Plot Uniqueness: The Macro vs. Micro Problem

For all that people say that there are only 2-3 stories, no one wants to be the author who makes people grimace and say that he (or she) writes the same plot over and over again. At the same time, a plot that jumps around completely out of left field can leave the story feeling disconnected and jarring (or just plain bad). No one wants to be predictable, but to be readable, we can’t be completely unpredictable.

So what can we do? How do we make our stories new if there are only 3 plots (max)?

I’ve already touched on one method in “Thought-provoking Fan Art” and “Schrödinger’s Setting,” and that’s to add uniqueness through your worldbuilding. Changing the setting and the surrounding culture can make a plot seem new even if it’s the same plot that’s been told for hundreds of years. I’m sure you can think of plenty of stories that seem different because of the world(s) they’re set in.

The other method for making the story seem fresh is related, and that’s to put effort into making the details of the story interesting. Character quirks, dialogue, small moments in the plot, writing style, figurative language – all of those aspects (and more) work together to make stories seem different from each other.

So if you want to emphasize difference, focus on the micro scale.

It’s when we zoom out to the macro that we can see the similarities in plot. From a distance, all the nuances and levels of difference become indistinguishable, and only the overall shape remains. That’s what they’re talking about when they say there are only so many plots. Yes, when you look at the overall shape, there tends to be a lot of similarity. The rhythms of pacing – the crescendo of the rise and fall and rise and fall of the action – these are parts of telling a story in an entertaining way. So, yes, there’s going to be overlap in the shape.

What those people forget, however, is that when you’re reading a book, you’re not looking at the macro alone. In fact, if you get sucked in, you’re mostly looking at the micro scale. So as a writer, that’s the place to worry most about differences.

So what if all your books are hero journeys? Are they different hero journeys? Do the details of the journey change? Does each book have separate twists and turns? How many books have you read with a save-the-world hero plot? Do you consider them all the same story?

The fact of the matter is that saying there are only 2-3 stories is a simplification. Yes, it’s interesting on a theory level (it can be fun to ponder the idea and what it might reflect in regards to the human psyche), but on a writing level, it’s more likely to lead a writer astray than to help him/her improve. It sets up and unhealthily strengthens the need to be different for the sake of difference.

I promise you that if you’re writing a modern romance novel, the demographic for that genre is not going to be mad because your macro scale followed the usual plot: man and woman meet, go on an adventure, and fall in love. Just like no one’s going to protest if your horror book is scary, and horrible things happen to the characters. Or if your mystery has a crime that gets solved. The big plot arcs have become more or less the definition of the genre. They’re what the readers expect and generally enjoy.

That’s why uniqueness is less the story you’re telling and more how you tell it.

If every single one of your leading men looks the same and has the same job and mannerisms, it’s going to get old. When every book is set in the same area with similar twists and similar characters, all but the most loyal readers start to get bored. And I guarantee that if your characters solve the same mystery or are attacked the same way by the same supernatural creature in each book, you’ll lose the mystery and horror crowds.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a lot more important to be unique and creative on the micro scale than on the macro. If you can figure out a way to write a completely new plot that works well, that’s brilliant! (Congratulations on your genius and well-deserved fame!) If you can’t, that doesn’t mean you have to write the same story over and over again (At least, as long as you don’t zoom out too much…).

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