Time and again we’re told there are no new stories only new twists. So what is an aspiring author to do?
The bookshelves are filled with knock-offs and imitators; the screens are filled with re-boots and sequels. For years, critics have complained about the small number of story ideas. Just read Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, Robert MacKee’s Story or Joseph Campbell’s the Hero’s Journey.
This is itself nothing new. Mark Twain captured it in the 1800’s:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. Give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We can keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Plot, Genre and Archetypes
Consider: all Samurai movies are Westerns. All Westerns are Greek mythology. Or Persian. Or Indian.
The outcast detective is the lone gunslinger, or the Knight Errant, or the Ronin warrior. Jack Reacher is Gary Cooper’s sheriff in High Noon, or Gawain, or Beowolf. Batman is Sherlock Holmes, or Confucius (the literary rather than the historical figure).
There are seven story types, nine genres, eleven basic plots – or is it seven?
According to the experts, there’s a fixed formula to writing an iron-clad best-seller. It might be seven, seventeen or twenty-seven chapters. There may be three acts or four. It might follow a ‘W’ shape or a rising line on a graph – with some peaks and troughs.
After 40,000 years of story telling from cave-paintings to iMax screens, there’s very little new under the sun. Lucian of Samosata wrote arguably the first sci-fi novella – in the Second Century AD. And genre-mashed it with satire. And fantastical creatures. Not even the cross-genre, fantasy-adventure-thriller-satire is a new thing.
What’s the answer? Understand what makes a satisfying story; craft it; polish it; do it well and and make it new. That’s all there is.