Not too long ago, I touched on the idea of “Accidental Plagiarism” that is, the experience of writing something that seems original and then finding out that there’s something already out there that seems to have stolen the idea straight out of your head. It’s more common than I’m sure any writer would like, but it’s understandable. The more you read, the more you realize that there really seem to be no original ideas out there. That idea of having ancient gods live in the modern world? It might have popped into your head from seemingly nowhere, but if you look into it, American Gods, Gods Behaving Badly, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, mention it to a couple of people and the list of people who have used the same idea goes on and on.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon I’ve recently seen comes from this thread in the NaNoWriMo forums (yes, yes, I’m always there, I know). A poster stated:
“So, I had this idea pop in my head. Where it came from, I have no idea. The very depths of my brain I guess. Anywho, I saw this scene, and a story fell into place. A world where Death is a man. He knows exactly who is going to die, when, where, why, etc…. If he touches someone, they will die… One day, walking down an alley or street, a door bangs open in front of him and a girl tumbles out… She looks at him, and that’s it, he falls in love. The problem, he can’t touch her or she will die.”
I have no doubt that the idea did pop organically into the poster’s head, but what does that sound like? The forum helped with that:
“Family Guy actually does a joke version of that [“Death Lives” for those who care] Death is in love with a pet shop owner, and actually ends up touching and killing her at the end.”
“Sort of like “Pushing Daisies.” The guy there can bring people back to life with one touch, but then they die again the next time he touches them. He brings the girl he was in love with back to life, but can’t touch her ever again or she’ll die irreversibly. They have a really cute romance with kissing through plastic wrap and stuff since they can’t touch skin to skin.”
“Isn’t that what “Meet Joe Black” was sort of about? I’ve heard the movie described kind of like that.” / “Yup, and “Meet Joe Black” is based off an old black-and-white by the name of “Death Takes a Holliday[sic]“.”
“Have you ever read “On a Pale Horse?” It’s not exactly the same idea, but it is about the person of Death and he does fall in love.”
It hardly means the original poster shouldn’t write their story, but obviously the idea that popped into her head also popped into a lot of other people’s heads at one point or another. And, as I pointed out in the forum, all stories that use the “can’t touch the thing you love” plot tie even further back to the Ancient Greek King Midas myth. The newer stories might not have the greed factor (turning things into gold) but it is still the idea of a life where touching something will destroy it.
These shared “out of nowhere” ideas are so common that Carl Jung came up with the idea of a Collective Unconscious, which has been described as, “a universal library of human knowledge.” Simply, it’s the idea that there are some ideas so innate in us that the mere fact of being human means it shouldn’t be at all surprising when you have the same ideas as others.
Whether or not you’re willing to subscribe to Jung’s theory, people at least seem to agree that there are certain similarities you can break down all stories we tell into. The Reduced Shakespeare Company, for example, in their performance “Complete Hollywood [Abridged]” says that all movies are one of three general plots:
1. Boy Meets Girl
2. Coming of Age
3. The Jesus Story
They then go on to take examples from the audience and break them down into one of the three (in a very amusing fashion. I got to see them when they were at The Kennedy Center).
Of course, as with any theory, there are plenty of suggestions about the “right” way to break down stories.
Foster-Harris, in The Basic Patterns of Plot also breaks stories into three categories:
1. “Type A, happy ending” (the central character makes an “illogical” sacrifice for the sake of another).
2. “Type B, unhappy ending”(the central character does what seems logically “right” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice).
3. “Type C, the literary plot” (the central character’s decision doesn’t matter as much as fate [such as often seen in Ancient Greek plays])
Another suggestion is “The Seven Basic Plots”
1. man vs. nature
2. man vs. man
3. man vs. the environment
4. man vs. technology
5. man vs. the supernatural
6. man vs. self
7. man vs. god
Ronald Tobias, in 20 Master Plots, has twenty :
15. Forbidden Love
18. Wretched Excess
And, because twenty sometimes isn’t enough, Georges Polti gives us thirty-six in The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations:
1. Supplication (Supplicant must beg something from a Power)
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
9. Daring Enterprise
11. The Enigma (a temptation or a riddle)
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love
19. Slaying of an Unrecognized Kinsman
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved One(s)
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of Loved One(s)
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved One(s)
You can argue about the exact types of plot, or even if it’s possible to classify all plots under any amount of categories, but assuming you can (I believe you could with all my novels/short stories) it really shouldn’t be surprising that true originality seems to be all but impossible. Death falling in love? It could be 15 from the 20 (Forbidden Love) 28 of 36 (Obstacles to Love) 5 of 7 (man vs. the supernatural) or any of the 3 depending on how the author writes the story. And so, once again, it seems that struggling for originality seems futile. Does that mean we should stop trying and write the same story over and over again? Of course not. It just means it’s that much more important to know that it isn’t the plot that will make the story special, it’s how you tell the story.
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