In an extensive study conducted by Matthew Jockers at the University of Nebraska, 40,000 different books were analyzed for basic plot. He concluded that there are 6 story types. In a 2004 book by Christopher Booker, he claimed that there are seven types of tales: rags to riches; overcoming the monster; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy, and rebirth.18th Century Italian playwright Carlos Gozzi said there were 36 “dramatic situations.”
When you consider these studies, you realize that writing fiction is the art of re-creation. It’s why, when you watch a movie, you can say, “I knew that was going to happen!” It’s why, when you meet characters in books, you know which are the protagonists and which are the antagonists. It’s why you expect to see the romantic subplot, the epic chase, the mid-point revelation, and the final battle.
In other words, no matter how original we are, we’re still following underlying, basic formulas… whether we want to admit to it or not. But it’s the subtle twists, unique settings, and memorable characters that set our books apart from previous works.
When I first published my book, a lot of people immediately made an X-Files connection… “Strong female heroine. FBI Agent. Has a snarky-but-good-looking male partner. She is pragmatic. He’s more open to belief.” Yep, all of those say “Dana Scully and Fox Mulder.” Examining the plot, my book has supernatural occurrences during a routine investigation, a “monster of the week” feel, and the disruption of a remote community. Totally X-Files.
However, there are major differences. Once you scratch the surface and break the book down into its nuts and bolts, Agent St. James is not Dana Scully in her actions and reactions, personality, drivers, or motives. And Danny Harmon is far from the same person as wide-eyed Mulder. He’s quite a bit more practical, driven and militant. The story itself is much more fantasy than SciFi, and the supporting characters and antagonists throw in their own twists.
So, while my book seems like an X-Files episode on the surface, when you dig into it, you’ll find it’s… not. However, I have it on good authority that the people who like the X-Files love my book.
It’s true that our works will undoubtedly follow some sort of underlying theme that’s been done before, and it’s important to understand what those ideas are. As authors, it’s our responsibility to take the tropes, turn them on their ear, and sculpt something new from the existing mounds of clay.