How to write a story that’s already been told

A common criticism for literature and film is that a story has been told before, or, more specifically, a plot has been told before. I myself have had that experience recently, where I’ve written a story I was exceptionally proud of, only to realize upon looking it over that it’s just another rehashing of an age-old fairy tale. While this may seem like a pessimistic view, it turns out, most stories, or plots, have been told and retold since humans learned how to tell them.

Most modern stories derive from ancient myths and fairy tales. There are seven basic story plots, according to Christopher Booker:

  • Overcoming the monster (‘Salem’s Lot)
  • Rags to riches (Annie)
  • The quest (Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief)
  • Voyage and Return (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings)
  • Comedy (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
  • Tragedy (A Song of Ice and Fire)
  • Rebirth (Middlesex)

You might not agree with the examples I’ve given, but the fun thing about stories and literature is that sometimes these things overlap. This article on Script has several more lists, and Joseph Campbell’s works also have further information.

So what’s a poor struggling writer to do when she finds that someone’s already told her story? Is there nothing to do except trash the thing and try something else? Well, that’s an option, but don’t jump the gun just yet. Remember, there are more elements to a story than just plot.

Going back to the introduction, I recently wrote a short story about which I was ecstatic. It was original (so I thought), I was excited to build the world around it, and I loved the characters. About half-way through writing it, I realized something: this story was one that had not only been told before, but one that has appeared in several iterations over centuries.

Did I trash the story? Nope. I finished the draft, and now I have a few questions to ask myself, the first one being: Do I still like this story? If the answer is yes, I’m going to go forward and begin editing. If not, well that’s okay too. I can just archive the story and come back to it later if I change my mind, or use something from it in another project.

Once I’ve decided to go through with editing my story, I’ve got a few other things I need to think about before I can start. What kind of story have I written? In this specific case my story is a kind of Faustian fairy tale – a young girl made a deal with an other-worldly spirit, and now it has come to collect. With that figured out, I can determine what I need to do to make my story stand out from all the others. With this case, the person making ill-advised contracts with demons is a small, sick child who simply does not want to die and can’t be expected to know better, where in most Faustian fairy tales the deal is made by adults who only seek power and probably should know better.

You can also play more with the other aspects of the story. Try writing the story from a different perspective – perhaps look at it from the demon’s perspective. Use a first-person point of view rather than third (or vice versa, depending on which point of view is your default). If you’re feeling especially brave, you can try the second person point of view.

Another thing you need to ask yourself is what you’re trying to accomplish with the story; what is your story trying to say? Going back to my example, most Faustian fairy tales end badly for the character signing the contract – he or she ends up selling their soul and is doomed to an eternity of punishment. That is the Christian take on the whole affair, but I am not a Christian and neither is my character, nor is the world in which I’ve put her a Christian one. Her ending need not be so tragic.

Most importantly, when writing a story that’s already been told, you need to find what makes that story uniquely you. You’re telling that story for a reason; something about it must have spoken to you and inspired you to write. All you need to do is to know yourself, learn what that something is, and share it.

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