Looking at the number of remakes that Hollywood churns out you'd be forgiven for thinking that original stories are in short supply.
A closer look reveals that it's not the stories so much as the characters that Hollywood jumps on. If there's already a clearly defined persona out there that the public already 'knows' then, the logic goes, it's easier to get people interested in going to see what that 'known' character will do in a modern re-telling.
The same logic applies to famous books and stories that already have substance (that is, in other words, personality) in the mind of the potential viewer. The very familiarity of old stories lends them a mystique that can generate interest before anything else is known about the plot.
But there is also a theory that there are only so many plots anyway. Seven to be precise (although that wise dude Aristotle only identified six.) And that any story is really only a retelling of the same basic formats established long ago...
If you study screen writing, for instance, you'll come across the 'hero's journey' plot - that is, just one story that apparently we can watch a million times and not get bored - or even realize we're being shown the same basic story wrapped up in a different premise over and over again.
BTW: Film producers actually get quite sniffy if you don't have the hero's journey clearly delineated in your plot. So the idea that you can be original in a movie is a fairly moot point...
Aside from that, what are the seven basic plot lines that apparently underpin all stories?
1. The Quest
You've seen it a thousand times, especially in Fantasy stories. The hero must overcome obstacles, enlist the help of friends, defeat enemies, all in pursuit of some far off goal - usually the saving of the world - with the use of some magical artifact.
Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Apocalypse Now, Escape to Witch Mountain, the Narnia series, Conan, the list goes on...
2. Voyage and Return
Similar to the Quest model, the main difference being that the protagonist is taken from his 'real' world and thrust on a journey of wonder and self discovery in the pursuit of wisdom or psychological benefit.
The defeat of a monster (often a metaphor for the hero's failings) is a mainstay of this plot.
Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey, Back to the Future, Wizard of Oz - even many horror stories use this same basic premise.
Otherwise known as the Hero's Journey, where a protagonist must learn that adherence to his or her past life and values will not help them grow, change or mature. The largely symbolic 'death' of the hero usually occurs at around the mid to three-quarter point in the story, from which he/she rises again, stronger, wiser and in control.
Again the antagonist, monster or bad circumstance is an analogy for the main character's initial problems.
Every comic book hero has rebirth at the core of their story.
Other examples include A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, Transformers, even most TV shows that feature crime solving (Law and Order, CSI, Monk etc) often contain the idea that solving the mystery leads to a mini rebirth at the end of each case.
Comedy isn't always about what's funny. It's often about using the absurd to make observations about people at their worst. The best comedy uses its own internal logic to highlight inappropriate behavior that can lead to the the same kind of resolution as the rebirth idea. Wisdom through experience etc.
Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, When Harry Met Sally and many other rom coms, most TV sitcoms: The Big Bang, Two and Half Men, The Office etc.
Usually centers around a high status character who forced is into a situation where they are downtrodden and the important things in their life are taken from them. Often this is used as a starting point for a story - leading to revenge, justice, enlightenment, liberation etc.
True tragedy has no resolution - only the realization that self importance can lead to pity, a sense of futility and death. Clearly not the kind of story that sells well these days!
Much of Shakespeare is tragic: Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, but also The Godfatherseries, The Sopranos, even House, etc.
6. Overcoming the Monster
In essence similar to the Voyage and Return plot except that the 'threat' comes from withinthe protagonist's world, as opposed to outside of it.
The hero must defeat real or imagined 'monsters' to re-establish the status quo - often by absorbing the 'evil' into their world view.
Twilight, indeed almost all vampire stories, Jekyll and Hyde, Jaws, James Bond stories, Hansel and Gretel, The Hannibal series etc.
7. Rags to Riches
Often the hero is plucked from seeming obscurity and given great wealth and power only to have it taken from them. The story revolves around the protagonist's struggle to re-acquire their new status, through the defeat of a newfound set of obstacles.
Aladdin, Cinderella, Great Expectations, even stories like The Matrix and Harry Potter use this plot as a starting point.
I don't know about you but reading this list, it really does look like there's just one thread running through these seven basic plots.
And that is the idea that a story is about transformation.
And that unless a character is transformed in some way by the events they experience, then there is actually no story at all.
You may want to mix and match the above story plots into something you can use for your own fiction - why not? After all, it's what all great writers (and some not so great) have been doing since writing and storytelling began.
In Art, there's no such thing as copying, borrowing or theft.
There's really only re-interpretation by the individual.
And it's not about what you do - it's about how you do it, well or otherwise.
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.”