It’s all been done before – let’s get that straight from the start. Google estimates that 129,864,880 books have been published in the modern era, with 62,000 new novels (by some estimates) appearing each year, worldwide. So for those of us who dare to write novels, screenplays, epic poems and comic books, coming up with something fresh and new isn’t easy.
Of course, readers like to know what they are getting when they open a book, so we mostly classify our writing into genres for marketing purposes, such as mystery, thrillers, romance and so forth. But the real driving force behind writing is our theme. What are we saying about courage, discovery, death, escape, love, loss, good versus evil, coming of age, or any other aspect of the human condition? How do we craft a plot and dramatic situations to express our theme?
While there may be a plethora of themes, English writer Christopher Booker has proposed that all fiction can be boiled down to seven basic plots. In his aptly named book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) Booker offers these categories of plots (with my examples):
(1) OVERCOMING THE MONSTER: Beowulf to Star Wars, (2) RAGS TO RICHES: The Prince and the Pauper to Cinderella, (3) THE QUEST: The Iliad to Lord of the Rings, (4) VOYAGE AND RETURN: The Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz, (5) COMEDY: A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Bridget Jones Diary, (6) TRAGEDY: Macbeth to Breaking Bad, and (7) REBIRTH: Beauty and the Beast to How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
That may be, you say, but surely there are an infinite number of situations for our characters, are there not? Isn’t this dilemma I’ve imagined for my protagonist unique?
Actually, no. In The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Georges Polti (b. 1867- d. 1946) established an enduring list of dramatic situations, used by writers and playwrights to this day. Some examples are Ambition, Madness, The Enigma, Deliverance, Murderous Adultery, Conflict With a God, and Crimes of Love. The list is available in several places online, so if you keep it handy you will quickly recognize each situation in the writing of your favorite authors and in your own work. That way when you are writing a scene or a dialogue, it may be new to your characters, but deep down, you will know that a million other authors have written about the identical dramatic situation.
By the way, it was Crimes of Love (a Lover and a Beloved initiate a romantic relationship which breaks a taboo) that got me thinking about this, because my next book opens with a flashback of two teenage cousins getting randy in a the courtyard between their family homes. It wasn’t until I went back to review the text that I realized I just wrote about a Crime of Love! How cool is that?
Now, I don’t pretend to be a literary talent, by any means. I self-publish simple eBooks and print-on-demand paperbacks, with a modest but faithful readership. What little I know about writing has come from a lifetime of thoughtful and voracious reading. So when I sit down at my station in the morning I know that it has all been done before. All I can do is try to write truthfully and clearly in my own voice, which is as unique in the universe as your own. I hope you do the same. It helps us both to know where the guardrails are; namely seven basic plots, thirty-six dramatic situations, and twenty-one letters in the alphabet to work with, every day.