Have you ever been giddy over an ingenious plot idea, only to be knocked down with the discovery that someone already wrote a story with those same plot elements?
It happens to writers all the time. It happened to me recently. I was so excited over the new story I'd written during NaNo, that when I found a similar story already out there, it sent me into the depths of depression for a few days.
But how many plots are there, really? Some say seven. Some twenty. Some say thirty-six. The point is, every plot out there has been done. Don't exhaust yourself trying to come up with a new and fresh thirty-seventh plot. It won't happen. Anything you can write can be categorized under a basic plot. If not, I'd like to personally shake your hand.
7. The Riddle
15. Forbidden Love
18. Wretched Excess
I went with the twenty basic plots, since I have the book. Hi, I'm a chronic plotter. Pansters run away from me, screaming.... But before you decide to never speak to me again, I do follow writing rabbit trails. ;-)
Why am I throwing such a constricting list at you? I'm finding it helpful in studying books and movies, to see what some have in common and how they're different.
"The Princess Bride" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" both have "rescue" plot elements, and both feature a "masked" hero. But we'd never think of these stories as similar. Why? One is Fantasy, one is historical. "The Princess Bride" has a make-believe setting: the kingdom of Florin. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is set in late 18th century France. They have a different focus. Save one princess, versus save many French aristocrats. And the subplots give them different flavors. Inigo is obsessed with avenging a death. Marguerite is desperate to save a life. Percy and Marguerite are married, while Wesley and Buttercup are not.
Want to do another?
How about "Les Miserables"? Talk about a complicated labyrinth of subplots, huh? Or maybe it just seems that way since there are so many characters. Transformation. Descension. Love. Sacrifice... So what is the main plot? I want to say "pursuit", since Hugo neatly links the destiny of his characters with that of Jean Valjean, but the overall theme is obviously injustice. (Number 7 in Polti's list of thirty-six plots--"falling prey to cruelty or misfortune".) Can you think of another story like it? The best I could do was Dickens' Oliver Twist and The Fugitive movie, which is pretty sad. Or maybe it means Hugo was just that good?
Your turn. What is the basic plot of Casablanca?
Did you say "love"? You're wrong.
Hey, the book says your wrong.
Ha ha, I heard that.
So.... The next time you sit down to watch a movie or curl up with a book, think about it. Play the game. Acknowledging plot themes can only make you a better writer, even if you're a die-hard panster.