It’s not a secret: there’s a limited number of plots in the world. Some say , some say .
But there are certainly more than seven or 20 original stories circulating about. How is that possible?
And more importantly, how do you make the most of it?
The difference between plot and story
as the chronological sequence of events, and “plot” as the causal sequence of events. As he puts it, “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
But then, “The king died and then the queen died because she ate the same poisoned soup” is also a plot. So is, “The king died and then the queen died because she felt remorse at having killed him.”
Same story. Three completely different plots.
This gap between story and plot is the key to successfully mutating plots into a wealth of original ideas.
Boiling a novel down to a sentence
You may have heard of the “elevator pitch” of a novel, where you have to convince someone to read your novel within 30 seconds.
This exercise is different.
An elevator pitch celebrates everything unique and exciting about your book. Here, we’re trying to get to the bottom of a given plot, to its common, unadorned story.
Let’s have a look at the first book of the Harry Potter series.
sums up the plot in 1943 words.
goes for a much less detailed version, recapping the book (without spoiling the end) at 103 words.
We can further boil down the novel into a single sentence. For example: “Boy reclaims his birthright.”
Actually, that’s a bit too concise for our purpose here, so we’ll dial it back and add some details: “In a quiet English town, a boy grows up unaware of his heritage until something opens his eyes to it, and then he reclaims his birthright.”
So far so good?
But hang on, isn’t that the plot of King Arthur? Or David Edding’s series, ? Or a countless number of other novels?
Yes, it is.
And herein begins the magic of creating plot from plot.
How to win at plot mutation
A successful plot mutation is completed in four steps:
- Choose a novel you love.
- Boil it down to a single paragraph.
- Make a simple but profound change.
- Follow through.
Let’s go over these steps in detail.
1. Choose a novel you love.
We’ll stick with the first book of Harry Potter for this example.
2. Boil it down to a single paragraph.
Make sure you cut out all names and actual places until you’re left with a generic summary. Do include a phrase about the settings (e.g. “In a fantasy world,” “In the Wild West,” “In Victorian England,” and so on).
How do you know if it’s boiled down just right? Well, it should allow you to easily recognize the novel you’ve started out with (enough details), but it should also remind you of some other novels (enough free play).
3. Make a simple but profound change.
Start with underlining the elements that can be swapped. These will usually be the settings, the protagonist, the object of the protagonist’s desire, and the main obstacle in his or her path. In our Harry Potter example, we have “quiet English town,” “boy,” and “heritage/birthright.”
Now begins the fun. Try taking an underlined element and changing it. Instead of “quiet English town,” for example, let’s make it “ancient Japan.”
This alone is enough to completely transform the story, but you can go on changing other elements. Instead of “heritage/birthright,” we can have “a treasure,” or “a special power.” Instead of “boy,” we can choose “hardened assassin.”
Because we’re working with a big-picture summary, every minor variation creates a whole new story. Now all that’s left is to…
4. Follow through.
If you skip this important stage, you’ll end up with a cheap Japanese Harry Potter knock-off.
What you really want is to dig deep into how every change you’ve made affects the story. Don’t stop at the superficial level.
If you’ve changed the settings, spell out how a new settings affect your protagonist.
What new cultural elements do you have to work with? What impact do they have on your protagonist’s desire? What in this new environment would stand in your protagonist’s way?
If you’ve changed the protagonist’s desire, follow through on what a different person it makes your protagonist, what it says about the settings, and so on.
It’s in these little details that true originality comes to play. Revel in the details. Let them lead you to new worlds and stories. And most of all, have fun.
Now it’s all yours
Choose a novel, boil it down, change a key factor, and follow through.
Master these four steps of plot mutation, and you’re well on your way to an endless source of original story ideas.
Come up with a good one? Share in the comments below!