When the Twilight series hit its zenith of popularity, vampire stories, love triangle stories, and YA fantasy flooded the market. After the success of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, dystopian fiction with young, often female, protagonists, became inescapable in traditional and independent publishing. Since the rise of self-publishing through Amazon and Draft2Digital, questions have been asked about writing to market and following trends for quick paydays. Most of the time, those questions are unkind.
The flip side of that is that many authors fear telling stories they believe have already been told. No one is buying vampire books so why write them? Is there even still a market for SEAL romance? It’s a natural instinct to want to write something entirely original, but how do we do that when there are only so many stories to tell.
According to The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker, there are only seven plots, seven stories that encompass everything from The Bible to 50 Shades of Gray. They are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Don’t even bother. They’ve all been done to death.
But that’s factually untrue. Whether there are only seven stories to honestly be told or a vast amount more, the reality is that when you—or any other author—puts those stories to the page, it is the very first time they have been done that way. 50 Shades of Gray is a prime example. It was inspired by Twilight, which is, of course, based on the mythology of Dracula and the Bible, with influence from Interview With a Vampire and other modern vampire stories. Love it or hate it (and I’m happy to discuss that at a further point) it is entirely its own.
Another instance would be the stories of Madeline Miller, author of Circe, and Song of Achilles. Both of these stories follow classic Greek mythology, a great deal of which is already spoken of in The Iliad and The Odyssey. But when you read these modern, unique perspectives, they are a world apart from the original Homer. (And amazing, please move them to the top of your TBR!) Dante wrote fanfiction (with a lot of self-insert) and Paradise Lost was a reinterpretation of the Bible (they so often are). Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun—which I categorically disagree with—but there’s nothing to stop you from becoming a classic in the canon of literature with a story that has already been told.
So how do we make it our own? The same way we make any story our own, whether it’s an erotic interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood or a Biblical retelling. Through character, voice, theme, and setting.
Ask yourself whose story you are telling. Circe is told from Circe’s perspective, whereas the Odyssey is close-third to Odysseus. Will the perspective change the story—the answer is almost certainly yes. Is it the right person to tell this narrative? That will get you started. Focus on character. Who is falling in love and why? Who are their friends? Are we stereotyping characters—the charismatic bard, the gruff ogre—or are we turning the classic myths on their head?
Next, look at where your story is set—but don’t let a unique interpretation stand in for the hard part. Sure, you can set Jane Austen in space in 3030, but you need to adapt the characters, the themes, and the events to fit the setting. Make a story modern and explore how that changes character interaction or set it in the past and fight the strictures of society so the plot can still unfold.
The point is, don’t let the fear of doing what has already been done stop you from telling your story. Every book is built upon the books that have come before, and those the books that came before that. Prior to the written words, those seven stories were shared around the campfire, in song, and on cave walls. Humanity has always craved stories that help us understand loss, that give us hope, that celebrate life and that provide some insight into what we are all doing here and what it all means. Perhaps your next interpretation might just be the one that gives it.