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In a comment on this answer, a valuable community contributor suggested that it is possible to be totally original in writing, despite the fact that other valuable community members have stated that it's not. Since the comment was in the context of asking about original plots, it got me wondering if there really are modern original plots.

By an original plot, I mean either:

  • One of the broad classes of plots as defined by those standard plot lists you see that was first done since 1900, or
  • A twist or combination of those plots such as reimagining them in a radically new genre that changes the plot's structure or a similar structural change.

What are examples of novels or short stories published since 1900 with original plots and what made those plots original? In your opinion, was the original plot successful as a plot? Why?

  • 1
    This seems subjective and unanswerable to me. How do you decide if a plot is "completely" original? You have to compare the two plots and decide if they are similar enough that one "copies" the other, a completely subjective idea. Even ignoring the above issue, there may be connections that you don't see, so being unable to find any connections does not prove originality. Finally, ignoring the first two issues, we lack a comprehensive knowledge of all the plots in existence, so even if a plot is completely original compared to what we know, it may not be original compared to what we don't. – sjohnston Dec 17 '10 at 21:18
  • @sjohnston - thanks for the input, any suggestions to tighten it up per here (blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/good-subjective-bad-subjective), or do you think it's a lost cause? – justkt Dec 18 '10 at 13:34
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    @justkt - I think it hinges on the definition of "original". If we can come up with a good way of defining that, then it will give us an objective basis for trying to find these plots. – sjohnston Dec 18 '10 at 21:17
  • @sjohnston - This doesn't solve the "not knowing everything" problem, but the more I think on it, the stupider my statement seems to me. We're rarely going to know "everything" in relation to a question. We just have to give the best answers we can with the knowledge we have. – sjohnston Dec 18 '10 at 21:18
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    @sjohnston - And yes, I am schizophrenic and talking to myself in the comments. – sjohnston Dec 18 '10 at 21:19

10 Answers 10

9

There are no completely original plots. There are authors who have managed to put an original spin on an old idea, however. But when you boil the basic plot down, it's going to be the same as thousands, if not millions, of other stories out there. The trick to writing a good book is to take an existing plot and add your own personal spin to it to create an original work.

  • any examples of the original spin in more recent writing? Any that really worked? Reasons why? – justkt Dec 20 '10 at 15:34
  • @justkt Well, off the top of my head, there's Twilight. It's the classic 2 Boys 1 Girl love triangle, but with a vampire and a werewolf. It's a classic tale that was reintroduced with characters that (some) people loved. It wasn't the exact same as other stories (the wolf imprinting on an infant solved that problem) but it had the basic plot line that people loved. – Ralph Gallagher Dec 20 '10 at 16:33
16

Writer's Digest lists all 20 plots. That's all there are. If you find a story, it will use one (or several of them) but for many centuries, this list hasn't changed.

For example, the nanobot story mentioned by Claudiu has the same basic plot as Golem (16th century) or Frankenstein's monster (1818) or Icarus (ancient greeks). There are minor differences (Golem doesn't fall into love, for example) but at the core. From the list, that's plot #10 TEMPTATION and #18 WRETCHED EXCESS and a bit of #20 DECENSION.

Here is the list (in case the link breaks again):

  1. Quest - Character has a specific goal
  2. Adventure - Focus on the journey instead of the goal
  3. Pursuit - Focus on the chase
  4. Rescue - Focus on the action
  5. Escape - Focus on getting out of something instead of getting somewhere specific
  6. Revenge
  7. Riddle - There is a conflict between what happens and what seems to have happened.
  8. Rivalry - The irresistable force meets the immovable object, i.e. both sides should have the same power.
  9. Underdog - Like rivalry but with a mismatch in power.
  10. Temptation - Examines motives, needs and impulses of the character
  11. Metamorphosis - One important aspect changes. Think of the old tales about people getting cursed and saved by love.
  12. Transformation - The main character changes, evolves, matures in many ways.
  13. Maturation - Confused, unclear character becomes sound, resolute, reliable. Basis for many stories which show how a child becomes an adult.
  14. Love - You want it but you can't have it.
  15. Forbidden Love - Like love but others don't want you to have it.
  16. Sacrifice - Character achieves goal at great personal cost.
  17. Discovery - Plot about making a great discovery. Similar to adventure (the journey is the goal).
  18. Wretched Excess - Watch a character undo itself.
  19. Ascension - Character solves a moral dilemma in a positive way.
  20. Descension - Character tries to solve a moral dilemma and fails.

Related:

  • 3
    "It's a bit of X does Y, and bit A hates B, and a bit of Q". Same as the monomyth: it's so general that it can be used for everything (like daily horoscopes in magazines, they always fit (especially when you want them to). And, oh, it's like "there's no new melody in music" (ergo: no new music) because it's the same 12 notes. – Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 18 '10 at 18:21
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    There are only 12 notes but thousands of ways to play them (hard, soft, fast, slow, you can use different instruments, or combinations, play more than one note at the same time, etc). So the notes are always the same but the play is always different. – Aaron Digulla Dec 19 '10 at 22:31
  • @jae, who says there are only 12 notes? Many non-Western music theories use more or less than 12 notes. – JSBձոգչ Dec 24 '10 at 20:53
  • your 'lists all 20 plots' link doesn't work anymore. I have found a version on someone's private tumbler blog but they reference Tennessee screenwriting. Thought you would like to know and fix the link to an official version of the list... – EveryBitHelps Aug 30 '16 at 16:49
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    @EveryBitHelps I think there isn't one. The list is from a book so there are probably copyright issues. I replicate the gist of the list here plus a new link. – Aaron Digulla Sep 5 '16 at 13:06
4

I think it probably depends on how much you simplify the plots. You can boil any plot down to:

  • Scene is set.
  • Problem arises.
  • Problem is resolved.

For example, the book Prey by Michael Crichton is about some nanobots that are unleashed, begin evolving, and start threatening humanity, etc. I bet no one has written about nanobots in particular, with having the story develop the way it does, but the idea is the same: motives cause people to do stupid things, a creation turns on its masters, etc.

I wrote some random short stories which might be considered original plots. But maybe more so because of a lack of a plot... but it is surreal, and surrealism has been done before. Here is one as an example:

Surrounded by water. Completely submerged. Swimming upwards, but the world is slowly darkening. Which way is up? That way which was left was up, but now going upwards the compass has reversed, the poles of the earth have reversed. A homing pigeon flies through the water next to me and drowns. I stare at its lifeless body as it transforms into a flounder and swallows me whole. A voiceless scream emanates from my body but the fish doesn’t hear me.

Riding in a bus, I realize I have just woken up. We’ve almost arrived at the Tsarskoe Selo. But in the stupor after brutally being awaken, I don’t know this yet. I inquire of my neighbor, “Hey dude, where are we?” He replies in a soft whisper, the sound waves wrapping themselves around my head: “We’ve almost arrived at the Tsarskoe Selo.” “Thanks,” I reply half-heartedly, already bored with the conversation.

The bus, speeding at several hundred versts per hour, smashes through the side of the Catherine Palace and we tumble out into the entrance hall to meet our tour guide. Her head is a perfect sphere with a diameter of three feet – “Thank God she’ll be easy to see,” I think to myself, my only anxiety about the trip alleviated.

As we look on, she begins describing various aspects of the palace. None of us ever move; her head is a dense black hole which distorts reality. Rooms fly by – bedrooms, dining rooms, studies, and finally, the Amber Room. A spectacle all of its own, a wonder of the modern world, thirty seven slightly distinguished shades of amber combine in an astoundingly scintillating conglomeration of yellows and browns. Numbers jet out from the guide’s head, slamming into us, directly driving the realization into our heads of the vast wealth expropriated for its construction.

We travel back through time briefly to watch how the German Fascists stripped every chamber in the abode of the tsars… a misfire, and we’re returned to the present directly above the serene blue lake in the center. As we plunge into the water, with growing horror I realize that my earlier hallucinations on the bus were in fact a prophecy. A pigeon flies past me through the water…

Is that an original plot? I bet those particular events have never been written about in that way...

  • 3
    "Thank God she'll be easy to see"... awesome :) – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 17 '10 at 21:42
  • Many modern novels therefore drop the resolution of the problem. Some even drop the problem altogether and are just about setting scenes. – Raskolnikov Dec 18 '10 at 15:47
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    @Raskolnikov - How do you still have a plot if there's no problem/conflict? Is it just a novel-length vignette? Sounds kind of dull to me, but then I've never really "gotten" Modernism. – sjohnston Dec 18 '10 at 21:24
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    Why do people read poetry? A lot of poetry involves a kind of plot, but the main goal of poetry is not really telling a story as it is a stylistical exercise. – Raskolnikov Dec 26 '10 at 18:17
  • @Raskolnikov poetry is just a stylistic excercise? That's sounds pretty cynical to me, and wrong too. For some poets, in some subgenres of poetry, it certainly is (I think). But in general? What about comic poetry? Or are things that rhyme not poetry? – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 4 '11 at 13:09
2

When it comes to the basic number of plots this:

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2366/what-are-the-seven-basic-literary-plots

from The Straight Dope said everything I ever needed to know about the topic.

tl; dr = Seven? Twenty? Three? Pick an integer. There's no definitive answer to this.

  • Why thank you! Very interesting, and funny. The best bit: "to simplify it even further, Stuff Happens, although even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust." Yes, Marcel. Where does he fit in? Or, how do we bend the monomyth (my current pet hate) to make it fit? – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 4 '11 at 13:18
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    @jae: Don't hate the monomyth. Think of it this way. The monomyth made one of the most demonstrably incompetent storytellers in the history of mankind, George Lucas, into one who created one of the best loved stories of modern times. To hate the monomyth is to hate a basic cultural tool that gives the potential to access the minds of an audience at a deep level. What should be hated is the inept use of that tool by people who want it to be a money making device instead of a reflective tool mirroring a philosophically uniting internal truth. – One Monkey Jan 4 '11 at 13:32
  • I'm with Neil Gaiman (search this wildriverreview.com/worldvoices-neilgaiman.php for "Campbell") – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 8 '11 at 23:29
  • @jae: If you're exactly as talented as Neil Gaiman, or indeed more than, then I look forward to hero worshipping you shortly. For mere humans like myself I'll take all the help I can get. – One Monkey Jan 9 '11 at 0:30
  • if I'm as talented as Neil, or more so, then I'm so not looking forward to being worshipped (hero or otherwise). ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 9 '11 at 3:32
2

Keeping track of lists of plots and trying to figure out if we can make unique ones or not is, in my humble opinion, entirely useless. Story isn't plot, and it's unhelpful to think of story in that way. And I refuse to think in terms of "there are no original plots" - because when I think that way, I end up seeing every story as a regurgitation of another story, just put in a different light. There certainly are those stories. Not every story is original. Not every story can be. Mine certainly aren't - not yet.

However...

There is a depth to the world around us, indeed to humanity itself, that is nearly endless. And every story (no matter how mundane or how fantastic) is, I think, part of our way of fleshing out the world and ourselves.

And that means that there are and can be unique stories, because we certainly don't understand everything about the world, nor do we understand everything about ourselves. And I think that constitutes a unique "plot" - a revealing of ourselves and the reality in which we live.

I can look at the world around me and find patterns everywhere - and that's fine. But if I miss the unique, the original, and all I ever see are the patterns, then I'm not really seeing the world, and I'm not really understanding the patterns, and I'm missing a fullness to a world that is otherwise a very dull and empty place.

I don't think plot is found in the patterns - the lists of 20 or 7 or whatever lists basic plots. Whenever we enter a new story and see these patterns, what we're really doing is the equivalent of travelling from California to England. OKAY - we just took a big step. But when you look around, it's not totally foreign to us - we still know that we're on planet earth.

I know I talk this way sometimes, too, but I don't even like the language of "putting a new twist on an old plot" - it's too synthetic sounding. It's like saying, "Well, if I can't leave California, then I'll just plant some different trees in my backyard to make it a bit more exotic. It's California with a twist."

Rather, I prefer to think of moving from the patterns to the original - because life is original. And so our stories (our plots!) must be, too, if they're to have anything to say about life and the world we inhabit. Tons of forests may look the same on first inspection, but not one of them actually is. When we read a story about character traveling from A to Z to stop bad guy X, I don't think that's the plot. Because I don't think we can just boil down stories to the largest possible pattern. That's the most unhelpful way to think about a story that I could think of. The plot is in the details - the plot is in the originality, the uniqueness of the story. It's in the character interactions, the world, the conflict, the emotions, the dialogue, etc. It's in the truth of the story.

All that said, here are (I think) some modern original plots (stories, if you will):

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

All of these books have their own literary merit, their own pitfalls, their own larger patterns, etc. And there are a lot of people who haven't been able to do much more than copy them, unfortunately, coming up with nothing unique of their own. But I think these are original, and they are so precisely because of the the details.

Can you create an original plot, an original story?

Yeah. You'll always have larger patterns that are familiar to us as a people, to our own common history (which is full of the same patterns) - but the plot is in the details. It's in the very originality, the uniqueness. In fact, it's the originality which informs and enlightens and reveals something new and never before seen about the patterns. And this is, I think, what every author ought to really strive for. And what every author, as an original human being within the larger pattern of humanity, has inside of him/herself.

  • 2
    What is original about Lord of the Rings is definitely not the plot. The extremely detailed and consistent setting is remarkable, and there are other original things, but the plot elements are generally millenia old, intentionally. – David Thornley Dec 25 '10 at 15:40
  • too bad I can't stuff this ballot, or I'd upvote multiple times. Reminds me of analyzing (and of course, over-analyzing) things in school, poetry for example. Reminds me of that A&R guy saying that he went to so many concerts a year and heard so many bands that he couldn't hear anything original anymore, all he heard was "they sound like A with a little bit of B and the singer sounds like C". Where's the fun, and the joy in that? I (want to, heh) write because it's fun, and want my (eventual) readers to have fun reading it. – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 4 '11 at 13:06
  • I'd dispute Harry Potter, due to this. – Joe Z. Apr 29 '13 at 14:45
  • Harry Potter could not be more conventional. Ditto Jurassic Park and LOTR. And dito Grapes of Wrath for that matter. All exceptional works in their own way (though Steinbeck is obviously head and shoulders above the rest). But their exceptional nature has nothing to do with plotting. It is all in the execution. – Mark Baker Sep 6 '16 at 22:46
1

From the perspective of The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti I would say about zero. Interesting and new settings, characters? Yes. Twists, turns? Sure. But at the core the basic plot is based on an archetypal situation that has been explored many times before.

1

No country for old men (book, haven't seen the movie) had a killer and a guy who found some money. Don't want to spoil it, but I don't think it can be fit into any of the tradional plots - no resolution of a problem, for example.

Kind of left you unsatisfied, at the "end", which is perhaps why the traditional plots are so ubiquitous - they "work".

1

All plots are entirely and completely original and unique. All of them. Every one a perfect snowflake of genius.

It makes as much sense as saying that all plots are derivative. I mean if that were true, you could make a movie about two dimwitted Canadian brothers, a beer truck and a haunted brewery and just call it a Hamlet remake.

Oh... wait...

But the thing is, Strange Brew is as original and unique as Hamlet.

1

In addition to the Polti book, or perhaps in spite of it, many writers argue that any story can be boiled down to: Stranger Comes to Town or Young Person Strikes Out on Adventure. In literature classes, you learn that there are seven basic plots:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Himself
Man vs. God
Man vs. Society
Man caught in the Middle
Man & Woman

Still others point out that all plots boil down to either conflict leading to transformation (in which you have a "moved" central character) or conflict leading to the opportunity for transformation, but the opportunity is wasted, in which case you have an "unmoved" central character.

1

There are an infinite number of plots. The claim is that there is a limited number of types of plots. This list that Aaron Digulla quotes is a list of types of plots.

Being an orderly species and liking simple answers as we do, we like to take anything complex and divide it into parts to help us understand it better. This means finding something that a subset of the objects we are looking at have in common, calling it a type, and continuing until there are no more instances left.

A truly rigorous type system would have no overlaps (nothing could be of more than one type) and nothing, by the very nature of the type system itself, could ever not be of any of the types. Coming up with a type system that rigorous is very difficult and arguably impossible in most cases. Most actual type systems fake the property of being all inclusive by including a category that is a tacit "everything else". I'd say that ascension and descension fulfil that role in this typology.

Once you put an "everything else" category in your type system, you make it impossible for there to be anything that does not fit the type system. But this is fundamentally a cheat.

But the thing is, no such type system is an objective truth. It is an intellectual convenience. It may be useful, but it is not definitive. Someone else can some along and make a type system with more of fewer types or types based on different properties, and as long as they include an implicit "everything else" category, their system too will be logically complete.

So can there be a plot that does not fit in this type system for plots? No? Does that tell us anything? No, because the catch-all categories assure that everything will always fit.

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