Is My Story Original? A Lesson from 'This is Us'
Have you ever wondered where master storytellers get their ideas? How do they come up with these fascinating characters and plots year-after-year and book-after-book?
I’m not going to lie, plotting is hard for me. I can often imagine my characters clearly, hear their voices in my head and map out an atmospheric setting for them to live in my imagination, but I am often at a loss as to what is going to happen in the story.
Recently, I had a conversation with a writer friend who fretted that an article she was working on wasn’t original enough. She was passionate about the topic and felt that there was a need to share her point of view with a specific audience, but was concerned that it had already been done. After we spent a little time researching similar articles, the obvious came to us: sure, similar articles had been written but not by her. She brought a unique experience to her message and it needed to be shared.
There are no new ideas
This isn't to say that cliches don't exist. I have very little tolerance for cliches and they are out there! But since the dawn of time, humans have been telling the same stories. We may put our unique spin on things which makes it feel original, but we’re never going to come up with something completely new, because the truth is, it has all been done before. Does that seem tragic? Well, it shouldn’t! In fact, it should be encouraging to the 21stC writer and here’s why!
Christopher Booker in his 2004 book titled The Seven Basic Plots attests that there are only seven plots in Story:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
Can you think of a few examples from each of these categories? Here are a few I came up with:
- Overcoming the Monster: The Legend of Beowulf, Godzilla, Theseus and the Minotaur, Avengers: The Age of Ultron
- Rags to Riches - Cinderella, The Red Queen, The Selection, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
- The Quest: Lord of the Rings, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia,
- Voyage and Return: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
- Comedy: Cold Comfort Farm, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, The Fault in our Stars, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the Durbervilles
- Rebirth: The Help, Wolf Hollow, The Chilbury Ladies Choir
Now you may be looking at my list thinking, "How can you say that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Cold Comfort Farm are even comparable? And The Fault in Our Stars is totally different from The Great Gatsby you crazy lady!" And you'd be exactly right! They are different because of how each story is told.
What makes a story original is how it's told
To better explore this concept let's take a look at award-winning TV drama THIS IS US. The show is massively popular, earning 91% on Rotten Tomatoes as well as boasting a long list of awards and nominations. At face value, it’s not clear what makes this show so fantastic. After all, family dramas aren’t new to TV. I usually make it about 1/4 of the way through a new pilot before I’m uninterested or rolling my eyes at the cliches and cheesy lines. I think what makes This Is Us so riveting is how the story of the Pearson family is told.
The ten writers of the show have a huge undertaking, tackling a myriad of the human experience, such as, marriage, miscarriage, adoption, addiction, raising kids, fostering, success, and the death of loved ones. Although these concepts might seem commonplace, the screenwriters masterfully tell it by using the following techniques.
The story opens in the 1980’s and then zooms forward to present day, frequently flipping the pages of time backward to explore the life of the Pearson family allows for the story to carefully layer in new dimensions in the characters. We not only see what they are doing in the present but the psyche behind why. Therefore, the audience can empathize better with their triumphs and flaws.
The writers keep engagement by hinting at things to come and scattering clues. The most notable audience hook are the circumstances surrounding Jack’s death which had audiences guessing until the middle of season two! What I also found fascinating is how much I cared to know how it happened.
Research and drawing on our own experiences are both important to authentic storytelling! Audiences are familiar with storytelling, they can tell when things feel canned and they won’t believe what is playing out on screen. One thing that I really appreciate is the strong presence of African American characters in the show and the depth to which their experiences are portrayed. Three of the ten screenwriters of This Is Us are African American and I can only imagine the fun conversations that take place in the writing room!
“The crew takes their jobs very seriously as well. Each member of the writing team has personal stories that inform the scripts, whether it’s experience with obesity, sobriety, adoption, racism, illness or loss. When the series addresses sensitive subjects, they look to guest speakers for first-hand insight. For instance, the creators have invited many to share their experiences with transracial adoption, including a black woman who was raised by a white family and a white woman who adopted a black son.” — The Huffington Post
I think the reason why the show resonants with so many is because watching the Pearsons wrestle through life's up and downs gives us insight into our own experiences. We see that, in the end, the little things become the big things, the memories and the people we spend our lives with are what makes life so sweet.
I love that the show doesn’t hold back--the characterization runs deep and the emotion grabs your heart.
“The situations might occasionally be trite but the characters never are, and because of that we will go along with even the schmaltziest of twists” —The Guardian
The show’s creator Dan Fogelman told The Guardian that he thought This Is Us was such a success because “people want to feel stuff and feel good…the world has become so negative but if it’s done well, sentimental art can be some of the most rewarding.”
So write your story! Write it from your unique perspective. If it feels trite, you're probably not digging deep enough. I always recommend research and interviewing as many people as possible if you need perspective from other's experiences. Dare to tell the story burning within you with authenticity and confidence!
How are you making your story original? Which plot category would your story fall under?