I think it’s safe to say this generation of movie-goers and readers are more analytical about their media consumption than ever before. You needn’t go far to find blogs, vlogs, reviewing sites and more for detailed critiques of just about any form of story-telling you care to think of.
On the one hand, I think this is a good thing. People should demand well-constructive narratives and ideas that challenge them in all forms of media whether they be comics, movies, or books.
Nevertheless, I’m also noticing a trend that has budded as a response to this movement and it’s a bit…annoying.
It’s the perpetuation of an ideology that maintains if anything is even vaguely similar to something else, it’s a knock-off.
The problems with this line of thinking are twofold.
For one, it stunts the growth of future writers because it forces them to live in a constant state of paranoia that their story is a copy of something else.
When Hunger Games was at the pinnacle of its popularity, many people decried it as a knock-off of another novel-turned-movie titled Battle Royal, a story revolving around Japanese students being dropped off on an island by the government and ordered to kill each other.
Now on a superficial level, Hunger Games does sound like its premise was lifted from Battle Royale. However, if you chose to look further and actually read the two books you’ll realize they have basically nothing in common.
(For those of you interested in an explanation of how they differ, I will leave a link here.)
For another, if you think about it, just about every story is a “copy” of another.
Example: Harry Potter is a knock-off of Star Wars.
Think about it.
Both feature orphaned boys raised by their uncle and aunt to believe that they are perfectly normal only for an old family friend to come into their lives and reveal the truth about their lineage. It then becomes clear they must defeat a great evil, who is much closer to their own identities than they had previously thought, by using the arcane arts.
Their mentors die which forces them to continue alone, armed only with the wisdom they obtained from their teachings and the love and support of their friends. Both characters must also control their darkness, which threatens to overtake them and makes them more like their arch nemesis than they previously thought.
Oh, and they both refuse to kill the enemy, but the antagonist dies in the end regardless.
While it’s fun to laugh at how similar these stories seem on the surface, the reason we find it humorous in the first place is because they are vastly different in every other respect.
One is science fiction with fantastical elements sprinkled in, one is fantasy. One takes place in a boarding school in Europe during the 90s, another long ago in a galaxy far, far away. One is about a child, while the other is about a boy in his late teens or early twenties.
The differences go on, but I’ve made my point.
The reason stories fail is not because they are similar to another story. The issue arises when it adds nothing new to the themes that it is trying to present, or it follows the exact same path that its alleged predecessor tread.
The concept of an orphan boy destined for greatness isn’t an idea invented by J.K. Rowling. In fact it’s used so often it borders on cliché. However, the way Rowling implements it is unique because their absence is not used merely as a vehicle to allow Harry to have adventures without parental intervention, or to make him a more sympathetic figure. Harry has no loving family of his own and so his friends become like family to him and the stakes are higher whenever their lives are in peril. He leans more heavily on them than the typical person might, even at that age when friendships are essential to personal and social growth. This forces us, the audience, to become more emotionally engaged in the characters’ fate because without them he has nothing.
So instead of worrying about how similar your plot or themes are to other works, focus on how you can play with the audience’s expectations and make the story yours.
Perhaps a subplot in your novel is about a character who wants to avenge a fallen family figure. Typically, at the end, the character decides not to go along with it because murdering that person would make them “just like” that character. However, maybe your character does go along with their plan and is happy with their decision, up until the point where they realize it has changed them for the worst. Your character has then lost a part of themselves they can never get back.
Maybe they aren’t even aware they have been changed by the experience until a trusted friend or family member points it out to them. This creates conflict and makes your character more three-dimensional.
This is only one example. There are tons of different things you can do to make yours story stand apart from other similar works.
Above all else, make sure to put a bit of your soul into everything your write. I know it sounds corny, but there is only one and your thoughts and opinions are your own.
Explore your identity.
Ask yourself why you believe what you believe. Dig deeper into ideas that might confuse you, or frustrate you about other works of fiction.
And remember, in spite of what Cinema Sins may tell you–
Tropes are not clichés!
Thanks for reading!