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  1. #1
    Tolkien Disciple Wayne Batson's Avatar
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    Is there such a thing as an overused plotline?

    I've heard it said that there are a finite number of basic plots for a novel. Things like "the quest," "the coming of age," "the discovery," etc. ...that all stories at the simplest level fall into one of the set number of plot structures.

    I've also seen books panned because "the plot is derivative." Eragon, which I happen to like btw, has dozens of one and two-star reviews on Amazon, the majority of which decry the story for being a rip off of LotR and Star Wars.

    Thing is, Lucas "borrowed" much of his plot from Arthurian legend, and Tolkien, all-time-master-story-teller that he is, borrowed heavily from Norse traditions.

    So my question is twofold:

    1. Are there plotlines out there that have just been "done to death?"

    2. What can an author do to revive or renew familiar plots so that they will feel original to the reader?

  2. #2
    I can't speak for the Eragon book, but the movie I felt was largely a rip-off of Star Wars, and I mean plot point by plot point: Young heroic character has older relative killed and house burned down, meets crazy old mentor, breaks into fortress and rescues princess while mentor is mortally wounded while fighting sorcerer (Hello Death Star and Darth Vader), heroic character retreats to secret rebel base, hero engages in climatic aerial battle with sorcerer (Think Luke and Vader over Death Star). Other fantasy flicks like Dungeons and Dragons and Willow, even if they had similaries to LOTR or Star Wars, didn't feel that slavishly derivitive.

    Phew! Okay, now on to the questions!

    Plots done to death? I think if you add nothing to the plot, it will feel worn out and tired. The neat thing about Star Wars was that it was those old Arthurian legends redressed in science fiction trappings. I think, as an author, you would want to say something that you feel someone hasn't said before, or has said and you don't agree with, or you think could be clarified, and so on. You can do all of that in the context of these basic plots. The Door Within is a coming of age story, but as you've also said, it's about finding out there's more to life than what we see with our own eyes.

    I do sometimes think that certain genre conventions might need to be scaled back some. For my first fantasy story, I threw in a no "dragons, wolves or lions" rule because they've all been done. What else could I add to them? Maybe in the future, lighting will strike and I'll include a dragon, but for the moment, I look at the fantasy landscape and wonder how my story would be distinctive. So I go looking for less explored territory.

    I think there are two very common plots in fantasy. I addressed one of them in a Spec Faith post: Youngster or youngsters from Earth are transported to a fantasy realm, where they typically battle a dark force threatening the land. C.S. Lewis did it, a certain author named Wayne Thomas Batson did it () and so on. And having digested a lot of Japanese animation, it's even more common there, so this plot is as familiar as old socks. Sharon Hinck did a nice variant on it by having a soccer mom make the journey. I tried putting some plot twists on the story myself in my revised Rigel Chase story. I think, even though this is getting to be very familiar, you can still do a lot with it by creating different worlds and looking at how it relates to our real world.

    Also, there's the "YOU ARE THE CHOSEN ONE!" story, which we've seen a lot from Star Wars, The Matrix, Dune, the Terminator movies, and Lord of the Rings. Here, basically an unwitting chap is yanked from his regular, hum-drum life and is told he has a special destiny, in many ways it's a variant on Christ's story. This plot, to be honest, is one I think needs to be retired or at least semi-retired, because the moment the bearded (or in Morpheus' case, the shaded) one reveals the chosen one's destiny, the suspense is pretty much gone. You know he's going to receive his special powers or whatever and defeat the evil forces, because "he's the chosen one." (I know Lucas made Anakin the chosen one, but he turned out to be a bad guy, and I still don't understand what Lucas was trying to tell us with that) I just think things like that, and old prophesies fortelling the hero's fate, really sucks a lot of anticipation out of the story, unless it's done really really well. I'd put Bryan Davis in this category because he made his prophecies into poems and put in a little wiggle room in the prophecies so that what happened next wasn't quite so obvious.

    Okay. I'm done for now. Phew!

  3. #3
    Tolkien Disciple Wayne Batson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by galacticlord View Post
    Also, there's the "YOU ARE THE CHOSEN ONE!" story, which we've seen a lot from Star Wars, The Matrix, Dune, the Terminator movies, and Lord of the Rings. Here, basically an unwitting chap is yanked from his regular, hum-drum life and is told he has a special destiny, in many ways it's a variant on Christ's story. This plot, to be honest, is one I think needs to be retired or at least semi-retired, because the moment the bearded (or in Morpheus' case, the shaded) one reveals the chosen one's destiny, the suspense is pretty much gone.
    Awww, mannnn, Jason, just wait for my next fantasy series. I am SO going to turn this cliche on its head.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Wayne Batson View Post
    Awww, mannnn, Jason, just wait for my next fantasy series. I am SO going to turn this cliche on its head.
    Ooooooo, thou has perked mine ears, M' Lord.

  5. #5
    Total Dork fantastyfreak's Avatar
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    How will WB change this ongoing cliche! I can not wait to see that!

  6. #6

    The Chosen One

    The Chosen One as overused plotline:
    I had to speak up on this one. I do agree it is a bit overused, but I still like it. I don't think it always lends itself to a Messiah figure though. I think what appeals to me is the fact that we are all chosen. We each have a destiny to fulfill. The question is, are we willing to make the choice to be chosen. I guess I am not a fatalist, so I don't expect a prophecy will necessarily be fulfilled exactly as spoken or written.

    When you know a character is the fulfillment of a prophecy, you tend to expect them to be infallible. As galacticlord said, you pretty much know what is going to happen. What I like, and what I am trying to do in my own writing, is to show how the hero/heroine has to make choices along the way that will lead to the fulfillment. And sometimes they make bad choices that keep the prophecy from being completed. The suspense comes for the reader when they wonder if it can be fixed and when they find themselves saying "you idiot, why'd you do that, you should have turned left like the wizard told you!". I enjoyed Bryan Davis' books because his hero does make bad/questionable decisions. I remember being surprised about that. I suppose my particular worldview affects my perspective since I've been thinking alot about how our decisions affect our life.

    As far as other overused plotlines, there is always the love triangle, especially when it involves best friends of the opposite sex. There's the evil technologically advanced alien plotline in sci-fi. Or conversely, the highly advanced conservationist mind reading aliens who think earthlings are animals so they can't be part of the galactic empire unless they prove themselves worthy. I think for me it is the overused characters that bother me more than overused plotlines. The brutish claymore wielding King who thinks only of war and honor, the wise wizard that never actually does anything useful. The superintelligent chamberlain who manipulates the brutish king. The sensitive prince who cares more for his people than his position. The girl who doesn't know she's beautiful and captures the heart of the sensitive prince who loves his people. I could go on, but I won't.

    The second part of your question is much harder to answer. It's something I ask myself on a daily basis. I think unhappy endings are sometimes an attempt to make a familiar plot original. I was just thinking about Robin McKinley's retellling of several well-known tales. She has done Beauty and the Beast twice, and although there are similarities, the endings are completely different and both seem fresh and original. I think a lot of people try to give their characters odd quirks to make them seem different. It takes the focus off the tired plotline.

    I hope I made sense. I've just been thinking about this all day, so I wanted to write before I forgot what I was thinking.

  7. #7
    author:chroniclesofsoone James Somers's Avatar
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    Lightbulb interesting...

    One thing I would add to this discussion is that engaging characters which are thoughtfully written can overcome the cliched storyline.

    As far as the chosen one storyline: I'm through book two of Jonathan Rogers "Wilderking Trilogy" and his young character is so well written that you just want to read more. The story even has a unique twist in that the basic "chosen one" premise parallels the story of young king david from the bible. The prophet choses him from among his older brothers, the youngest and smallest, a sheperd boy. He ignites the fires of hope in his bewildered countrymen by slaying the enemy's giant champion. this might seem like he's ripping it off, but it's been done in such a fresh way and with so many additives brought in that you have the familiarity of a wonderful story and the fresh twists that make it seem new and invigorating.

    I think if you can write the characters in such a way as to make them beloved in of themselves then you can overcome those cliches because the characters become alive to the reader and they still want to cheer for them...no matter the plotline.

    This is where the writer has an opportunity to engage the reader. Let me give you an example from ISLE OF SWORDS. Wayne has given us an evil villian -- nothing new there. We've seen the way-evil villian guy in tons of other stories. But it is the ability to pull you right into their world and their mind that causes the reader to become engrossed with them all over again--not on the basis of being "run-of-the-mill evil villian," but because he puts you in their head...gives you the unique qualities of this particular character. You see the villian for his individuality rather than his commonality with other similar characters in other stories. This kind of writing draws you in rather than repelling the reader.

    What makes DArth Vader such a great character? In ANH he was just run-of-the-mill...though we hadn't seen such a character in this manner, because of the great sci-fi and it was all new to us then...but now? NO, he would be very run-of-the-mill now...except for the fact that as the story progresses, we are called in closer to the inner conflict...something is boiling beneath the surface we can't figure out until--BAM!--"I AM YOUR FATHER, LUKE!"

    Whoa, baby...now we've been sucked in and it all thickens dramatically. Now we've got to know how he became evil, and what he will do when it comes to being ultimate baddie or redeemed baddie...see what I mean.

    Twists like these and making the characters themselves as real to us as possible can overcome the cliched plotline everytime. The trick is to look for the twists and really get the reader into the characters head...hidden motives, etc.

    James

  8. #8
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    My two cents

    Probably just one cent's worth (since I'm just a reader and wannabe author), but...

    There's a reason why certain plotlines are over-done. People like them. If a plot line works, writers are going to keep using it - and the reading public is going to keep wanting more of it.

    Of course, a lot depends on whether you're out for literary respectability or commercial success. If the former, disregard what I said. Go for originality. (Although, even here, I'd say the "originality" is just well-disguised composites of already used plotlines).

    If the latter (commercial success), then I think we go with what works - so long as we maintain a sense of ethics in doing so.

    I've got no problem, for instance, with Paolini borrowing from Star Wars. My problem with Paolini is his books are too slow. He takes too long with his descriptions. And the story tends to drag along. His books are much longer than they need to be. But that's my opinion. Otherwise, I have enjoyed both Eragon and Eldest. The book Eragon was much better than the movie.

  9. #9
    author:chroniclesofsoone James Somers's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BrianTubbs View Post
    I've got no problem, for instance, with Paolini borrowing from Star Wars. My problem with Paolini is his books are too slow. He takes too long with his descriptions. And the story tends to drag along. His books are much longer than they need to be. But that's my opinion. Otherwise, I have enjoyed both Eragon and Eldest. The book Eragon was much better than the movie.
    Brian--welcome aboard over here...and thanks again for the interview!

    I would agree with what you've said...in fact, publishers tend to look for well established plotlines. When something is so far out there readers aren't likely to connect with it, the publishers / agents will pass it by many times as unsaleable. Truth be told, people like familiar territory.

    I listened to the audio for Eragon. I enjoyed it, but it was very, very long even in that format. This is where I would have to give kudos to WAyne's books--he really does keep things moving along. I've recently finished the Wilderking Trilogy by Jonathan Rogers and this could be said for Jonathan as well. He really keeps things moving, so you never get bored. In fact, I'd say The Wilderking Trilogy goes right up on my best loved list--right next to Door Within. Isle of Swords is shaping up to be a great trilogy as well...loved it!

    James

  10. #10
    Tolkien Disciple Wayne Batson's Avatar
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    I think the discussion here is essential reading for hopeful authors. It's not that familiar or even cliched plotlines are off limits. But if you use them, then some other element of your story must stand out as particularly interesting: maybe your characters are so engaging that the reader will want to follow them anywhere. Maybe your setting is so lush and enchanting that your readers will want to read just to spend time there. Or maybe, beneath the cliched surface plot there is a "deep story" that hits the reader where they live. This is harder to do, but theme development, take home value so to speak, is what I believe separates a "good read" from the "book that is dear to you."

  11. #11
    Master of Devon
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wayne Batson View Post
    I think the discussion here is essential reading for hopeful authors. It's not that familiar or even cliched plotlines are off limits. But if you use them, then some other element of your story must stand out as particularly interesting: maybe your characters are so engaging that the reader will want to follow them anywhere. Maybe your setting is so lush and enchanting that your readers will want to read just to spend time there. Or maybe, beneath the cliched surface plot there is a "deep story" that hits the reader where they live. This is harder to do, but theme development, take home value so to speak, is what I believe separates a "good read" from the "book that is dear to you."
    In the book I'm writing, I use the "character in a murderous family" plotline, but the way it's resolved... not so normal. I'm hoping to lure the reader into a false sense of security before slapping them upside the head.

    Well, I like it at least!

  12. #12
    author:chroniclesofsoone James Somers's Avatar
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    Thumbs up

    Quote Originally Posted by alexrider12 View Post
    In the book I'm writing, I use the "character in a murderous family" plotline, but the way it's resolved... not so normal. I'm hoping to lure the reader into a false sense of security before slapping them upside the head.

    Well, I like it at least!
    Sounds cool, ALEXRIDER--BTW I loved the Alex Rider novel series. I think Scorpia and Arkangel were my favorites. Very cool.

    James

  13. #13
    Reg. Prof. of Chronology SheepSalesman's Avatar
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    A professor of a friend of mine said it best:

    There's only one story. There's everyday life and then something different happens. The rest is just details.

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