"There are no new plots, just new ways of telling them."
I don't know who first said those words, but I'm sure there was some version floating around when Virgil met that guy at the Emperor Augustus's orgy who said, "You're a writer? Hey, I've got this idea for a book about a guy who sails around the Mediterranean having adventures. You can write it down and we'll split the proceeds 50/50."
Experts don't agree on the actual number of plots. In the 19th century, Georges Polti listed 36 "Dramatic Situations." In 1993, Roland Tobias counted 20 "Master Plots," and in 2005, Christopher Booker compressed the list to 7 "Basic Plots." This April, Miss Snark said there are only 6.
But they all agree the number is finite. This means somebody has told your story before. It's all about how you write it. (But don't try to explain that to the guy who wants to do the 50/50 thing. Just run. He has a lawyer.)
So if all plots are old news, why do agents so often reject our queries for predictable plotting?
They're talking about storylines they've seen done badly by so many amateurs, their eyes glaze over unless they can immediately spot a unique twist, superb writing, a celebrity tie-in – or all of the above.
I'm not telling anybody to abandon a work-in-progress because the plotline is over-popular – just warning that you'll have to work harder to make yours stand out from an ever-expanding pack.
The storylines complained about most often fall into one of three categories.
1) The Thinly Disguised Memoir/Rant
The Health-Crisis Survivor: The protagonist has breast cancer, a parent with Alzheimer's, or an autistic child – and after much agony, learns what's important about life. Heart-wrenching, but depressing doesn't sell books.
My Terrible Childhood: Child abuse is tragic stuff, but after a reader has seen a hundred versions of Bastard Out Of Carolina in a week, she gets calluses on her eyeballs.
Days Of Wine And Roses: Too many addicts have twelve-stepped before you. It's hard to make a story of "I was soooo messed up" sound fresh. Journal about it, and use your insights in other work.
The President/Prime Minister/Mayor Sucks: Because it takes so long to get a novel published, most of what you're ranting about will probably be old news by launch date. Place this material in zines, newspapers, blogs, etc.
2) The Wish-Fulfillment Road-Trip Fantasy
Thelma & Louise: Unappreciated housewives leave soul-stifling lives for the freedom of the road. Sounds fun, but we all know how it ends.
Me & Bobby McGee: Unappreciated husband leaves soul-stifling life for the freedom of the road. He picks up a sexy hitchhiker who teaches him what's important about life and some nifty things to do in bed.
Zen & The Art Of: Same story as above with motorcycle, sailboat, classic Corvette, or other companion vehicle.
3) Obvious Or Copy-Cat Plot Devices
Grail Quests: J. R. R. Tolkein provides some pretty stiff competition in the "searching for a magical object" category. If you saddle this old warhorse, make sure it takes you somewhere wildly original or funny.
Wardrobing To Narnia: Blogging agents kvetch most often about the proliferation of "portals" in SciFi/Fantasy queries. Pop your characters to fantasy worlds by magic toaster or something.
The Harry Potter Hero: The ordinary kid who doesn't know he's the anointed hero destined to fight the Evil One and save the school, civilization, planet, or other identified group. Old when young Arthur pulled the sword out of that stone.
Biological Warfare Or Eco-Terrorism: If you've seen five cop shows with the same plot in the last month, you'd better have a really new take on it.
A Writer Writing A Novel: We're told to write what we know, which is probably why most writers try this one. But you'll do better with a story about your day job at the laundrette.
101 Bad Dates: If you've got to put your heroine through the hell of meeting a bunch of clueless frogs before she kisses the right prince, have something else going on – like maybe she's fighting demon eco-terrorists who have emerged through the portal in her gym locker, searching for the sacred chamber pot of Zog, owned by her autistic grandmother.
On the other hand, oldies can be goodies. I'm sure somebody said to Virgil at that same orgy, "A lost dude sails around the Mediterranean after the Trojan War? What – you never heard of Homer?"
In the end, it's about the writing.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and freelance writer. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org