To use an old cliche: ideas are a dime a dozen.
Truth is, there aren’t all that many ideas to spare. How many times
have we seen the same story over and over again, dressed up in new
A man is accused of murdering his wife, escapes custody and hunts
down the real killer.
A daughter commits suicide but her mother thinks
it was murder.
Two young teenagers go on a killing spree.
A house/car/insane asylum/ship/airplane/cave is haunted by ghosts. A man/woman/boy/girl/dog/cat is possessed by evil spirits.
A husband/wife/daughter/son is kidnapped and the spouse/mother/father risks his or
her life to save them.
A man and a woman meet, hate each other, fall in love, break apart
after a huge misunderstanding and finally get back together again.
That last is the plot of many romance books and countless romantic comedy movies.
And you know what? It doesn’t matter that these ideas are constantly recycled. Because, as numerous writers have pointed out in my lifetime, it’s not the idea that counts, but the execution.
Or as The Swallows once sang:
It ain’t the meat it’s the motion
That makes your daddy wanna rock
It ain’t the meat it’s the motion
It’s the movement, it isn’t the stock
For example, let’s take a look at movies. I choose movies over books
for the simple reason that a) I love them as much as books (but in a
different way); and b) it’s much easier to find people who have all
seen the same movie.
If we go back to the romantic comedy example — the meet, fall in
love, break up, get back together plot line — we could, as I said,
point to just about every romantic comedy ever made.
But which ones do we remember?
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY comes to mind. Not because it’s my daughter’s
favorite movie of all time (she can quote entire passages of dialog),
but because it was a huge, huge hit for everyone involved and most of
us have seen it.
But it also comes to mind for another, all important reason: it is a beautifully written, beautifully executed movie.
Harry and Sally meet while they’re on the road to New York. Harry’s
very opinionated about women and relationships, Sally’s a picky,
high-maintenance girl who thinks he’s a jerk and they part ways not
liking each other much.
A few years and a couple of relationships later, they meet again in
an airport, wind up sitting together on a plane and Harry once again
demonstrates what an opinionated jerk he is — only he’s a little more
endearing than he was before.
They part ways, only to meet again a couple years later in a
bookstore. Next thing you know they’re hanging out together, become
great friends and — unknown to both of them, of course, but obvious as
all hell to the audience — they begin falling in love.
In the middle of a personal crisis, they finally succumb to their
attraction and sleep together. Only Harry, being afraid of commitment,
freaks out a little and Sally, sensing his hesitation gets pissed and
they stop seeing each other.
The story continues along the usual romantic comedy path, and the
two eventually wind up together after Harry races to a New Year’s Eve
party to find Sally. And here is an example of where the execution is
Sally at first rejects him. She’s not his consolation prize. But as
people are counting down to the new year around them, Harry,
desperately in love and wanting to win her over, goes into a speech
naming every quirk that Sally has and how much he loves those quirks
and wants to be with her for the rest of his life.
Sally, pissed off, tears in her eyes, just looks at him and says,
“Now, you see? It’s just like you, Harry, to make it impossible for me
to hate you. And I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.”
And then they kiss.
That, my friends, is genius execution. And with a movie filled with this kind of execution it’s no wonder that people love it.
It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion that makes your daddy wanna rock.
So what are your favorite examples of same old plot but GREAT execution?
Our own Alex Sokoloff’s THE HARROWING. Classic plot: young people trapped in creepy old house. Weird stuff starts happening. Weirdness ramps up to sheer terror. But the way the characters are drawn (especially the antagonist) and the way Alex handles the atmosphere makes it one of the best books I’ve read all year.
Another one: Lee Child’s Reacher novels. It’s the classic Western formula: Bad-ass loner rides into town, nails the hot girl(s), kills the bad guy(s), rescues innocents, rides out. The End.
Brilliant social outcast/nerd/cripple has everything going against him — an unforgiving society, his looks, family rejection, often poverty — but overcomes it all AND even gets the girl.
This theme manifests all over the place — westerns, nerd filsm, army pictures (Officer and A Gentleman) . . . and you often find it in literature, too.
One of my favorite authors to work with this is Lois McMaster Bujold whose character Miles Vorkorsigan is absolutely wonderful. He’s a brilliant, irreverant cripple in a rigidly proper society that only values physical prowess. Great set-up and execution.
The Coen brothers film FARGO. Small town cop, seemingly unsophisticated but observant, aware, asking the right questions and pursuing the right people, eventually gunning down the baddie. The cop in that movie is a pregnant woman.
James M. Cain said, “There are only six or seven original stories. It’s all about how you tell them.”
No Country For Old Men. It’s the same old innocent-bystander-finds-a-fortune-and-the-bad-guys-come-after-him, but in McCarthy’s hands, it’s so much more than that as well.
You would have to make me think this morning, wouldn’t you?
I vote for Gladiator. (Quit laughing)
Classic betrayal story — the hero is cast out, abused, falls from grace, must earn the respect of the people around him to rise up and overcome the evil that cast him down, all the while fighting for truth, justice and the American (Roman) way.
And Russel didn’t look bad in that leather kilt and armor, either.
Die Hard is another good example of this.
JD, I LOVE THE VORKOSIGAN BOOKS. I think A CIVIL CAMPAIGN is Jane Austin for the SF crowd.
Karen Rose does the romance “formula” new & fresh every time–along with a mystery & plenty of dead bodies. LOL I love her books.
Woodstock, FARGO is the perfect example. Wonderful storytelling.
And Guyot, Cain could do no wrong in my opinion. And I’m convinced he INVENTED some of those classic plots.
Fiona, good call on Karen Rose. And she’s a very nice lady, to boot…
Actually, Fiona, it was Pari who mentioned the Vorkosigan books, an opinion with which I heartily concur. Miles may be one of my favorite characters in all of fiction.
PS: Followed closely by Miles’ parents, Aral and Cordelia.
JD,I’m right there with you.
Of course, his wife is no slouch either.
Another storyteller in the SF and fantasy realm whom I really admire is Orson Scott Card — both for the Ender and the Seventh Son series.
I just finished reading Steve Berry’s The Venetian Betrayal and recommend it.
The story arc and technique are basically the same as most international espionage thrillers, but he certainly grabbed my attention.
I just finished Berry’s THE TEMPLAR LEGACY. It was the first Steve Barry book I’ve read. I wondered about his new one. Will have to check it out
My TBR pile has just doubled 🙂