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The Solution To Coming Up With A Unique Plot Is To Understand What That Actually Means

May 24, 2008
At the risk of spoiling the joke, I'll start with the punch line - there is no such thing as a unique plot.

There, that's got it out in the open.

Too many writers never put pen to paper because they can't think of a unique plot. They have plenty of excellent ideas, but when they sit down and analyse their creation, they see a strong similarity to this book or that movie and they wring their hands with despair.

There are a whole host of reasons why you'll never find a unique plot. Every reason makes sense but should never stop a writer penning that great idea just because it's similar to a recent bestseller. In fact, there's a good reason why it should encourage the author, but I'll save that surprise until the end.

I've been told by different sources that there are only one, three, seven, twenty or thirty-six different plots. I have no idea which version is true and I don't particularly care. It's an academic debate.

If you analyse a plot enough, you come across enough similarities to categorise is as one basic concept or another. So on a purely logical level, discarding a story because the plot is similar to lots of other books is quiet ludicrous. It's supposed to be similar - the academics tell us so - and that's why there are only 1/3/7/20/36 categories.

The next point is that we've been telling stories since we could talk. All the unique plots went thousands of years ago.

Now is a good time to pause and reflect on what I'm saying.

A lot of writers - the ones that get published - aren't really interested in this debate. They just get on and write. This discussion is for the rookie writer. I'll be more specific, this debate is of most interest to the wannabe writer. The one that yearns to write but feels what they have to offer isn't original enough.

The key word was in the last sentence. Original. Original is not the same as unique. Striving for a unique story is going to stop you ever putting pen to paper. Seeking out an original story is easy. Yet for some reason, despite their power with language, writers tend to get these two words muddled up.

If you listed your favourite books (or films) of all time and considered their plots, you'd be amazed a how many of them - if you broke them down into a simple form - were similar. Each is original, based upon the setting, the characters, the language etc. but none could be called unique.

Consider Walt Disney. He made a fortune recycling the works of the Brothers' Grimm. Did anyone mind? Hardly. His strength was in taking a standard story and making it original through the magic of setting, characters and dialogue.

Take William Shakespeare. Not exactly unique in his own right, yet his plays have spawned so many obvious remakes that were successful. Sometimes the story was copied in its entirety, other times an element was borrowed. Invariably the setting was changed - either to present day, the future or even using animals instead of people.

Think about the following:

Romeo and Juliet = West Side Story
Taming of the Shrew = Kiss Me Kate and 10 Things I Hate About You
The Tempest = Forbidden Planet
Othello = O
Henry IV Part I = My Own Private Idaho
Hamlet = Lion King
Twelfth Night = She's the Man

There are significantly more books out there that use one of Shakespeare's plays as a starting point. It's where they go from there that makes them original. Just setting Macbeth in the 21st century isn't enough. You need to make more changes to make it original.

I chose films rather than books, as the titles above ought to be familiar to all of you. The fact that they were based upon five hundred year old plays did not affect their box-office.

This brings me neatly to the promise I made earlier. I suggested that similarities to existing plots are actually a good thing (and I am in no way advocating plagiarism). As they say in all of the good washing powder adverts - here's the science.

Using a plot that's already been proven to be successful makes the story more saleable - not less. Think about it. The plot seems vaguely familiar but the characters, setting and actual reason for the conflict are new. This makes the story original yet familiar - a recipe for success. Agents and publishers will recognise this and will see it as a factor in your favour.

The only word of warning I would voice is to make sure that you don't imitate this week's bestseller. That's too familiar. Use the classics or at least something that was on the best-seller's list ten years ago. Make it original - take the element of the story you're basing it on that means the most to you and change as much as you need to make it your story.

You see, being original is easy once you know what to copy.
About the Author
Mark Walton is the author of 46 Ways to Improve Your Plotting, a self-help guide for writers. If you want to improve your chances of getting a story published then visit http://www.betternovelwriting.com/Plotting.htm and see how quickly and easily your writing can advance.
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