Let Your Story Find Its Own Originality

This week’s video draws examples from the 1992 film The Last Mohicans to show how thinking outside the box can bring new levels of depth and originality to your writing.

Video Transcription:

The majority of stories tend to fit within certain standard archetypes. Boy meets girl, the hero rides off into the sunset, the bad guy always dies. These story tropes have become archetypes because they resonate with audiences. But authors shouldn’t feel as if they have to force their stories to fit a mold. Sometimes giving our stories their heads and letting them take the bit in their teeth can lead us to surprising places and, often, enduringly potent stories.

The 1992 film version of The Last of the Mohicans offers just such a story. The entire movie is a study in the effectiveness of subtlety and sparsity. The film flows along with an effortless intensity, in which neither the story nor the characters ever feel forced. This is nowhere more evident than in the climactic battle scene, which flies in the face of several established archetypal expectations, most notably the idea that the antagonist always has to die at the hands of the main character. In Last of the Mohicans, the protagonist Nathaniel Poe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) becomes a surprisingly effective supporting character in the final showdown between the villain Magua (played by Wes Studi) and Nathaniel’s adopted Mohican family.

As writers, our first reaction to such a plot twist might be incredulity. How will readers find satisfaction in a finale that doesn’t allow the hero to carry the burden of the plot? And, indeed, in most stories, this might easily be a recipe for failure. However, because director Michael Mann stayed in tune with the needs of his story and trusted his characters enough to allow them to act in character, he was able to stray from the beaten path and offer viewers a climax resonant in its honesty and raw emotion.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever tried to force a story to fit an archetypal framework? What was the result?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Force a story to fit an archetypal framework is something which every writer does; some of them succeed in hiding it and some of them not.
    I think detail inventory is only reason behind success and failure behind archetypal framework.
    When writer start feeling its character as real, he understand its limitation and scopes, example small village girl participating in Davos is out of focus.
    I tried to categorise my story from various perception, might be according to hero of story something is possible which is impossible according to villain. Best way to understand it – try to be in shoes of character and think about possibilities which can happen.
    I think when writer understand scalability of his character, problem arises from archetypal framework will be overcome

  2. I try not to force my stories to do anything. My process works better if I just let it go and not think about what it all means until the first draft is down and out. Then I go back and analyze.

  3. My previous WIP was something I tried to fit into the archetypal frame. I spent more time trying to make it work than in trying to understand the real story. After 18 months I realized the novel was essentially useless and I put it away.

    My current WIP is in much better shape. I’m working on the 2nd edit now, filling in the details and finding places where the story simply doesn’t advance smoothly or wanders or says the same thing again. It just feels like a much different and better work.

    Of course, my current WIP is my 6th attempt at writing a novel, so maybe I’m learning what I want to do and I’m not so concerned with following a certain frame.

  4. My WiP is nothing like that. If boy-mets-girl-saves-the-day-happily-ever-after is the archetypal frame, mine is more like boy-ruins-girl’s-life-she-tries-to-rescue-him-lots-of-deaths-end-of-all-things.

  5. I don’t build my stories around a certain framework. I just let them go where they want to go.

  6. 1) My upcoming novel St. Martin’s Moon is exactly this sort of story, the hero is left broken by the villain and the supporting cast saves the day, and the hero too. Needless to say, it fits no archetypes that I know of and is impossible to describe.

    2) I wrote a blog post of my own on this very topic just this morning. It’s called ‘Story Knows Best’.
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

  7. I was actually just thinking about this the other day, when I finished re-reading Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel. The book was originally printed as two, and at the end of both story arcs, the main character does not defeat the antagonist. I don’t think it works like Last of the Mohicans does though, because in the first climax she gets knocked out at the beginning of the battle, and the second she’s not even there. It’s just disappointment after disappointment, which is sad considering that the rest of the book is so good! I wouldn’t mind these two facts if we could actually see the climactic scenes, but alas.

  8. @Subodh: Archetypal frameworks only fail when the author and reader become too aware of them. When the archetype looms so blatantly that it’s the only thing we can see, we obviously haven’t done a good enough job covering the bones with flesh.

    @Hannah: Stories that have to be forced usually aren’t cooperative. They’re headstrong creatures, really!

    @Stephen: It took me four or five novels to really reach the place where I *got* it. The only way to learn how to write excellent stories is to write for a very long time.

    @Galadriel: Sounds cheerful! :p However, I tend to like bittersweet endings – especially when they’re original.

    @Heather: That’s always the most exhilarating part of the ride: finding out exactly where it is they *want* to go.

    @Author Guy: Great post. I’m linking it at the bottom of mine.

    @Jenn: When we stray from the beaten path, we absolutely need to have a *better* alternative to offer readers. Otherwise, they’ll inevitably close our stories in disappointment.

  9. I have not done that, and I do try to resist following expectations when I write. I know I LOVE when a story does something unique or unexpected well. It’s extremely satisfying~ Thanks, KM! :o) <3

  10. The biggest problem is that we often don’t realize when we’re writing according to expectations. We’re so accustomed to archetypes (indeed, you could even say they’re hardwired into us) that we sometimes don’t realize when we’re overusing or abusing them.

  11. Great insight!

    Do you think it is harder to publish books that go off the beaten path or do you feel that publishers are looking for originality?

  12. A little of both; of course, it depends on the publisher. If we’re talking genre fiction – such as romance or whodunits – publishers definitely want the standard archetypes to be followed, usually to a T. But broader genres, such as literary, contemporary, and speculative are usually more interested in experimenting.

  13. Thank you for posting this! Forcing a story is never a very good idea – yes, it has to have some structure in order to work, but you have to let the story tell itself. If you allow it that movement, it often helps you out and tells itself well.

  14. The wonderful thing about writing is that you can always go back and add structure in later drafts, after you figure out where the is supposed to go.

  15. I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to force my characters to fit a certain type. One thing I have learned is that you have to believe in your story.

    I’ve received some critiques of late and some of them are diametrically opposed to the others. Writing and stories are so subjective.

    The author really has to believe in his or her story and (within reason) be true to the vision as they envision it and see where it takes them.

  16. Realizing that art is inherently subjective is vital to protecting our easily-bruised egos when someone doesn’t understand our stories. We should always be on the lookout for how we can use negative reviews to sharpen our writing, but we also need to keep in mind that someone’s opinion is just that – an opinion.

  17. I think some of the accepted writing “archetypes” are mostly current, accepted conventions.

    What you say in your video seems to point toward the director’s adherence to a real Archetype–an energy complex deep in humanity’s Collective Unconscious…

  18. If it resonates with the audience, then it probably *is* something deeper than just a surface deviation from “standards.”

  19. Interesting thing to do. A hero doing and getting everything right is fun, but a bit experimentation can’t hurt 🙂

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