Formulaic stories = barren landscape

Ok, so last week we talked about the problem of “cloning” your characters, aka using the same character over and over with only a few superficial details changed. Today, we’re going to continue that theme, but we’ll be talking about plot lines. Formulaic plots are really boring, and avoiding them is a key skill for an aspiring writer to learn.

Many writers, especially those newer to the craft, have a problem with creating new plots for their stories. Aside from characterization, plot creation is one of the most difficult parts of story writing, so of course you’re going to have trouble with it. Everyone does at some point or another. This is especially true of writers who stick to one specific genre. There’s only so much you can do with, say, paranormal romance, and once you’ve written four or five stories in that genre, things become pretty repetitive. I’m not talking about all the clones of other authors’ stories (I’m talking to you, Stephanie Myer wannabes – stop trying to write “the next Twilight series.” Seriously.), that’s a post for another time. I’m talking specifically about copying and pasting your own stories. It’s probably happened to you at some point: you write a story, it’s really good, people like it, your ego gets a massive boost, so you write another one. People don’t like this one as much, and you can’t figure out why. Maybe you write a third story, and your audience is more unhappy with this one than the previous one. Upon re-reading your stories, it becomes readily apparent to you that there’s a very generic sameness about all 3 of them. The first one was great, it was original, your audience liked it. But when you wrote the second story, you tried (maybe subconsciously) to capitalize on the success of the first one. It follows the same basic plot line as the first, even if the characters and situations are completely different. Example:

Book 1: Erak is a devious mage, cast out of his village because people don’t trust him, and he’s been accused of casting dangerous spells

Hello, Erak.

and causing a lot of damage. Erak goes on a journey, and rescues a young female bard, who becomes his travelling companion out of necessity. While taking odd jobs for various people, they discover that the wizard who hired them has his eye on Erak’s village, and is, of course, the one who set him up to take the blame for his spells. The bard almost dies, but Erak sacrifices himself to save her. The village is saved, Erak miraculously doesn’t die, he’s hailed as a hero, etc.

Book 2: Shia is an orphaned thief in one of the larger towns. Falsely accused of stealing from the governor of the town, she flees to avoid arrest. After several adventures, she falls in with a group of gypsies, and ends up saving two of them from a bunch of soldiers. She begins to fall for Vahn, one of the gypsies, who decides to help her clear her name. After interrogating one of the soldiers, they begin uncovering a conspiracy involving the town’s sheriff, and they start trying to fix things. Vahn almost dies while trying to save Shia, but the problem is solved, the corruptness taken care of, and Shia is cleared of blame and starts a new life.

The first book in the Redwall series.

See the problems? New characters, different situations, but the plots are pretty much the same. False accusation, rescue of sidekick and/or romantic foil, discovery of plot, sacrifice by one character to save the other, end problem, happily ever after ending (or something similar). Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, ran into this problem several times. While the majority of his novels are really good and quite interesting, several of his later works are hard to read because they follow the same formula as some of his earlier stories. His novel Doomwyte is my least favorite of his works for that very reason. Even great authors sometimes have trouble with story cloning.

There’s no need to despair, though. The problem is fixable. The best way to start training yourself to avoid it is to branch out. Expand your creativity. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. If you tend to write stories of mostly one genre, then start experimenting with others (if you write paranormal romance, try writing a fantasy story). I’m not saying you can’t use some of your favorite elements in most of your stories (I tend to use ghosts or similar undead characters in most of my stuff), but don’t transfer everything. Try introducing the sidekick earlier in the story or make the romance an unrequited one. If you find your story becoming cliche or formulaic, introduce twists in several different place. If there’s a situation in the story that will introduce a big change one way or another, then choose the action or answer that you wouldn’t usually choose. The plot will take sudden twists and turns after that, and will most likely end up in a different direction from what you would have originally intended. Don’t be afraid to take a chance in the story and tweak the plot. It may surprise you in the end. It’ll take time to overcome the tendency to copy and paste your story lines, but it’s well worth the work. Happy writing!

One thought on “Attack of the Story Clones, Part 2

  1. It’s not a new phenomona, either. How many books did Zane Grey write? Actually, about four or five, he simply re-cycled those into all the others. Yeah, it’s boring.

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