They say there are only seven original plots. Everything written before now, after, from here to eternity and back, is all a variation on those plots. I could go even further and say that in this age of remakes, just about everything is a second or third retelling of the old tales. Thus Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World becomes Sylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man. Jane Austen’s Emma is rewritten by Amy Heckerling as Clueless. And Johnny Knoxville gets to be Luke Duke in a remake version of The Dukes of Hazard. Sacrilege. And everything any of us has ever written or wanted to write becomes distorted or adapted or modified until it doesn’t look anything like the original.
I want to put a clause in my will or whatever it is you do that makes people have to follow your wishes that says that at no time can anything I ever wrote be remade into a movie starring Tom Cruise, Slyvester Stallone, Van Damme, and maybe that one guy that always has his hair slicked back into a smarmy-looking ponytail. Steven Segal. Ick. And yeah, I get that if I’m dead those guys are probably also long dead, unless they find some way to cryogenically freeze themselves so they can live forever. Which Tom Cruise and Sly Stallone have both done in movies, so it seems a likely scenario. But anyway the future will have plenty of versions of gross snakey untalented miscreants sent forth to wreak havoc and ruination on my epic zombie apocalypse novel. I mean besides the other zombie apocalypse novels and movies already out there.
Instead of giving up and sticking my head in the oven, Sylvia Plath-style, I keep going. We all should. Because just because there’s no such thing as a truly original plot doesn’t mean there aren’t gajillions of variations on the story. And if a story does sound vaguely reminiscent of another well-known tale because the star-crossed lovers have parents that don’t get along or one of them is a vampire or werewolf or a cheese-hating ninja turtle doesn’t mean that the story sucks and should be scrapped due to sad unoriginality. It just means we all have to try harder, work harder, make something interesting and funny and find the fresh take on that old man vs. nature or man vs. man or man vs. himself or whatever plot line you happen to be using.
When I write something I think about the story itself, not where it may end up someday. Part of me feels like it would be amazing to write something so popular that some creepo Hollywood dude wants to turn it into a movie with one of the Coppolas. Not Nick though. Not after Ghost Rider. And part of me feels like I should defend anything I ever write with my life, as if it were my own baby and some horrible director wanted to tattoo cat food advertisements all over it.
The truth, the story is really in the details. So what if Shakespeare wrote the basic outline for 10 Things I Hate About You? It doesn’t make either The Taming of the Shrew or Ten Things any better or worse for what they are. Sure, one is a brilliant piece of literature written in poetic but often crass iambic pentameter, while the other is a two hour teen romance flick. But lots of people have enjoyed both pieces, so it's not as if the writing of one affects the popularity of the other. They're different but the same.
I really like the song “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” by the band Train. At first I had a “bathroom on the right/bad moon on the rise” moment and thought the chorus, like the title, was a refrain of the words “I’m all out of lies, and ways to say goodbye” but it’s not. It’s “ways to say you died.” And if you listen even closer, you hear that the chorus is really an appalling list of things the guy would tell his friends instead of saying that the girl left him and broke his heart. He would say she was drowned in a mudslide, eaten by a lion, fried getting a suntan, fell into a cement mixer full of quicksand… wow. Creative and violent deaths.
The masses may not realize it, but the melody to that particular song is a complete rip off of a song from The Phantom of the Opera. I love both takes on the melody, and the lyrics for the Train song are unique and funny and give the tune a different spin than the tragic tone that particular refrain has in the opera. They both have their place in the world of art and music and creation. They’re both good in their own way.
And so I stop worrying and I keep writing. My story might not have the basics of one of those seven original plots, but my take is unique. And someday some ghastly Hollywood guy with a ponytail might take something I did and demean it to a cheesy teen movie or horror flick. But I don’t care about that just yet. Writers write, and how other people interpret or derive a piece of fiction doesn’t change the original work itself. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, whether a thousand people use his ideas or not. Except I heard somewhere he might not be. But that's beside the point.
Got a favorite something that is really a rip off of something else, but it's still so delicious you want to cover it in syrup and eat it with a fork? Leave your comment below.
Julie Simmons-Wixom is a certified genius who has never been officially tested. If you want to talk more about stuff that is based on other stuff email her here.