Does a story have to be original to succeed? Indeed, can a story ever be original?
The answer may depend on how we define the term, story. I’m going to distinguish here between the terms, “plot” and “story”. A plot is the WHAT of a tale: what happens and to whom. A story is the HOW, the way the plot is related: in what sequence, with what stylistic devices.
There have been repeated claims that there’s only one story (Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Monomyth ) or seven (Christopher Brooker) or 31 (Vladimir Propp). Other thinkers suggest other numbers. In all cases, what they are talking about it plot, not story.
Even if there were only one plot, there might be a large (perhaps infinite) number of ways of telling it. Consider these examples of basic plots and their realisations:
|Characters converge — usually in high school or university — and then diverge. But changed! |
The Group, Mary McCarthy
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
Private Citizens, Tony Tulathimutte
A swindler is double-crossed, either out of vengeance or greed
The Grifters, Jim Thompson
The Mark Inside, Amy Reading
A character’s fall
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf T
The protagonist is deceived until the scales fall from her eyes
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
A woman turns down proposals of convenience and settles on an unexpected Mr. Right
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Jane Eyre, Charlotte BronteBridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
More at https://www.vulture.com/2016/08/encyclopedia-of-every-literary-plot-ever.html
So, while plots may not be original, stories can be. What devices turn a plot into an original story?
- The words. Evocative language can turn a pedestrian plot into a thing of beauty.
- Characterisation. People are individual, and endlessly fascinating in the way they act and see the world.
- The point of view. Relating The Three Little Pigs from the Wolf’s point of view creates a fresh story.
- The point of telling. This is the location in the plot from which the author starts to tell the story. A tale told from the middle or the end can feel very different from one told in sequence.
In these senses, a story can be original. Indeed, it must be original. If a story doesn’t resonate and hum, give me a sense of something fresh, a new insight, a new way of seeing a familiar problem, why would I want to read it?