Story plots: How to be original in 7 tips

Story plots: How to be original

When talking about story plots, ‘original’ is a word we often use. The word comes from the Latin originalis – ‘beginning, source or birth’. Writing a  novel can be the birth of a great career, but first you need to know what common plot clichés to avoid. You also need to be able to make familiar plot types your own. Here are 7 tips for creating original story plots:

1: Get to know common plot clichés

One of the most common errors beginning writers make is to rely on plot clichés. Clichés are frustrating because they’ve been hollowed out of their value through overuse. Dragons that go on rampages overpopulate fantasy worlds. Women in distress who need men to save them overpopulate romance novels. Besides these, there are many other plot clichés:

  • The chosen one: The main character has been selected for a task but there’s no backstory or explanation for why only this person in particular is capable.
  • Strange things happen but turn out to be the product of characters’ dreams (often all too conveniently for the author’s plot dilemmas).
  • Another example of a plot cliché, courtesy of Strange Horizons: ‘White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.’

In each of these examples, there is either a cop-out or an overused trope (a ‘trope’ is a recurring literary device such as cliché). In the first example, there is nothing to explain what is so special about the main character. J.K. Rowling avoids the cliché of ‘the chosen one’ in Harry Potter by giving Harry a past link to the villain that explains why it is he in particular who must fulfill the challenge.

In the second type of overused plot, there is always a risk of a cop-out. The revelation that characters have been dreaming comes at a moment that’s so convoluted plot-wise that a revelation regarding the reality of the fictional world is a way out.

The third example is a plot point rather than an entire story idea. But it tells something valuable about being original: It’s better (for creative as well as political reasons) not to simply repeat received, dominant ideas. It’s better because their underlying message may be untrue. The seemingly ‘exotic’ foreigner (or indigenous other) is likely to be just as full of flaws and folly as your main character.

To break away from clichés, it often helps to combine different story plots to make something new:

2. Combine the familiar to make something original

The dragon that terrorizes a town is a fantasy cliché. The strange occurrence that turns out to be imaginary can be too, but combining these two clichés can create something interesting. If, for example, a local inhabitant of the nearby town heads off to investigate, could they find the dragon is only part of the town’s collective hysteria? That it symbolizes something terrorizing the town from within? Exploring this terror could then become an interesting story development. Combining clichéd plots is like a chemical reaction: Something interesting could crystallize.

Create subplots for originalitySuzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, said the idea for the book emerged while she was channel-surfing. Juxtaposed footage of people competing for a prize on one channel and people fighting in a real war on the other combined in her mind’s eye. This resulted in her story of a society where there are compulsory fights to the death between young people.

Take the same approach to combining different plot ideas and make sure that your novel’s central idea doesn’t simply follow a familiar path to an obvious conclusion.

3. Know the 7 basic story plots and avoid their most unoriginal tendencies

In The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, published in 2004, Booker defines the seven basic plot types. Summarized, they are:

  1. Hero overcomes monster/bad guy
  2. Rags to riches: The main character rises to success
  3. The important quest: Character (or band of characters) goes on a crucial mission
  4. Homeward bound: Adventurer travels, has life-changing experiences and returns
  5. Comedy: Chaos and confusion give way to resolution
  6. Tragedy: Characters pay the cost of having flaws
  7. Rebirth: Character emerges transformed from a process of self-discovery

Each of these plot types has its own pitfalls to avoid if you want your story plots to be original. In a quest story, a hero might typically have a trusty sidekick who shows surprising bravery. In a rags to riches story, the heroine gets everything she’s ever dreamed of: The home, the handsome prince, the happiness. Think of how you can make these story types less clichéd. In a story where a hero is pit against a bad guy, show the bad guy in the hero and vice versa. In a ‘rags to riches’ story, a resolution that is bittersweet will surprise readers who expected a tidy but predictable wrap-up.

A path from plot point A to C via B can feel unoriginal and predictable. So how do you take common story plots and make them your own?

4. Vary a familiar plot with sidewinding subplots

Take the common ‘chosen young man is destined to encounter a great evil’ plot type. This would be boring if the progression to the final conflict felt very linear. This is where subplots help you craft familiar source material into something distinctive and compelling.

In J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful YA fantasy series, for example, Harry is on a path to a final conflict, and is a ‘chosen one’. Yet Rowling’s setting – a school for witchcraft and wizardry – allows for all kinds of subplots and smaller story arcs and tensions. The daily life of school, complete with conflicts between teachers and students and budding romance, makes the story zigzag towards its end and avoid the predictable route.

If you must have a dragon jealously guarding its keep, don’t lead your protagonist straight to it. Instead, create subplots that stop readers from focusing all their attention on the least original aspect of your story idea.

5. Be guided by original novels within your genre

Story plots and originality - the truthOne of the big traps for aspiring writers who want to be original is confusing genre clichés with genre necessities. Your fantasy world doesn’t necessarily need to have warring kingdoms (though this can be given your own unique take). Your romance novel doesn’t have to star the wealthy millionaire who sweeps broke, plain Jane off her feet.

To be more original in your own writing, do some digging to find out what novels in your genre are considered particularly original. Read a few and ask yourself:

  • What familiar genre elements (e.g. warring kingdoms or a suave, eligible millionaire) does the book use?
  • How does the book make these elements feel less clichéd? What complications/surprises/differences make it stand out from most books that follow similar plot lines?

Think about what your readers’ expectations for your particular plot type might be and actively plan how you will surprise them:

6. Thwart the reader’s expectations and preconceptions

When story plots seem original, it’s often simply that they defy our expectations. This can be because:

  • The story falls within a specific genre (e.g. romance) but doesn’t follow our expectations (the lovers don’t end up together in the end).
  • The expectations set up by certain tropes (e.g. Chosen boy has important quest) aren’t fulfilled the way we’d expect (the goal of the boy’s quest changes with a major plot development, for example).

To make sure that your novel is strikingly original, plan how you will subvert or alter standard details of your genre (be it the trusty sidekick or the devious villain).

7. Don’t try too hard – a little unoriginality can work out fine

Even though originality makes a story memorable, repetition is one of the satisfying elements of storytelling. A story that contains familiar elements lets us place it within a specific context and heritage. Focus on how you can harness familiar story ideas to your own ends, rather than make your story outlandish merely for the sake of originality. The truth ultimately is that fiction is most original when you express your personal, unique combination of perspective, passion and fascination in your writing.

Find and finesse the central idea for your story now using the Now Novel idea finder

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  • Jim Porter

    I took the concept of women who run screeching and helpless from monsters–bigfoot, dogmen, UFOs, or other offensive, smelly things–and turned it around. What if a tiny woman actually confronted many, and one really big one? And won? (Now that AIN’T punny.)

    I took the concept of spooky, mystical American Indians, (” I saw you in a dream my son. You were drinking from a spring that came from the nose of an animal I didn’t recognize. It had two great horns, one on each side of its nose, and the water that came from its nose was full of air!) and wrote them as guy-next-door people. The children play Red Rover, Red Rover and jacks. They skip rope. Some of them sing in the town’s boys choir. And not one of them has a vision or a dream. They get diabetes and gamble at their own casino. They are not drunk sad sacks, and not one of them rides an Indian pony without a saddle. Some of them go to church, and at least 45 or so belong to their little community Southern Baptist church. And, in history, the tribe’s Red Sash warriors and other men rode hard to help the Cheyennes the day that damned Custer and his damned 7th Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita river, but did not participate in the battle because they arrived too late. At the time of the story, the Aransa Tribal Council has passed a resolution that decrees that a state of war still exists between the Aransa and the 7th Cavalry. And the most beautiful girl in the book is one of the community young women, who goes on to become the reigning Miss World Leader and associate director of the Chingdu, Sichuan, China symphony orchestra.

    But, alas, the bigfoots are all sterotypical, smelly, and some of them do try to snatch children away from their families.

    • Debi Rose

      Sounds fascinating Jim.

    • It’s true, absolutes are risky (#notallbigfoots?)

  • Debi Rose

    I love this. Could not wait to read it when it hit my inbox this morning.

    Funny though, how I was only thinking similarly not five minutes prior to receiving your email.

    Thanks for continuing to inspire and help polish my knowledge and craft.❤️

  • JazzFeathers

    Very intersting article. I think that storytellers will always use the same elements and structures in a story, because that’s how it makes sense. Going after originality at all costs isn’t always a good idea. But I like your suggestion to combining different common ideas or looking at a common ideas in a new way.
    I don’t think we’ll never produce original ideas in storytelling, but I do think there are countless ways to tell the same story and give it a different meaning every time.Every storyteller has something to tell, something that comes from within them and belong to them alone. That’s the biggest originality of all.

  • Ger O Neill

    Excellent recommendations. I find it difficult to veer from the main plot to smaller ones.

    • Thank you, Ger. It can be challenging to do so and not lose sight of the main strand. It’s often helpful to brain storm subplots that support your main story event and choose between those that illustrate your characters’ personalities, goals and motivations best.

  • The story falls within a specific genre (e.g. romance) but doesn’t follow our expectations (the lovers don’t end up together in the end). – This could simply lead to the rejection of the book, no matter how well it was written, so I don’t think it is a good advice, while I agree with all others. Sometimes originality has a price…

    • That’s a fair perception, Elena. Although the indie movie ‘500 Days of Summer’ ended with the romantic leads not ending up together. The way the scriptwriters resolved this was by having the male romantic lead meet someone new right at the end. If the book is well written and an enjoyable read, publishers may look past some unconventional elements. It does also depend on the publishers. Harlequin, for example, has more fixed plot formulae they prefer.

  • I enjoyed this post so much I have put together an infographic to remind me.

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