When a Dog is Really a Penguin

You know there’s only a limited number of basic plot lines, right? Anywhere between three and ten-ish, depending on whose particular breakdown is currently in vogue. So why are you bothering? I mean, you won’t ever write anything original. And without something original, how do you ever expect to be published?

Let’s think about chocolate for a minute. The basic ingredients for making it are the same the world over, but we all know there’s chocolate and chocolate. The source of the ingredients makes a difference, the percentage of cocoa makes a difference, the temperature at which it is blended (and indeed, served) makes a difference. There are myriad versions of the stuff, but they’re all still chocolate.

Plot lines are no different. A monster story will always be a monster story. But if I used ten drops of ‘the essence of terror’ and omitted the ‘tincture of tenderness’ I’d definitely have something a tad more frightening than Milton the Monster.

It’s the blending, the tweaking, the coaxing, the downright pummelling of those basic plots that makes for variation. Okay, so that alone won’t make any story completely original. But that’s where you, the story teller comes in.

If I asked a room full of people to write their version of a well known fairytale, I’d have a room full of variation at the end. Yes the plot would be the same, but every example would be unique in that the language used, the descriptors, the dialogue, the style, and the combinations thereof, would be different.

Only you can tell a story in your particular way. And that’s part of what makes it original. The other is to do with perspective. It’s about which points are most salient to you, the writer.

Think about the movie Maleficent. The story here is still The Sleeping Beauty, but by giving the ‘villain’ a voice, the rendering of it is vastly different from the version most of us are more familiar with.

Perspective can also be about interpretation. The drawing above is something my daughter sketched when she was four years old. To her it shows our dog with a kid-sized football in her mouth. Turn it sideways and yes, I can see that. But I first saw it from the viewpoint I’ve shown. With my adult perspective, I see a baby penguin sitting with its feet outstretched. I can’t decide if it is listening with rapt attention, or if it is so dejected it hasn’t the energy to stand.

You might see it as something entirely different, or as nothing more than scribbles. The point here is that if I asked that same room full of people to write what they felt or thought about when they looked at it, I’d have just as many different ideas.

And perhaps that’s the most important thing here. What you make people think or feel as a result of what you’ve written is where the real originality comes in because no two writers will ever write the same story in exactly the same way.

Stop wasting time worrying about how original your plot line is. Think instead about how to make the telling of your story different.

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