Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be…there is no new thing under the sun.”
So says the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s depressing, especially for novelists. Readers expect us to turn out daring and original material every time we sit down at the typewriter. But whether we mine the ancient myths for our ideas or take inspiration from the crazy happenings reported in our morning newspaper, we are building on “that which hath been.” There’s no getting around it, all stories are derivative.
Plot is, by definition, a narrative of events that are caused by something or someone. It’s a story that makes the reader ask “why?” A few years ago I attended the Iowa Writers Festival and had the good fortune to take a class from Bret Anthony Johnston, an award-winning author and current Director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. Bret insists there are only two basic plots: hero takes a journey, or stranger comes to town. The only distinction between the two, he says, depends on point of view.
According to a book by Christopher Booker, there are seven plots. 1) Overcoming the monster; 2) Rags to riches; 3) The quest; 4) Voyage and return; 5) Rebirth; 6) Comedy; and 7) Tragedy. Because the first five in their purest form all have happy endings, Booker suggests they can be lumped together under the category of “comedy.” So, either seven or two, depending.
In his The Seven Basic Plots, Why We Tell Stories, Booker compares two plots separated by five thousand years. The Epic of Gilgamesh is regarded as the oldest surviving piece of literature on the planet. The story begins when a terrible evil befalls the kingdom. The threat is traced to a hideous monster who lives halfway across the world in an underground cave. King Gilgamesh goes to his armorers who equip him with a magnificent bow and a mighty ax. He sets out on a perilous journey to the monster’s lair. He and the creature exchange taunts and engage in a tremendous struggle. Finally, by a superhuman feat, Gilgamesh manages to destroy his enemy and return home triumphant.
In the second plot, circa 1962, a villainous scientist threatens to destroy the Western World. He lives in an underground cave on a remote island. The hero goes to his kingdom’s armorer who equips him with state-of-the-art weaponry – a Walther PPK 7.65 mm pistol, cyanide cigarettes, a high-frequency transmitter, and a Geiger counter. He sets out on a perilous journey to the villain’s lair. The adversaries engage in some snarky dialogue and engage in a life-or-death struggle. Against the fiend’s mechanical dragon, deadly spider, and army of machine-gun toting guards, it seems impossible that 007 will triumph. But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to defeat the evil Dr. No and return home triumphant.
Gilgamesh also bears striking similarities to stories in the Book of Genesis. It describes a beautiful garden and a deceiving serpent. It contains a devastating flood reminiscent of Noah and the Ark. And it provides the same moral found in Ecclesiastes, which is that the best response to death is to live with an appreciation of life. Gilgamesh isn’t all that different from Odysseus (700 BC) or Luke Skywalker of Star Wars (1977) – all heroes on a journey, embarking on adventure and confronting their antagonists.
As Mark Twain observed, we put the old ideas through a sort of mental kaleidoscope. “We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
There is no new thing under the sun. We recycle the same old plots again and again – comedy, tragedy, romance, irony. Someone quipped that originality is merely undetected plagiarism. (That last sentence is an example of what Ben Franklin called “the art of originality” – forgetting your sources). But the miraculous thing is how original the old pieces of colored glass can seem when looked at with fresh eyes. The setting and time period may change, along with the culture, the social values, the narrative emphasis, and the point of view of the characters. But the unique perspective and distinctive voice of the storyteller are what captivate readers. That voice makes “that which hath been” become new.
The question of originality has been written about extensively, exhaustively, and far more entertainingly. But rehashing these insights, and taking them to heart, has helped me to stop worrying over the imperative to be original. What’s important is to be authentic. Myself. Whether you believe a novel requires “five essential elements” or “seven key conventions” or can be written in “eight easy steps,” the form is infinitely flexible. Those two basic plots are plenty. Every novel is a new pair of eyes contemplating the world. Roll over, Ecclesiastes.