Writing the unique adventure

18 11 2009

Wherefore art thou unique adventure?

At the risk of spoiling the joke, I’ll start with the punchline – there is no such thing as a unique plot/story/adventure.

There, that’s got it out in the open.

Too many GMs give up writing their own adventures 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 story. Every reason makes sense but should never stop a GM 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 GM, 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 (and I covered these on the How to Plot series).

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 adventures 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 adventure 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 adventure writer. I’ll be more specific, this debate is of most interest to the wannabe adventure writer. The one that yearns to pen an adventure 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. Hardly unique, yet his plays have spawned so many obvious remakes that were successful in their own right. 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 Knight = 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. 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 workable – 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 and familiar – a recipe for success.

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.

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2 responses

19 11 2009
Buccaneers Guild

If you are interested in the psychology and evolutionary biology behind why the same plots always crop up in all cultures across the world then I would seriously recommend this book.

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

It’s taken me rather a long time to get through it, it’s packed full of stuff you need to grok before you can understand the next chapter. But then it took the author something like 20 or so years to research and write.

It’s helped me both with the way I think about plots for my novel writing as well as plots for D&D campaigns, particularly about what makes a plot resolve in a humanly satisfying way, and why we deep down feel the need for plots to resolve in such a way.

19 11 2009
abstractxp

Booker’s book is one I’ve read and forms part of what I do for both novel writing and games design.

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