“Haven’t I Heard This Somewhere Before?” – Using Familiar Plots In Storytelling.

Let me spin you a short yarn. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)

A young girl dreams of escaping her current situation and responsibilities. Through supernatural means, she gets her wish and finds herself in another world. At first, she is initiated and/or guided by a creature from that world, but she eventually gains additional companions, and together they must navigate a strange path of maze-like nature. Along the way, their progress is thwarted and their lives are threatened by a powerful adversary and the adversary’s minions. During the journey, the girl encounters some kind of physically affecting drug and spends some time forgetting herself. She also interacts with people or things that seem to be connected to her normal life at home. She feels a sense of time running out, and time behaves strangely in this world. When she reaches her goal, which may involve the rescue of a loved one, she is separated from her companions for a while. This culminates in a one-on-one showdown with the adversary. This frequently involves exposing some kind of fraud as part of defeating the antagonist. Some versions of this story have included music, dance, poetry, and riddles. The story/journey ends with the girl returning to her home, now wiser for her experience, with the prospect of returning to the other world someday.

Now: What story did I just summarize?

When I recently shared this outline with some of our writing colleagues, and asked them to “guess the story”, I got a variety of answers. Among the stories listed were: Alice in Wonderland, Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunger Games, and The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. When I asked them to change the main character to a male, the suggestions increased even more: Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, The Maze Runner, The Hobbit, and The Neverending Story.

The story I “told” was deliberately over-generalized but still contained some pretty specific plot elements, so why did reader interpretations vary so widely? And how can such a broadly painted canvas show all these different stories and more? The answer lies in Archetypes.

Archetypes are the stock characters and plot devices that we (sometimes unconsciously) draw from when we craft narratives. They reflect much of the common experience of humanity, and the dreams we all share. They also enable us to confront our fears and examine our weaknesses. Every culture and people have ideals of heroism, higher powers, and glorious victory over genuine opposition. We cannot deny the existence of evil and opposition in the world, and we have all witnessed tragic failures, cowardice, and misery, but we also believe in the possibility of redemption, bravery, and joy. Archetypes and recognizable plot patterns are tools we can use to reflect society, promote ideals, confront evil, and speak truth. Thus, we often see the same general stories being repeated in the course of numerous different plots.

For example, if you generalize the plot points a little, the adventure and growth stories of Star Wars: A New Hope and Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone are essentially the same story. The following is my adaptation of a meme one of my friends posted in a writing blog that I follow (shared with his permission):

Star Wars: “A New Hope” (Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone) Synopsis:

Luke Skywalker (Harry Potter) is a seemingly unremarkable orphan, living with his aunt and uncle in the anonymous deserts (suburbs) of Tatooine (England), where he feels trapped and confined, living on a moisture farm (in a cupboard under the stairs). His reason for being with his relatives stems from the unfortunate death of his parents, and the need to hide him from the evil Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader (Lord Voldemort) who would seek to destroy him.

At a key point in his life, Luke (Harry) is called upon to embark on an adventure that will take him off-world (to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). His uncle resists his acceptance of the invitation to grow and leave, but Luke (Harry) cannot be held back.

He is rescued from Tusken Raiders and Jawas (muggles) by the wise, bearded, Ben Kenobi (Hagrid) who uses supernatural abilities to put his tormentors in their place, and who turns out to be a force-sensitive (magical) Jedi Knight (wizard).

Ben (Hagrid) reveals to Luke (Harry) that Luke (Harry) has inherited powers that make him force-sensitive (magical), and that Luke’s (Harry’s) father was also a Jedi Knight (wizard), and a gifted starpilot (Quidditch player).

Ben (Hagrid) presents Luke (Harry) with an inheritance that his deceased father (parents) “wanted him to have when he was older”, and begins to teach him how to navigate and understand the new world he has been thrust into.

Luke (Harry) begins his introduction to The Force (magic), and after receiving his destined lightsaber (wand) he starts training to become a Jedi (wizard) in his own right. Luke (Harry) is soon deprived of his new mentor and must make his own decisions, having now “taken his first step into a larger world”; however, Luke (Harry) will hear (see) him again at a later date and receive his guidance. Eventually, Luke will be (Soon, Harry is) introduced to a new, even more powerful mentor and teacher named Yoda (Dumbledore) who has had his eye on Luke (Harry) since he was a baby, and will have an even greater influence on his life.

Luke (Harry) has many adventures in the galaxy (at Hogwarts) and makes new friends such as Han Solo (Ronald Weasley) and Princess Leia (Hermione Granger). These two will constantly bicker, but eventually wind up together, romantically, in the sequels, despite early indications that Luke (Harry) and Leia (Hermione) are a better match.

In the course of these adventures, Luke (Harry) works together with his friends to survive a trash-compactor monster (troll in the dungeon) and navigate the maze-like Death Star (defensive spells protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone). He also distinguishes himself as a top X-Wing pilot (Quidditch Seeker), and becomes a hero during the Battle of the Death Star (final Quidditch match) by scoring a seemingly impossible hit with a torpedo (capture of the Golden Snitch) that helps to secure the rebels’ (House Griffindor’s) victory against the forces of the evil Empire (House Slytherin).

Luke (Harry) is also confronted with the threatening existence of Darth Vader (Lord Voldemort), a rogue Jedi (wizard) who turned to evil, and whom Luke (Harry) is informed murdered his father (parents).

The finale involves a one-on-one battle between Luke (Harry) and Darth Vader (Lord Voldemort), in which Luke’s (Harry’s) hidden power allows him to triumph, with help from his mentor’s voice (mother’s love). Luke (Harry) manages to find a major weakness in The Death Star (Lord Voldemort), and exploits it. Darth Vader (Lord Voldemort) survives the encounter, however, and has a strange obsession with Luke (Harry). He will now devote his energies to seeking Luke (Harry) out. Luke (Harry) knows that he will someday have to confront and defeat Darth Vader (Lord Voldemort), which sets up the sequels.

Luke (Harry) and Han Solo (House Gryffindor) receive Medals of Valor (The House Cup) as the story nears its end. When made into a movie, all of this is scored with music by John Williams (no edit needed).

Spare Parts and Interchangeable Elements

Many stories are populated with characters we recognize, such as The Hero, The Damsel in Distress, The Wise Mentor, The Villain, and The Sidekick. Undeveloped, these are merely flat cardboard cutouts; however, with further evolution and rounding out, these generic off-the-shelf characters can become much more. Flat heroes can develop into Jean Valjean; Jane Eyre becomes more than a weak damsel; Luke Skywalker passes on his painfully won knowledge; Frankenstein’s creature reveals his tragic motives; and Samwise Gamgee becomes a co-hero with Frodo Baggins.

A second quiz: Here are a few examples for each of the following character types. How many more examples can you think of? What other character types do you notice in multiple stories?

  1. The Youth Who Develops or Discovers His/Her Powers:
  • Peter Parker (Spider-Man)
  • Starr Carter (The Hate You Give)
  • Mirabel Madrigal (Encanto)
  1. The Antihero Who (At Least Partially) Redeems Himself/Herself:
  • Emma Woodhouse (Emma)
  • Prince Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
  • Loki Laufeyson/Odinson (Marvel Cinematic Universe and TV show.)
  • Kylo Ren / Ben Solo (Star Wars)
  1. The Genius Friend Who Appears To Lack Social Skills:
  • Spock (Star Trek)
  • Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes)
  • Hermione Granger (Harry Potter Series)
  1. The Sidekick Who Proves Instrumental To Success In The Final Act
  • Nevile Longbottom (Harry Potter)
  • Han Solo (Star Wars)
  • Gollum/Smeagol (The Lord of The Rings)
  • Chunk & Sloth (The Goonies)
  1. The Flawed Father Figure Who Becomes Responsible For An Orphan
  • Daddy Warbucks (Little Orphan Annie)
  • Bruce Wayne / Batman (Batman)
  • Din Djarin (The Mandalorian)
  1. The Monster That Can Only Be Killed If You Strike Its Weak Spot
  • Smaug the Terrible (The Hobbit)
  • The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of OZ)
  • Vampires (wooden stakes), Werewolves (silver bullets), etc…

Many familiar plot patterns and tropes appear in literature and film. One of the most famous plot patterns is called, “The “Hero’s Journey”. Its basic pattern has been used in novels, plays, movies and such for centuries – if not millennia. This archetypal pattern was most famously described by Joseph Campbell, in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, (If you don’t already have a copy of this book on your Writer’s Reference bookshelf, go get one as soon as possible.)

Essentially, the Hero’s Journey follows a pattern in which the protagonist leaves their everyday life, grows through what he or she experiences in the outside world, and returns with wisdom and the power to benefit others; it’s the climbing of a figurative mountain in which the hero returns home after conquering enemies, and finds himself a different person than when he left.

Bilbo Baggins left his comfortable Hobbit hole and became an adventurer; Harry Potter left Privet Drive as a suppressed nobody, but returned a self-aware wizard; Buck was a comfortable family pet when he was abducted from California, but he became a fighter, a sled dog, and a survivor among the wolves of Northern Canada. And there are other stories we also tell and retell: “Cinderella” stories (rags to riches), stories with tragic endings (riches to rags), quest stories (slaying the monster), and stories of “star-crossed lovers”. These, and many others, appear again and again on our bookshelves.

But, if we see the same general characters and plots show up in story after story, why are there so many novels and movies and comic books? Why don’t readers (and writers) get bored hearing and telling the “same old tales”?

It’s because such stories have staying power, and they speak to us. We see ourselves in the characters and we identify with the stories. We want to be the Heroes of our life stories, we confront our own Monsters in varied forms, we long for nurturing Mothers, and we revere our Mentors. We are all progressing in our personal Hero’s Journeys; perhaps we have Loved and Lost; many of us have endured Tragedies and enjoyed Comedy on our way. We writers tell these stories, both fiction and nonfiction, by finding unique ways to populate our worlds with “familiar faces” and recognizable plots.

It’s In The Contract

Archetypes have built-in structures and stories that we recognize and can use as scaffolding for our distinctive tales. As we do so, we set up the promises of the story, so the reader knows what to anticipate and look forward to. This is where the magic (and the danger) really happens.

If we set up a certain archetype in a story, but then we don’t follow through with the expected arc, it creates tension through expectation. As authors, we can follow, or even “judiciously subvert” tropes, but we always make an implied contract with readers to deliver on what we set up. Maybe you remember the vehement disappointment of The Grandson in the movie, The Princess Bride, when Buttercup marries Prince Humperdinck:

“”Hold it! Hold it! Grandpa, you read that wrong. She doesn’t marry Humperdinck. She marries Westley. I’m just sure of it. After all he did for her, if she didn’t marry him, it wouldn’t be fair.”

(“Well who says life is fair? Where is that written? Life isn’t always fair.”)

 “Who gets Humperdinck?”

(“I don’t understand.”)

“Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody’s got to do it! Is it Inigo? Who?” (“Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.”)

“You mean he wins? …. What did you read me this thing for?”

We don’t have to always follow expected tropes (in fact, it’s best that we don’t perpetuate certain harmful stereotypes), but subverting those plot patterns and character arcs should be done with care. Plot twists, misdirection, and dramatic tension are to be expected, but if the contract is broken between reader and writer, and the story doesn’t satisfy, we have a problem. Remember, even in The Princess Bride, “S. Morgenstern” (William Goldman) returned to the expected arc, revealing that the wedding was just a bad dream, and the hero gets the girl in the end.

Using Archetypes In New (and Old) Ways

So, how do we make potentially stale plot devices fresh and find new ways to tell old tales? We start with examination:

  • What are the central features or plot points of this archetype?
  • What is meaningful about the story they inhabit?
  • What makes the character and/or plot memorable and impactful?
  • What makes it uplifting or even scary?
  • How can I take elements of the original and make them part of my new story?

For example: What if we developed a story roughly based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears? First of all, let’s consider a simple summary:

A little girl with golden hair enters the home of a family of bears while they are away. She samples their food, sits in their chairs (breaking one of them in the process), and sleeps in their beds. At each stage of her exploration, the girl evaluates the food and chairs and beds according to her own preferences. When the bears return, they find evidence of their visitor and soon find her asleep in one of the beds. When she realizes she has been caught, the young girl flees from the scene.

In order to help with adaptation, let’s summarize the story more broadly and create a second synopsis that we can recontextualize later with new specifics:

A young girl, out of her normal environment, secretly inserts herself into the world of another family/species. While there, she consumes the resources of her unwitting hosts and passes judgment on the quality of their food and the comfort of their infrastructure. After inadvertently causing damage to their possessions, the young girl takes up temporary residency in the absent creatures’ home. Suddenly, the owners return. There is a period of suspense as they explore their home and discover the intruder. The girl recognizes her error and flees from potential conflict and danger.

If we change some elements, we could adapt the story into the following:

A young woman is forced to flee from her home. In a state of desperation and destitution, she resorts to begging. During a violent storm, she is injured and takes temporary refuge within an empty mansion, in the absence of the wealthy owners. She originally intends her intrusion to be short, but complications with her injury motivate her to extend her stay, and she rationalizes that she is harming no one.  The young woman gets the distinct impression that the owners will not be returning any time soon. Having nowhere else to go, she stays in the house and only uses minimal amounts of the owners’ food and resources, with every intention of compensating them somehow in the future. This original reticence to getting comfortable and consuming resources wanes over time, and she begins to unconsciously think of the house in more proprietary terms. She becomes increasingly familiar with the estate, and establishes personal routines of movement and regular consumption that begin very small, but soon expand to become nearly full use of the house and its comforts; even to the point of disregarding minor damage that she causes. Eventually, the neighbors begin to notice that there is movement and light next door, and initiate contact with the young woman, presuming her to be somehow connected with the owners. This requires her to concoct a story that excuses her presence. Her deception is plausible, but flimsy, and one suspicious neighbor sends word to the owners to verify the story. The owners return to investigate and catch the intruder in their home. Unaware of the family’s identity, she initially sticks to her flimsy cover story, but this soon breaks down and she confesses her destitution and repents of her presumption and intrusion. (For the sake of a happy ending, let’s say the family forgives her and helps her to get back on her feet – maybe she even marries the son of the family who conveniently falls in love with her at first sight.)

It can also be fun to flip the script and change the orientation of the plot. We could create a plot in which the “bears” came to visit “Goldilocks” and overstay their welcome:

A mature woman enjoys a life of freedom as a wealthy childless, single woman of means in the big city. Her younger sister falls on hard times and begs her big sister for help. Our protagonist somewhat reluctantly agrees, and the younger sister arrives with her husband and their young child. Their intended short-term stay becomes longer when the combined households are suddenly required to lock down together because of COVID-19. The pandemic closes businesses and reduces employment opportunities for the sister and her husband, and they have nowhere else to go, for now. The older sister is able to remotely continue her career, over the internet, but her new roommates prove to be even more disruptive to her routines and lifestyle than the pandemic. As often happens with children in un-babyproofed homes, some stuff gets busted. (We can even retain the “child as complication” trope and have the child wander into the background of Auntie’s business calls on Skype, and also petulantly echo the “This is too hot, this is too cold, this is just right” refrain of the original Goldilocks story.) The relationship is strained, and the elder sister becomes a “bear” to live with. The little child becomes sick with COVID, and is hospitalized. The strain of shared worry softens the protagonist’s heart. The child recovers, and at least one of the parents is eventually able to find employment. The family is able to move out, but they remain close.

Okay, You’re Using Archetypes… Now Don’t Blow It

One of the potential pitfalls of consciously using archetypes and tropes, is that conflict resolutions, and the ending, may be telegraphed too clearly. There can be reduced suspense when plot points are too predictable. On the other hand, if we vary too far from cogent plot threading, the enjoyment of the story might suffer. As I said before, we make a contract with the reader when we begin to tell a tale; we set up expectations in the story, and our brains like things to make sense (usually).When we appear to set up a recognizable plot or character arc, it creates tension through reader expectation. That is why “loose plot threads” create cognitive dissonance. This feeling of imbalance can often be enjoyable, like plot twists we don’t see coming, but such turns need to have a reasonable foundation if they are going to be enjoyed on second and third readings.

It can be fun and fruitful to flip the stories and characters we are familiar with and rework them to tell new tales. Archetypes allow us to make new stories out of proven plots and recognizable characters. As you do so, be sure and create characters that readers can relate to, and make them complex enough to stand alone as fully realized and unique “people” in your story.

Now go forth and (re)tell great stories!




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