Hi I hope you're doing well. I just wanted to ask of your opinion on coming up with story ideas. Do you think all originality has been exhausted, and all we can do is rely on old tropes? Because when trying to come up with stories, I find myself thinking "nope, that's cliche, it's been done before, that's trash" etc. What do you think? Is it okay to use the same character tropes over and over again, or should we strive to create new ones? And if so, how?
Well, here’s the thing. I present you with a thought: is a trope always necessarily ‘bad’? Do we as consumers only really enjoy media that never ever alludes to anything from the past? Is a piece of work only worth consuming if it reinvents the genre or medium?
Here’s another question: Every time you eat a piece of bread, are you disappointed because it’s bread, or is it still tasty and filling?
I too struggle with insecurity regarding my own ideas. Every writer does. Even those inflated white dudes you see netting award after award have their crises too, y’know. But I like to think about it as a non-starter myself, because look at it this way: in the simplest terms, there is no such thing as an original story.
The Hero’s Journey has been repeated over and over again since the dawn of our sapience, before even the written word, before cave paintings, even before the birth of true oral tradition. Our species has been weaving narratives out of patterns seen in the stars, and the kinds of stories we make up today are exactly the same thing, only with a different veneer each time. Harry Potter is basically the same person as Luke Skywalker, who goes through the same journey as Frodo Baggins, who is just like John Henry who is just like Siegfred who is the same as Hua Mulan who is like Beowulf who is like Anansi who is like Guan Yu who is Horus who is the Monkey King and Superman and Wisakedjak and Robin Hood and Jason plus his little Argonaut squad and Aang and Samurai Jack. Good guy, adventure, knocks out baddie, finds treasure, saves day, discovers self, yay. Even Hikaru Genji, whose entire story is about how he suffered because he was a dang slut, is basically the same guy. All monomyths is the same.
But no one calls plagiarism. Because even if the bones of something follow a script or make sense using the same storytelling devices, as long as you’re not blatantly ripping somebody off, your story is going to be different no matter what, and what makes it good is how you deal with those same elements. Tropes can be lampshaded, played with, de- and re-constructed, subverted, referenced, parodied or even just played straight. And even then, it can be satisfying and lauded and beloved, simply because it was timed just right. After all, the funniest kinds of jokes are the ones where you can tell the punchline from a mile away, but you keep waiting for it because it’s just that funny. (Mitchell & Webb, Brain Surgeon.)
Cars and Thor are the same damn movie. Both are enjoyable and fun and not at all wastes of the creators’ time. Death Note (anime) and Death Note (2017) are arguably the same story, but one did it horribly, horribly wrong, and it wasn’t just because it was a re-adaptation. Not every found footage film is ripping off Blair Witch, and I assure you, many greater novels featuring disenfranchised youths have been published since the release of Catcher In The Pretentious Spoiled Rich Brat Rye.
A trope is a trope because it works. Our brains are wired to engage with and digest narratives in established patterns. Throughout history we have dabbled in wildly ranged subject matter, experimented with ever-changing media, invented devices such as First Person Omniscient and comic book sweat drops and animation smears and different typefaces implying different characteristics of the narrating character and dime corset-rippers and camera obscura and stained glass and masks and commedia dell’arte and antiheroes. These are all just tools. We’re using them to make art that appeals to humans, who are pattern-recognizing machines.
You can’t call a baker a bad baker because she used the same ingredients as the baker across the street. You know when you bite into it, feel the texture, taste how she used those ingredients, balanced it differently. And even if you’ve eaten bread before, when you’re hungry, you enjoy that bread, right? There’s no need to be the most avant-garde baker in town. No one’s re-inventing bread. Sometimes you want buttery dense bread. Sometimes you want sweet flaky pastry. Sometimes you’re amazed by the mochi bread your friend brought you. Sometimes you crave the cheap crappy bread you always got when you were in elementary. But bread is always in demand. And who cares if you make the same old damn bread? There’s always a hungry person who always wants that bread. It’s their favorite.
Trust me, a story isn’t trash just because you see some similarities to something you enjoy or something established. As long as it isn’t a carbon copy or too similar, you’re going to be fine. You know what we call those fuckers who turn their noses up at something accessible or indulgent or too ‘geeky’?
A damn snob.
Because s/: Oh noooo. Giant robots and kaiju were soooo nineties. Guillermo del Toro didn’t invent a brand new huge fighting thing. Pacific Rim is just Godzilla plus Ultraman./s See what I mean? Media is not a bubble and no story is mutually exclusive to any other. That’s how stories naturally evolve, and that’s how writers are born: from consuming works by others before, and becoming inspired to do the same thing, and sometimes doing it better, mostly on accident.
We all get hyper-critical of our own stories. As a creator I myself look at my screenplays and scripts and wonder if it’s even worth it to continue, because how can my comic compare to everything that’s come before? And then I realize that I’m a consumer too, and that as a consumer I never care if something is derivative so long as it’s still good. We’re always hungry and we always need more bread.
Next time you feel this way, go look at a story you think is good and put on your snob glasses. “Oh yeah, Stranger Things is just the same old horror story with a psychic kid and a monster from a spooky nightmare zone and a hardened cop and a mom hero. And a love triangle, wow, unique.” And then you take the snob shades off and realize that the story was still fun, because of the suspense, and the imagery, and the music and the dialogue and the way all these familiar ingredients were cooked up into a damn fine piece of bread.
Originality is the individual hand. The ingredients can be borrowed, passed down, or picked up. The recipe can vary, but remember… we’ve been a species with an imagination for a very, very, very long time. Our tradition of stories is older than steel, than bronze, than stone, than balls. Don’t stress about re-inventing bread. It’s enough to be a good baker that feeds hungry people.
A good story is many cool elements mixed together in a cool way, with a thousand elements within. The most important element is the unique flavor of the creator themselves, which, hey, you already have. Simply by being you. Well done!! Now go do the hard part and actually crank out the thing so we can read it already. Go go go!!