Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A Familiar Plot: Adding Something New to an Old Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In Saturday's post, I was talking about plots we see all the time the importance of being original. It dawned on me that it could have been taken to mean that using a tried and true plot was dooming yourself to failure.

Not so.

Any plot can be made fresh with a new twist. It's our jobs as writers to put the brain cells to work and think up those twists. Even when we can see the end coming a mile away, getting there is most of the fun. My love of underdog sports movies is a classic example. I know the underdogs are going to win, but I'm on the edge of my seat anyway, and I cheer when they do win.

A unique character can add a new dimension to a well-known story. Gregory McGuire took the world by storm by writing The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's perspective in Wicked. Spielberg's idea of a grown up Peter Pan in Hook was sheer genius.

A unique setting can also add depth and dimension. Clueless is just Jane Austen for the modern day, but giving it a teen setting made a classic story fresh again.

So, finding the original and fresh in your work is vital, but you have a million ways to do that. Don't fret if your idea is tried and true, as long as you try it in a way that's uniquely true to you.


  1. I agree, except that when you do use someone else's work, shouldn't it be consistent with the original? Hook had a lot of mistakes in it. There's a Pan story that's faithful to Barrie... click my name. :)

  2. I read an article saying just the same thing in a British writers magazine. It said that any plot can get a fresh twish if written by the point of view of another character, or put in a different setting.

  3. Thanks for the link! That's a really interesting question. I think it would probably depend on what the goal of the story was. If you're trying to do a faithful recreation or a sequel, then yes, staying true to the original would likely be a good idea. But if the material inspires you, and you're trying to put a fresh spin on it, then you'd probably have to change something about it to do that. Otherwise, you're not putting a fresh spin on it, you're just telling the same story again, right?

    And remember, we're talking about premise here, not a specific story. I used specifics as examples, but it also applies to general plots we see all the time. Love triangles, portal stories, young person learns they have supernatural powers and must stop something bad, etc.

    "Hook" took the Peter Pan concept and created a great premise: What if Peter Pan grew up? I think the key here is concept. Spielberg wasn't trying to tell Peter Pan over again, he was using it as a jumping off point to a new story.

    Another example just hit's very hard to tell a boy going to magic school story since Harry Potter came out. That's a premise that is now so iconic it's the first thing everyone thinks about. But Katheen Duey did a boy at magic school in "Skin Hunger" and you'd NEVER compare it to Potter. She did a fantastic twist on an old concept. A boy at magic school is hardly original, but lots of authors have put their unique take on it, from Duey to Rowling, to Duanne to Pierce.

  4. The Never Fairy8/06/2009 12:40 PM

    Right, but my point is that in the original story, Captain Hook died. He couldn't come back for Peter Pan's kids even if he did grow up. And there are other facts wrong, such as the names of Wendy's descendants. He didn't put a new spin on it exactly, he wanted it to be a subsequent story. A sequel shouldn't contradict the original.

    Otherwise, a "fresh take" on a story is fine.

  5. Ah okies, I see your point.