Thursday, January 17, 2008

An interesting journey this morning

As I wrote yesterday, I was planning to blog about the two basic plots in creative fiction: Someone goes on a journey, and a stranger rides into town. I'd done some thinking about the appeal of each, and why I tend to choose one over the other. I'd also come to the conclusion that they were both parts of the same story: the stranger riding into town has, in a way, arrived at the end of his or her journey and, in my stories at least, is about to reap the rewards for the hardships he or she has faced during that journey (after facing a few more, of course, or I wouldn't have much of a book).

But first, I thought I should try to find the origin of that theory, so I did a little googling. I discovered it's from a book by an American writer named John Gardner, THE ART OF FICTION. He's not to be confused (as I was for a minute) with the novelist John Gardner who wrote James Bond novels.

So now we know. (And I plan to try to get that book from the library.)

I also found an article entitled The Brief History of a Historical Novel by Max Byrd. It makes for fascinating reading in general, but what struck me was this comment, about the "two basic plots" theory: "In fact, that’s only one plot, seen from two different points of view."

That's along the lines of what I was thinking: the "someone" who goes on a journey becomes the stranger who rides into town. Or to put it as I see it, you can tell the story from the POV of the stranger on the journey, or the POV of the folks in the town or, in the case of my historical romances, both (the stranger and somebody in the town). That's part of the reason I enjoy writing historical romances -- two protagonists, two major, different points of view, twice the fun!

In my books, the stranger riding into town is often the hero, but certainly not always, and in fact, some of my best-received novels have had the women ride into town (TEMPT ME WITH KISSES, THE OVERLORD'S BRIDE -- and hey, the book I'm writing now, THE WARLORD'S BRIDE, I just realized!).

Whether the hero or heroine, the stranger represents a change that's come upon the other main character -- nothing is going to be the same after that stranger arrives. In that sense, the "town" character is about to go on a journey, too, but it's an emotional one, not a physical one.

The stranger arriving has already been on a journey, both physical (to get to the place) but also emotional (that's part of his or her backstory). He or she has learned much (but not everything they need to learn), likely suffered, and now is coming to the end of the journey, although they may not know it.

But to separate them a bit again, what's the appeal, for me, of "the stranger rides into town" versus sending a protagonist on a journey?

The stranger arriving appeals to me in part because I write books set in the past, and with that kind of story, the stranger stands in for the reader, being introduced to a new place and new culture. Of course, that works with the journey stories, too, as the characters are arriving at new places, too -- just more of them.

However, the "stranger in town" also happens to tie in to my personal history. We moved a few times when I was a child, so I'm familiar with the desire to find out who's who and what's what in a new place.

The other reason has to do with my skills and preferences as a writer. I don't enjoy writing description and I don't think it's my forte. If your characters are continually arriving at new locations, that makes for a lot more description.

But I must say I like the notion that there's really only one idea at the very heart and depth of any story, one that nevertheless allows for infinite variety.

It's that things change. People change, their world changes. Nothing stays the same. Sometimes we choose change, sometimes it's foisted upon us, but it's unavoidable, and in that sense, we're all on a journey.


Kimber Chin said...

I've never thought of it that way, that they were both the same plot, simply different views.

Wow, the more I learn, the more I learn I have to learn.

Oh, drat, there was a question I wanted to ask you but now I've forgotten...

Leah Braemel said...

There's been a lot of discussion lately about how there are only so many plots - it gets disheartening sometimes to come up with what you think is an original idea only to have someone say "Oh, that's just like ..." I'll have to look for those two books now. (And didn't Ian Fleming write the James Bond novels?)

Margaret Moore said...

To quote the Wikipedia entry: "In 1981, Gardner was asked to revive Ian Fleming's James Bond series of novels. Between 1981 and 1996, Gardner wrote fourteen James Bond novels, and the novelizations of two Bond films." So Fleming created Bond, but Gardner was asked to continue the franchise. Fleming died in 1964. And who knew Fleming also wrote Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang??? Not I!

Re coming up with new ideas -- as there is infinite variety among people, given their personalities and histories, and therefore characters and writers, even the same story can be infinitely different, depending on the characters and how the writer chooses to portray them. I could give six writers the same identical plot outline, and their stories would all be unique. So don't despair! Go write!

Kimber Chin said...


I can (and do) happily read the same plot again and again as long as the characters are different.

That's why all this talk about plagiarism is irritating. I don't care if phrases are stolen. There are no original phrases left (with millions of people blogging daily, what are the chances of that?).

Just give me some original characters (and considering there are billions of people on the planet, all different, that shouldn't be that challenging to do).