Wednesday, March 17, 2010

There Is No Future, Only the Past

I know that title probably sounds depressing, but it isn't. At least, not for me. I cribbed an old quote by O'Neill, "There is no present or future, just the past happening over and over again." Well, the truthfulness of that in regards to historical events, I will not debate at this moment. But, I must say, from what I've seen, in stories, at least, it's true.

Don't believe me?

Scenario #1: A young couple from waring families falls in love and must struggle to be together against seemingly impossible odds.

Obviously, I mean Romeo and Juliet. Except I really meant the myth about Pyramus and Thisbe. Or did I mean Troilous and Cressida? No, wait, I was thinking of The Wicked Books by Holder and Viguie.

Scenario #2: Pretty, spirited young miss becomes involved with a slightly older, highly attractive man, and through her love saves him from his dark past.

I'm not even going to play with you on this one. That's the plot of about a million romances whose names I couldn't even begin to list. And Twilight. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

So, this brings about the old question, what constitutes new and original anyway? For most stories, I'm sure there's something there that, when stripped to the bones, is really something we've all seen before.

But, for me, that's the key. You've got to strip it to the bones to see that. There should be enough new and interesting meat on the bones that it distinguishes itself from others of its kind.

Bear with me on what could be a disturbing metaphor, okay?

Human skeletons, by and large, look a lot alike. (Not that I've seen a bunch up close or anything like. I'm generalizing.) If you look at pictures of different human skulls, you'll always know, 'Hey, that's a human skull.' And, if I showed you five skeletons, you'd probably need a while to find the two that were exactly alike. (Ooh, an interesting, but slightly creepy, game to play at Halloween parties.)

But, not all people look alike. We're not even shaped alike, for all we've got similar bones. Some bones are longer some people. Some people have more muscles in certain areas. Our hair and eyes and all the little details come in different dimensions and colors. The details change.

It's the same with stories. To make an old story new, change things up. Elongate some bones and shrink others (change the basic framework to shift the focus to another aspect of the tale). Redistribute the muscle groups (change some big aspect, like POV or time and place, which can do a lot). Replace the hair and eyes (make the minor details way different. You can change the MCs personality and end up with a whole different seeming story.)

The past is happening over and over again. Why don't we always feel like it? Because it's a different looking history every time.

How do you feel about story repetition? Are these all just the same old story over and over again? What do you do to make your stories original?


  1. I have just got to stop reading you first thing in the

    Someone once said there are only 12 original stories in the world, which I believe. Having had to think about this post, I believe my current WIP is 'the prodigal son (daughter)'. Which I never would have thought about if you hadn't brought it up.

    I think, in order to change these basic stories, you have to have a clear hold of your own voice, otherwise you would start to sound like everyone else. You pointed out that even though we're all the same skeleton, we're different by and large, and that is the same with our "Voice". That is what I believe will make the story different. You and I could write a story using the exact same words but the stories would be completely different.

  2. Love this post! I've been trolling my brain this week for ideas for my next novel. You're right-- they're basically all similar stories fleshed out in different ways. Does this make creating easy-- just find an old story and make it yours-- or hard-- imbuing it with your own voice and originality?
    What an exciting dilemma! Thanks, Dominique, this is exactly what I needed to read this morning. And thus one sees why we *waste time* (my son's words) on blogging!

  3. When I read the title of this post, "There is no future, only the past" I thought it was an inspiring statement about how the future is what we make it and only the past is set in stone.

    And then I read the rest of the quote...Oh well, I'll just forget the quote and remember the headline. The future awaits!

  4. Piedmont -- It's nice to think I have an impact on your day. I hope it's a good impact. You're right, voice is definitely an important aspect of the originality of any work. If every book sounded the same, it would get old really fast.

    Karen -- I'm glad the post was thought-provoking for you. You're right, this is an exciting dilemma. I'm still not sure how I feel about it, but it's worth contemplating at times.

    Matthew -- "The future is not set." Because that too deserves to be said. ;)