fact, every time we try to copycat each other in this manner, the impersonator fails spectacularly. Just like the art forger who creates a mock up of the Pieta or the Mona Lisa, astute admirers can tell the difference between the genuine article and the forgery. Although they may not be able to put their perceptions into words, when something rings hollow, the viewers/readers will pick up on the dull echo immediately.

This is why Troy and Alexander were box office flops. They were very clear ripoffs of the much better Gladiator film, and people knew it. Gladiator was historically accurate, despite the fact that the story of Maximus was fiction. Marcus Aurelius had his faults, but he was a fairly able emperor, all things considered. Commodus was insane and, though there is no proof in the records that he murdered his father to assume the throne, it is not hard to believe he could have.

As stories, the tales of Troy and Alexander the Great are amazing. Neither really needs much fictional embellishment because the original tales and historical facts themselves paint a fantastic, awe-inspiring picture. The people behind the films based on these stories, however, completely ignored both the facts and the genteel arts of their craft. The result was that Troy and Alexander bombed at the box office, while Gladiator soared.

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In contrast, both 3 Godfathers and Ice Age were great hits with audiences. These two disparate films boil down to the same story, at least in their essential elements. In each tale, three men find a dying woman who asks them to take her infant son back to civilization. This leads to a quandary for the men, because they have done something to turn their fellow men against him. Thus the three godfathers of the baby face a dangerous choice: ignore the woman’s plea and condemn an innocent child to death, or return the infant to a society that hates and/or fears them.

Although basically the same plot, the two films are executed in radically different ways and the tales end in dissimilar places, which make them appeal to the audiences who watch them. 3 Godfathers is a Western that focuses on three bandits who discover a dying woman and her infant son. Their story ends with all but one of the bandits dead, killed by the elements or by wounds sustained in battle. Ice Age tells the tale through the medium of talking animals, where three disparate creatures seek to deliver a Neolithic child to his “herd.” This film ends with the three bachelors deciding to travel into the world in search of belonging and further adventure.

While each film follows the same plot structure, the end points and characters are entirely different. In contrast to 3 Godfathers only Diego, the saber-tooth tiger in Ice Age, begins the story with nefarious intent. Manny is headed out into the wilds to die after suffering the loss of his mate and son. Sid the sloth, meanwhile, was left behind by his family because they cannot abide him and hold him in contempt. So while both films tell the same fundamental story, they each do so in ways only the authors who conceived of them could have written them.

Though good creative writing teachers will explain this, others tend to focus only on the similarities between the stories, not on what makes them different. When this author began seriously practicing her craft, she happened to hear this advice delivered about plots. While it did not put her down for long, the fact is that this admonition was offered in a very sterile manner at first. I had to figure out for myself that just because there are parallels between stories, they are not clones of one another, and they never can be.

Journey to Excellence: I is for "Ice Age 4: The Continental Drift"

Luckily, I was able to come to this conclusion fairly quickly. A day of studying my favorite television series, novels, and movies put my thoughts into perspective. That allowed me to not only start writing in earnest, but to continue after my first failure. And my second, and my third, etcetera. Now this author can hear this advice, roll her eyes, and get back to work without wasting time worrying if her writing is “original” or not.

However, as this article from the Christian Authors Guild attests, the “it’s all been done before” syndrome is a chronic symptom for aspiring and beginning writers. That is not terribly surprising; to quote one of the Muppet movies, “people’s is people’s.” No two human beings, even if they are twins, are exactly alike. But we all experience the same doubts, especially when we are just setting out on our life journeys.

This is not to say that we are clones of each other, or that we are mere debris tossed about by a cruel, indifferent universe. We experience similar events, but these things occur to us in ways that are unique to each individual. Two people can look at a painting and have entirely different opinions of it. And even if their opinions overlap or share perspectives, these two observers will not describe the picture with the same words, or be impacted as significantly by the same things.

Just so, two people can tell a story that has many similarities, but do so in ways that are totally diverse. We see this in tales throughout time, from the story of Oedipus and The Argonauts to Star Wars and The Avengers. In each case, the story type is the same. But the authors didn’t clone their predecessor’s characters, settings, and messages in exact detail. They took the basic idea and then turned the story in an entirely different direction, gilding it with their own styles and perspectives.

Lemnos Island – And the Argonauts – video | NEW AGE NEWS

These creators didn’t simply avoid forgery to evade lawsuits for copyright infringement or to wow audiences with their brilliance. No author wants to be known as a thief and a liar, but there is more to it than that. We all want to make a story uniquely our own, to sign our name to something wemade. Thus Oedipus and The Argonauts are specifically Homer’s tales, while Star Wars is distinctively George Lucas’ story and The Avengers belongs exclusively to Stan Lee (and Joss Whedon).

It is impossible for anyone, no matter how talented or skilled, to retell these precise stories in exact detail and achieve the same result. Exchanging the names Oedipus and the Argonauts for Luke Skywalker and the Avengers does not magically make the characters any different from their ancient archetypes. Only the unique touches of an individual author, using the same plot but different characters and settings, can make a tale as extraordinary as these two modern epics without plagiarizing their original source material.

Truly, the world is full of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” to quote Star Trek’s Spock. Once we authors recognize that, the blank page is our Candyland. We can go in and write hundreds, if not thousands, of stories using a variety of characters and settings. The possibilities for wonder and beauty become limitless once we stop thinking we – and our creative ideas/dreams – are carbon copies of one another.

When someone decides to remind you that “it’s all been done before,” future writers, don’t let their words get you down. So what if it has all been done before? It hasn’t been done by you. Not yet, anyway. If it had, then you would not be writing right now. 😉

No one can “do it” just like you can. Physically, mentally, and spiritually, you are one of a kind. There can never be another one of you – or of anything you turn your hand to making. It will always have your stamp on it, even and unto eternity.

So get out there and write!

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com.

6 thoughts on ““It’s All Been Done Before…”

  1. Next time someone feels the need to inform you that there are only eight basic story plots, inform them in turn that there are only eight musical notes and eight colors. Our tools are limited. Our imaginations are boundless.

    Liked by 4 people

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