Plotting: the Anti-Family Feud Game

As much as I think of most writing advice as being more useful to the vast majority of writers than the vast majority of writers think the average piece of advice is useful for them, there’s some common chestnuts that just stick in my throat, spines and all.

One of them is “no one has read *your* take on (common trope) before.”

Having been an editor on On Spec for a while now, I’m telling you there’s a 95% chance we have read every take, uncommon or not, on most common tropes before. If a story based on a common trope is going to stand out from the rest of the stories in that slush pile, it has to be sinisterly good with the concept to exceed my expectations given how many takes I’ve seen on any given trope that reading period.

Great works playing with tropes happen. In fact, it probably happens every reading period that there’s an exceptional take on a familiar trope that still manages to exceed the expectations I have for my reader’s time and money. It got me thinking of how using common tropes and plotting a story, in general, is like the anti-Family Feud game show.

If a hundred authors are given the exact same premise, regardless of the genre, a lot of them are going to tell multiples of the same general series of events. It’s why writing for a themed anthology is so difficult. To write a plotline that is different than most of the submissions in a way that stands the story out from the crowd is far more difficult than just writing a good story that says something about being human.

So instead of saying no one has heard your take on common story tropes, we should be far more specific. “No one has heard an author’s very unusual take on a common story trope before” is far more accurate to the current market. Though even having an unusual take is far more difficult than it sounds. I remember hearing an agent writing their query letter on a salmon-shaped card. It had stated that the author bet that the agent had never received a query letter on a salmon before.

They hadn’t. But a tuna-shaped query letter had arrived the week before.

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