Creating an (Un)Original Story Idea

It seems that Hollywood finds no story sacred. Not Annie. Not Ghostbusters. Not even Psycho. They will repackage, rebrand, and reboot anything if the bottom line makes sense. And why wouldn’t they? It’s a business – the business of storytelling.

Yet, I can’t believe that they have plans to remake movies that are the bedrock of my childhood, like Flight of the Navigator and The Never Ending Story. They already marred my memory of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Have they no shame? No new ideas?

Or…is it that Christopher Booker was right? Are there only seven story plots in existence that we’re destined to repeat again, and again, and…

As a writer, the suggestion is discomforting. And reassuring. It means we are not on the hook to create something out of nothing. We are merely tasked to make something that already exists into our very own.

According to Booker, what exists can be boiled down into a tidy little list. When a protagonist first arrives on the page, it is to do one of seven things:

  1. Conquer the Monster - The Hero learns of an evil threatening the land and sets out to destroy it. (Star Wars, James Bond)
  2. Rags to Riches - Surrounded by oppressors, the Hero slowly matures into a man worthy of the riches, kingdom, and mate he deserves and eventually gets. (Cinderella, Great Expectations)
  3. The Quest - The Hero learns of a McGuffin that he desperately needs to find and sets out to find it, often with his posse and against some serious obstacles. (The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter)
  4. Voyage and Return - The Hero heads off into a strange land with maddening rules, ultimately triumphs over the chaos and returns with the experience. (Gone with the Wind, Alice in Wonderland)
  5. Comedy – The Hero triumphs over adverse circumstances, mass confusion and miscommunication to be with someone, always with a happy ending. (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones Diary)
  6. Tragedy - This is the opposite of Conquering the Monster. The protagonist is the Villain, and we’re given a front row seat to his downward spiral before his ultimate defeat. (Breaking Bad, Julius Caesar)
  7. Rebirth – This is Tragedy, with the end trimmed off and replaced by the protagonist realizing the error of his ways before it’s too late. (Despicable Me, A Christmas Carol)

If your work-in-progress resembles one of these, or any combination of these, then congratulations are in order. It means you’re doing something right.

Audiences find comfort in hearing stories they already know. Hollywood has made unfathomable amounts of money doing just this. Mental Floss accumulated a list of 25 Movies with Similar Plots Released in the Same Year. In the same year!

Did I mention they’re remaking My Fair Lady and Mad Max? It’s appalling. It’s an atrocity. Ignore me while I stand in line.

I’m not going because I’m a chump (though I might be) but because these stories, retitled or not, resonate with a shared human experience that cannot be denied. I identified with them back when, and chances are I will again. If I can’t relate to a story in some way, then it’s failed me.

Story tropes exist for the same reason as clichés. People count on them because they are tried and true. (See what I did there?) Both, when well used, are impactful. Useful. Necessary.

The point is, if you look down at your story and are worried it’s already been told before – don’t spend another second thinking about it. It has. A million times. The only difference is that it hasn’t been told by you. Accept that regurgitation is part of writing, and just do your best not to regurgitate the same way as the guy next to you. We’d all do well to acknowledge there is at least a portion of our stories that are really someone else’s. Pultizer Prize winner Jane Smiley had no qualms pointing out her book, A Thousand Acres, was King Lear retold.

Beyond that, write with the motivation that if you don’t get around to telling your story, eventually somebody else will. And they might even make a movie out of it. Or two.