A Note on Originality: Shapes of Stories

The video above outlines the nature of stories. That being that they come in only a few particular shapes. This was a comforting video, for me, because it established in my mind what I had to do to be original. Because, you see, no one is actually expecting you to reinvent the wheel — they just want to see different styles of rims from time to time.

Every story you can conceive of can fit rather nicely into one of the following shapes:

shapes of stories

Consider, for instance, the most popular story shape: The Heroes journey — shown above as the Cinderella shape. This is a shape which can claim the story of Cinderella, Harry Potter, Kung Fu Panda, Star Wars, Batman, Spider-man, The Matrix, etc. What is Cinderella about? A girl whose life sucks until it gets a little bit better until it starts sucking again until it gets better forever after. Harry Potter is about the same thing, except a boy instead of a girl. Kung Fu Panda? Same thing, except with a Panda. Star Wars? Same thing, but in a galaxy far away. Does Cinderella ever need to learn Kung Fu? No. Does Harry Potter need to fit into a glass slipper? No. And yet, really, they are all the same story.

I recently spoke with a friend who was asking me about a story I am going to be writing in the next several months on my Wattpad account. I described it to him by saying it was about a man who is down on his luck, but finds a magical cure, but the magical cure ends up coming back on him in the end — a tragic story. Rightly so, he said, ‘well, that seems a bit unorginal. I know a lot of stories like that’. And, of course he has. Anyone who has watched a Twilight Zone episode knows that formula. Anyone who has watched Breaking Bad knows that formula. And yet, would anyone really say that Breaking Bad copied Twilight Zone? Not at all. They simply both follow the “From Bad to Worse” story shape.

So, when we are aiming to be original, it is not necessary to try to create something entirely new. These story shapes have endured so long because they are the ones we all recognize and understand. When you write, keep these shapes in mind. Betray a part, if you like, but don’t concern yourself with thoughts of originality. The journey of your hero will have its own unique place in the land of ideas, even if it shares many of the same rhythms as the others. Your cautionary tale will be remembered for what it has to offer, not for its similarity to the pattern of the shape itself.

Create new ideas always, new genres if you can, but never worry about the patterns — it is the patterns that hold our stories together, they are everlasting and eternal. And, so will be your stories when you use these patterns in new and beautiful ways.

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