Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1998 Dorian Scott Cole
Nothing New Under the Sun?
"There is nothing new under the sun." Heard that one before? Or how about, "There are only thirty six basic plots?" And of course, "I knew what was going to happen from the first minute." Or, "Another multiple personality story." But around four hundred movies are made every year, plus all the TV sitcoms, and video stores are seeing a lot of movies made specifically for them. How can they be called original?
Yes, human beings are basically alike and face mostly variations of the same array of problems. There really are only about thirty six basic plots. And you will find it very difficult to find a topic that hasn't been done before. And undoubtedly if you write a story or a scene, within three years you will see something very similar done in some other writer's story, even if your script sits in a closet where only telepathics can reach it. Several years ago I wrote a spy novel set in the Middle East. No one was writing about Arab/Israeli relations at the time. Before I could send it to a publisher, John LeCarre hit the market with a novel with a similar theme. Great minds think alike (unlike his, mine sputters and backfires a lot).
What makes stories different is the outcome and subplots. Let's say John (not LeCarre) is involved with a mistress. What will his wife do? What will his mistress do? What will John do? How will it all be resolved? His wife might: kill him, fight for him, divorce him, ignore it, join them, mutilate him, become hateful, kill the mistress, kill herself, move them, change her repulsive behavior, take a lover, have a child, get a travel job, leave temporarily.... Each character has a wide range of actions they could take, but these will be determined by his history and his motivations.
Each action a character takes will draw a reaction from another character. If a character has a choice of at least fifteen actions, and the other character could react in fifteen different ways, then each action could result in at least two hundred twenty five different story lines. The next reaction could result in three thousand three hundred seventy five story lines. Then 50,625; then 759,375.... So the number of original stories is limited only by your imagination and honest characterization.
Subplots add another dimension to stories, and if two subplots are used which intertwine with the main plot to help develop it, there are millions of variations to the main plot. Why then do writers create material that jumps into the same rut as other stories? Probably because the writer has limited interests and creates characters who mirror himself. So stories tend to be like other stories the writer likes, and the character has a limited range of choices.
1) Choose themes that are fresh and not overdone - don't write westerns if the season has been saturated with westerns. By the time you get your script to an agent, Hollywood has moved on. Don't write plots with parents seeking adopted children if recent stories have already fully explored that theme.
2) List a large number of character actions your character could take, and go with it. List the reactions the other character could choose and go with one.
3) Try to put surprises in the story so it isn't predictable. When Trudy is about to do the natural, predictable thing and leave her cheating husband, have a friend suggest she do the unnatural thing and show up to join them. How will John react? Your story will be a lot more fun for you to write.
Last Resort Mind Stretching Techniques
Can't come up with a unique plot? Everything normal has already been done? Real life is often stranger than fiction, so try these techniques for building a plot:
1) Go to unique areas and meet some unique people. Get to know them. Talk to them. See how they think and act. Find out the bizarre things they have done. Ask how they would handle different situations - many people would carry through with what they say. A guy who got fed up with his TV actually shot the TV. A man who got tired of having his watermelons stolen, actually shot a young man stealing watermelons. In recent history, three different people involved in financial frauds left the St. Louis area. One left the state with his wife, faked his death, and disappeared, to be discovered living in another state. Two brothers escaped with their fortune to Argentina, where they have evaded deportation. A man accused of real estate fraud simply disappeared.
2) Think up three completely bizarre, zany, far fetched actions your character could take for a situation. For example, faced with being fired from his janitorial job, Zulu: 1) Starts a competitive company and takes all the other workers with him. 2) Convinces the board of directors to make him CEO. 3) Holds the Sears Tower hostage to get his job back. None of these things are what a janitor would normally do, but a credible story can come from any of them. To start a competitive company, Zulu might know that most of his fellow employees are disgruntled because of poor management and mistreatment. He might have insider information (gleaned from waste baskets and overheard conversations) which will revolutionize the business, and he might know of a competitor being driven out of business, so their structure is available.
To convince the board of directors, he might romance the CEO’s daughter plus have incriminating evidence on the CEO; so the CEO is motivated to bribe him by making him Vice President. Once in the office, he quickly gains the counsel of disgruntled employees, consolidates his power base, and unseats the CEO.
To hold the Sears Tower Hostage, he might accidentally damage the electrical room while cleaning and cause a power outage. Out of fear of being fired or arrested, he might lock himself in and refuse to open the doors. Only a few people at a time can leave the building because the elevators are out. Word spreads through the entire building about what is happening and why. His boss, a tyrant and an unfair taskmaster, is taken to task by everyone in the building and is asked to resign for creating an atmosphere in which such a thing can happen. The story is written up in the Chicago Tribune and he becomes a workingman's hero.
After coming up with bizarre actions, eliminate the ones that won't work and keep the one that will. You can always tone it down if it is "over the top," that is, too far out or too incredible.