Warning: This blog contains spoilers for a few older movies. Read it anyway.
My screenwriting professor was in the midst of one of his idea tirades. He called it spit balling. His arms gestured wildly, he drew on the board with his marker, he went from standing to pacing to lying on the table, and he switched between his near-sighted glasses and his far-sighted ones, a habit that never once lost its comedic value for me. This was typical for class. A student would pitch his idea for a screenplay or the class would read a few pages of work he had done, then the professor would offer his invaluable two-cents, usually coming up with a great idea for where the student could take it.
This story involved a father-son reuniting after the heartbreak of a mother dying of cancer, the main discovery being that the father, who had them convinced he was a rich musician, was really homeless.
The professor came to the grand finale of his idea for the student, and his hands rose into the air in triumph. It was a happy ending he had told—a feel good moment. A student sitting behind me raised her hand. I have never met anyone that spoke the way she did, low and soft as if she was always trying to seduce someone. It gave me the creeps to be perfectly honest.
“It’s just that, that’s been done before.” She said it as if he didn’t know, her tone as blasé as someone who had been an expert for 157 years.
I suppressed a groan—I had to do that a lot in college.
It was rare that this professor looked serious. It was a hard thing to do with his hipster glasses and blonder than blond spikey hair, but he managed it, and he said, “Yes, it’s been done before. Every story has been done before.” He pointed at her. Sitting just in front of her, I felt like he was pointing at me. “But it’s never been done by you.”
All right that’s the punch-line. Thanks for reading. Have a great day.
But really, what more could I possibly say? Nothing in all of my creative writing classes has resonated so deeply within me as that simple statement, which is a little sad considering, but this blog post is not about my creative writing “education.” I should erase those quotes before I feel guilty…
Before I digress to the far corners of the world, explore this idea a little further with me. Let me show you the danger of wanting to be original.
There is nothing new under the sun. A little bit of time has passed since Ecclesiastes was written, right? And yet many new gung-ho authors continue to deceive themselves into thinking that if they can come up with something original, they will succeed. If only I could be the next Christopher Nolan and write something like Memento—the successful exception to every rule of storytelling. But, hold your breath for this shocker of a statement, Memento is not a truly original story. It’s a story of revenge, after all. Is revenge not one of the main themes used to spur our beloved heroes into action? Seriously, start thinking of movies or books that have the concept of revenge in them; you’ll probably lose count. If you will allow me to digress again for a moment, I will also point out that the story has a psychotic protagonist. After hearing five screenplay pitches in a row involving psychosis, I can assure you this is the most unoriginal concept of 2014. Moving along.
What makes Memento unique is the timeline—the way the writer told the story. But did you know that is not even original? Nolan got the idea from a book called Waterland by Graham Swift. Would you look at that? The paragon of “originality” is not so original after all. No one is truly original, and that is okay. Here’s why.
Stories have structure. Stories have archetypes. And there is a very good reason for this.
Many writers like to try to be original by not only breaking structure, but breaking promises. Every storyteller, whether they know it or not, makes promises in the writing of what kind of story it will be and even what will happen. Genre, for example, is a kind of promise. People have expectations when they read a sci-fi or a romance novel, and if those expectations are not met, they are disappointed. If you write a fantasy story called “Werewolves and Vampires” then there darn well better be werewolves and vampires in your story. You think I’m joking, don’t you? Who would actually do that?! You do. All the time. But in much subtler ways.
There are many messages placed in a story, so seemingly innocuous the writer may not be aware, and if, at the end, those messages are contradicted, the reader gets the wind knocked out of them or a sinking feeling in their chest. As an example, a story will tell you if the protagonist is going to die. There are clues everywhere: their personality, their family, their cause. Re-watch any movie or re-read any book where the protagonist dies, and you will be astonished at how many clues you find. Take the movie Elysium. I knew within the first five minutes that the main character was going to die by his personality alone. It was then confirmed when he was exposed to massive amounts of radiation and took up a self-seeking mission to save his life while a greater cause surrounded him, waiting for him to make the ultimate sacrifice. And when he did die, it was satisfying because everything in the movie was building toward that moment.
This isn’t to say that your story can’t have twists, but the twists must make sense, and they must be satisfying. That word is the key. You don’t have to shock your reader to win them over; you must leave them feeling satisfied.
I often see broken promises in love and death. My intermediate creative fiction teacher had a rule that we could not kill the characters in our short stories. Why? Because nine out of ten of the stories in the introduction class had someone die in a desperate attempt to appear impressive and risqué. New writers will set up a love story and have it end in tragedy with no hint that this would happen because they wanted to surprise the reader. This does not please the reader—it angers them! Take Shakespeare (because who doesn’t?). In Romeo and Juliet he makes the audience a promise by telling them through the chorus that the lovers were fated to die. And they do. Imagine if they had lived? Wow, what a twist! And what a horrible lie. You would feel stabbed in the back, wouldn’t you? Let’s think about the movie Pride and Prejudice (or the book. Think about whatever you want). What would you think if nothing in the entire story changed except that, oh…I don’t know, Elizabeth decided to cast herself off of a cliff before Mr. Darcy proposed again? You would be outraged.
A great movie that encapsulates this concept beautifully is the movie Stranger Than Fiction. In the story, an author is writing a story (story-ception! Will that joke ever die? Thanks again, Mr. Nolan), planning to kill the character, Harold, at the end. The only problem is that this Harold exists in real life. And although we are told he will die, his mission throughout the entire movie is to find a way to live, and we, the audience, are rooting for him wholeheartedly. Why? Because of the clues laid down for us that he is going to live, which are that he begins to explore life for the first time. Particularly, Harold falls in love. It is only when he accepts his fate of death that the writer changes her mind and allows him to live. This is called irony, and it is the secret weapon of every story, but that’s another blog for another day. All this to say, your story is full of promises, like the concept of Chekhov’s Gun. (Hey! I mentioned that in my last blog! Anyone remember that? Anyone?) And only when those promises are kept has your writing truly become a story.
So don’t worry about being original. Tell your story your way and craft it such that you fulfill your promises. If you’ve satisfied your reader, you’ve done your job, regardless of the basic ideas, structures, and themes of your story. I hope the ideas this blog covered are as helpful to you as they were to me. Farewell and good writing.
By Rachelle Clifford
Images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image credtis in order of appearance: smokedsalmon, nixxphotography, SSimon Howden.