You hear all kinds of numbers for the plot lines available to authors — 27, 10, 7, 3, 2, 1.
Personally, I believe that there are two basic plotlines, or possibly only one he “Someone leaves town/A stranger comes to town” dichotomy, or, to simplify things considerably, the overwhelmingly inclusive and very simple “Something is wrong”.
If you take ANY book and distill it down into its smallest component parts you are going to get down to that last, eventually, because in their purest essence all stories have this in common – they revolve around a character with a problem (i.e. “something is wrong”) and the story then complicates and convolutes itself around that skeleton of a plot and fleshes it out… differently. Every time.
There have always been demands that every story be “unique”, that if the story is not unique (by which it is presumably presumably meant that it was possible to foresee any single part of the development in advance of its actual occurrence) then the authors of such works are “wasting their precious time”.
This circles back to the other discussion, the one about what readers and writers owe each other.
I realize, and appreciate, that I must tell a good story to keep a reader interested. I try to do this. If blogosphere commentary alone is anything to go by, I am not succeeding with everyone – in fact, if you haven’t got someone who absolutely hates and despises your book you probably haven’t been read by enough people to make a statistically significant readership quorum.
Take my own work. When it comes to “The Secrets of Jin Shei”, comments have ranged from things like
“Go out there and get this book. And I mean NOW.”
“Graceful and lyrical”
“My favorite book, ever!”
“Okay. Not worth keeping”
…all the way to
“Falls into all the old traps, and I threw it against the wall”
“Anti-feminist diatribe” (yes, truly, apparently because I made Tai and her happy life the kind of thing that EVERY woman must have and thus damning Tai’s jin-shei sisters who were “doing other things”.
You cannot please all of the people all of the time. Those who see the story as “feminist” see only that there’s a book out there with not just one but a BUNCH of female protags (shock! horror!); the ones who want to pick holes in the social fabric can only see that, for instance, Nhia was made Chancellor… and then nothing about her work as Chancellor was referred to in the book ever again; or that Liudan was the classic screaming-memie angsty psychotic fem-bitch who chooses to rule alone without a man and that I therefore made her OF COURSE go mad because I apparently wanted to make a point that women needed a man to make them whole, and and and and…
Man, I didn’t know I packed so much subtext into that story.
But the point is, this is the thing that the reader brings to the story. This subtext. This, if you like, “counterplot”, which may or may not have anything to do with the story being told. Of course it would have been fascinating to explore Nhia’s Chancellorship – but this book was plenty long enough as it was, and *it wasn’t just Nhia’s story*. Etcetera. I wrote the story that I was told, not, perhaps, the story that that particular reader wanted to read. I cannot be apologetic about that.
But coming back to the uniqueness of the tale – I actually stumbled onto the whole idea of nushu, the secret language of the Chinese women on the concept of which my story was based, and I wrote a historical fantasy or alternative history based on that idea. There didn’t seem to be many books with that as the plot bunny around – but less than two years after mine came out, hello, here they all came – anyone heard of “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”? I promise you this – pick up the two books and read them side by side and although they are based on the same idea – i.e. NOT UNIQUE – they could not be more different. Boil down their plots to the distillate, and nushu – or, as I renamed it, jin-ashu – and the bonds it forged between women of a certain geographical and temporal locale are there in both books, and if you rendered the plots of both books into a single sentence, you’d probably find it hard to differentiate between the two of them.
How much more prevalent this is when you look at genre? Mills and Boons and Harlequin books made a business out of the non-uniqueness of their plots and stories – they had a fricking TEMPLATE which their authors got and were supposed to adhere rigidly to. But even leaving that aside completely, ALL romance shares a certain set of genre requirements. In a romance, and this defines it, the two protagonists have to be together on practically every page – and if they are not in an actual physical clinch then they must be quarelling with each other, hating each other, thinking obsessively about each other. A happy ending was mandatory (perhaps certain more modern lines have a bit of wiggle room on this, but you could NOT have a self-respecting romance novel where He and She did not end up together happily ever after. Just how unique is ANYONE’s romance? Utterly, I’d say – no two relationships are the same – but when you reduce it to a plot of a novel, it remains Boy Meets Girl, whatever dressing up you apply to the basic mannequin.
In fantasy, my own beloved, things are even more dire, because you have a limited number of tropes which define fantasy – and by definition no fantasy book is truly unique. It is the details that the writer puts in that make it so, the world that is being built, the interaction of the characters. “Lord of the Rings” is emphatically not the same book as Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” or “A song for Arbonne”; neither of those books bear much resemblance to the work of Kate Eliot, Glenda Larke, or J K Rowling. But scratch them all hard enough, and the same tropes will bleed out, silvery and scintillating fantasy blood, for it is of quests we speak (personal or chasing after magic rings), and of insurmountable troubles, and often of battles and deaths and mourning, and transcendent love, and betrayal, and pity, and of building up and tearing down, learning to fly and tumbling from the sky, finding one’s own gifts or a place in one’s world, sometimes over dead bodies of those one loved or through tragedy stark enough to drain a human being and leave him or her a creature of stone and poison and ice and fury.
But still, whatever drama we the writers throw at our hapless heroes to make our stories “unique”, it all boils down to that same simple sentence that encapsulates the Plot: SOMETHING IS WRONG.
I’ve seen genre books (SF and fantasy) juxtaposed with so-called literary or mainstream fiction by describing the former as stories where strong and normal and (relatively) well-adjusted people take on broken circumstances, and the latter where broken people deal with ordinary circumstances. I suppose that, too, is one way of breaking down plot – but once again, even on that basis, there is no such thing as a unique story. The last certified original idea was seen fleeing for the hills back when humans first started telling stories. There is no such thing as an original story – for everything is a circle, things that HAVE happened will happen again; things that ARE happening have happened before; human life is human life, and THAT is what our fiction is based on. It has to be. We know no other yardstick.
What I, the writer, owe you, the reader, is a GOOD story, not one that has never been told before. I cannot promise that, or deliver it. And if you come into this relationship seeking that, then we will both wind up disappointed.