Oh no, it’s another mad dash to the airport, where the girl swears she will leave the country forever and the guy insists he’s in love with her, you sigh to yourself. Everyone knows romantic comedies all have the same plot. Why do they even bother making more of them?
Well, how many plots do you think there are in the world, anyway?
Don’t get me wrong, I get as annoyed by a formulaic “plot twist” as anyone else. I never want to see another break-up where the girl found out the guy was really a newspaper reporter and writing about her the whole time, ever again. I’ll be perfectly content if think-he’s-cheating-but-actually-it’s-all-a-wacky-misunderstanding scenes are banned from movies and books altogether. But that doesn’t mean expecting every element of the plot to be completely original every single time is at all realistic.
Like I said in previous posts, ancient writers all let each other play in their sandboxes. There was nothing surprising that the bard who wandered into your village told the exact same story as the bard who was there three months before. Another story about the Fall of Troy? Hey, why not, it’s not like anyone owns it. And so people only got famous if they did something really, really interesting with the well-worn story.
Romeo and Juliet was originally The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, and end with the nurse being hung and the apothecary banished. Shakespeare was merciful to the nurse and the apothecary, and a classic was born. The Metamorphoses was just Ovid retelling every single Greek myth he could think of, and making sure everyone changed into an animal at some point in the story, but everyone agreed he told the stories better than anyone else. And shoot, everyone knows Star Wars is based on The Hero’s Journey. Just because we’d told stories about heroes before, didn’t stop Star Wars from becoming insanely popular.
The key is – it’s got to be done better. We don’t live in a time where plagiarism is allowed, so an original take on the plot of the latest best-seller won’t get you anywhere, but no one’s copyright The Hero’s Journey. Or the romantic comedy formula. Use them to your heart’s content, but do it better.
Because that’s the real source of frustration with the formulaic plots, isn’t it? It feels like the writers or whoever thought the audience must be feeling the emotions they want them to feel because they hit all the right plot points. Who cares if the characters are cardboard and have no motivation – they’re racing for their love in taxicabs through New York, so you have to cheer for them. On the other hand, if the writers succeed is presenting a hackneyed plot in a fresh and interesting way, you almost forget you’ve heard some of the plot points a thousand times before. For example, in Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, Audrey is chased by two brothers who are in love with her. Not the most original set-up in the world, but I still love the movie because Audrey makes me care which guy she ends up with. Or you can take the millions of re-tellings of Pride and Prejudice that exist, and I will watch as many of them as I can get my hands on, because the dynamic at the center of the book is so intriguing I want to see what other creators do with it.
Re-telling the story is not the problem. Re-telling it well is.
Cinderella is another story that’s been re-told a hundred thousand times. Can it handle one more? Call me deluded, but I thought so and wrote Prince Charming because of it. And since it’s free today and tomorrow, you can go here and decide if I succeeded.
What do you think, is re-using plots a crime against writing and the source of all formulaic books and movies? Or can writers dispense with being completely original once in a while to play around with well-worn tropes?