Friday, June 11, 2010

What Are My Chances?

by Laurissa
I’ve been listening to and reading so much lately about the craft of writing that I now forget where I heard the recommendation to read James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish. This book and others I’ve read address the reality that there is a limited number of basic plots and that a writer must noodle his or her basic plot to make it unique in order to capture its audience and a publisher (something I think often about as an unpublished writer). I’m writing my first mystery and up until now, I believe that I’ve made my plot and characters unique, but now I’m a bit concerned and I’ll tell you why.

Even though I’m an avid reader and particularly enjoy reading mysteries, my love of mysteries isn’t limited to novels. I’m also a fan of television “mystery type” series, and I have several detective/legal/crime television shows that I regularly watch. A week ago I was finally catching up on watching episodes of one of those series that I hadn’t had time to watch. This show had originally aired a couple months ago. The plot in this legal drama was that a pregnant mother needed to have experimental surgery on her unborn child in order to save her child’s life. The insurance company would not pay for this expensive surgery because it was deemed “experimental.” A few other twists were also thrown into this episode to add to the drama; such as, the father had answered a question incorrectly on the initial application for health insurance, and as a result the insurance policy was null and void. Luckily by the time the hour long show ended, the baby’s life was saved.

Now perhaps had I watched this episode when it first aired, I wouldn’t have noticed that the legal show that aired earlier this week had the same exact plot as the show that I recorded and watched last week (with, of course, a few other subplots). This newly aired drama’s story line was that a child needed surgery performed in order to save her life, but here’s a shocker…the health insurance company would not cover the surgery because it was deemed to be “experimental.”

Now the reason I’m mentioning this is as a fledgling unpublished writer, I’m worried as to what hope I have of crafting a plot that is unique, has the right hook, etc. to capture an audience when network television writers appear to have fallen short of this goal in storytelling? So while I’ve spent hours and days outlining and honing my manuscript in hopes that it is unique... is it really? Or has it been done before? I guess only time will tell. In the meanwhile, I’ll keep plotting along and hope for the best. One thing you can be certain of, my manuscript does not include an “experimental surgery” not covered under my protag’s health insurance policy.


Anonymous said...

Good post, Laurissa. While I haven't noticed with TV shows, I have noticed how many old movies are being re-made. Latest one is The Karate Kid.

Lots of times I'll see a movie listed in the guide, then it turns out it's a remake.

Is Hollywood in the same boat? Are those writers up against the same wall--not able to come up with something new?

Paula Matter

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

For me the twists make the story. Humans are only male and female but look at the twists there!
Giggles and Guns

Wilfred Bereswill said...

First off James Scott Bell is an excellent source. If you haven't already checked them out, the Kill Zone Bloggers have been doing first page critques and they have given excellent advice that not only covers the first page, but carries through the entire novel.

It's really difficult to come up with truely unique ideas. It took years to come up with the plot for my book, A REASON FOR DYING. I took Stephen King's advice and took two storylines (the movie Outbreak and the TV series 24) that wind up clashing in the middle.

Look at Avatar. In my analysis, plotwise, it was almost identical to Dances With Wolves. But it was developed with a fresh perspective.

If you develop the story with interesting characters and give it a fresh perspective, you'll be fine.

Ramona said...

Laurie, first, I love James Scott Bell's book on plot.

There are an awful lot of tired old plots that get published, often because what makes the book unique are the characters or the author's voice.

While it may be difficult to create drama that is fresh, surely the evil insurance company as villain is one of the least creative. Yawn. Good to know you're not doing that.

PatRemick said...

Enjoyed your post Laurissa!
And then there are those who say every plot must follow the hero's journey.... but was the evil insurance company involved there, too? LOL

Joyce Tremel said...

An interesting twist would be to make the evil insurance company the "good guy." Suppose the woman wasn't really pregnant, or in danger, or whatnot, and it was all a plot to bring the company down.

Right. In the words of Emily Latella, "never mind."

Unknown said...

All the plots have been done...over and over. The key is, make the character's unique, add a few unexpected twists and hone your voice. And write well.


MaryQ said...

I agree with pretty much everyone else. You see the same storylines produced over & over again. We probably can't come up with something that was already done in one form or another. Like you said, look at all the TV shows & movies over the years. But your characters & setting can set the story apart.

Strongly developed characters that your readers can love or hate will draw them in.

Years ago, I read most of JA Jance's Beaumont series that was set in Seattle. I love how she brought the city into the stories. I felt as if I'd lived in Seattle. I'm reading another series now set in a small town in Maine. It's great the way the author brings the quirks of the town & its people into the story.

Just my thoughts on what works for me.

MaryQ said...

Okay - so I meant to say:
We probably can't come up with something that WASN'T already done in one form or another

Patg said...

The problem, especially with film makers (I don't say Hollywood anymore because the world is full of film makers and Hollywood is no more guilty than the rest of them), is that nobody really wants anything new. The want tried and true and guaranteed profits. New is tricky and risky.
So, my thoughts on trying new is to double back on what you are writing about. I have a good example in SF. Recently even Stephen Hawking is getting in on it with a special on life in the universe. Sure it is all about microscopic organisms and animal life, but it has to go into intelligent life to capture the 'great unwashed' interest. If you view that 'bandwagon' you see millions of stories all trying to seem original with a different description of an alien, another version of alien invasion and how human will be the reason for all the bad things that happen.
Backtrack and think differently, why jump on that overloaded wagon and try to move it forward. Turn around and write about We Are Totally Alone in the Universe as potentially intelligent life. We have to get out there and start everything up.
As for your evil insurance company, child requiring experimental surgery, why not go with total approval of the surgery, help everywhere and BUT.........
Hard, right?

Jenna said...

I agree with Clarissa. There are no new plots, but character drives plot - ideally, anyway - and character is unique, or should be. If your characters react in ways that are unique to them, and you've done enough in building character and making the reader care about the character, then the fact that the plot is similar to something else that's been written or shown, shouldn't matter. Besides, 'sick kid has to have surgery but the evil insurance company refuses to pay' isn't a plot, it's a basic concept. The plot is what you do with it and how you work it out.

I second everyone's opinion on James Scott Bell. He's a great writer, and a very nice guy, too. Did a panel with him last year.

Laurissa said...

Wow, thanks everyone for taking the time to post such interesting comments and advice!

M Pax said...

As a fellow-fledgling, I'm in the same boat. I just keep writing. My second novel is different than the first and the third will be different again. Also working on the idea for #4 right now.

Uniqueness is in how we tell the story and the characters that drive it - our voice & our style.

Patg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.