Here is a lie: There are only five/seven/nine/three and a half stories in the world, and they just keep getting told over and over.
This is one of the most prevalent pieces of dubious writing advice out there, and, trust me, I recognize dubious writing advice when I see it. After all, most of this blog is full of dubious advice*. The difference is that no one has ever quoted me to a new writer in the hopes of squashing their creativity underfoot like a stray eyeball.**
The reason this lie gets repeated is because it sounds like the truth. And because it plays on the festering pile of insecurity that lurks under the surface of many new writers. You’re no good, it says. You’re not doing anything original, and if you’re not, what’s the point? Tolkien covered the Quest myth, and if he didn’t, Lucas damn well did. So why bother?
Allow me to switch arts for a moment: this is a bit like saying that there are only five paintings in the world. And that there’s no point in doing a self-portrait because Van Gogh already covered that and it’s so done. After all, it’s not like anyone came along and invented a bunch of new fucking colours recently, am I right? So don’t bother.
Reductionist bullshit is exactly that: bullshit. There may be a grain of truth buried in it somewhere, in the same way that there may be a tiny speck of diamond nestled inside a fertilizer bin worth of shit, but are you going to dig for it?
Well, no need, kiddies, because I did that for you. Here’s the diamond: there are types of stories out there, and studying these types can help you understand what you’re writing. But they are not prescriptions for your story. That’s going at it backwards, and like anytime you do something backwards, you’re likely to fall on your ass.
The devil is, as always, in the details, and that’s where the art is, too. No one made new colours, so paintings are about the arrangements and the proportions and the shape and the subject and the emphasis. And so are stories. The new part—the part that’s you, incidentally—is in the characters, the changes, and the details. The mixing of types and genres. That’s where you make the stories like a mad scientist crossing a cobra and a mongoose to create the dreaded MONBRA, Scourge of Mumbai.
And anyone who says there’s nothing original out there isn’t looking hard enough.
*The breakdown is as follows: 60% dubious advice, 30% swear words, 8% out of context pictures, and 2% chaos.
**At least I hope not. If anyone has, stop that shit right fucking now, or your eyeballs are on my list.