What The Simpsons Taught Me About Writing

Categories Blog, Writer's Life

“But that’s already been done!” I cry out as I scrunch up yet another sheet of drafting paper, or hit backspace on my keyboard until the cursor twitches in a blank document. I heave a sigh and push out of my chair, pacing in circles as I try to think of another way to say it, another way to do it, another way to turn words into stories, a way that isn’t plagiarism.

I know you’ve all been there. When we writers sit down with our computers or notebooks, we begin that story, the one that will launch our careers to infinity and beyond. Then we realize it sounds a lot like Fight Club. Throw the pencil, hit the cursor. Try again.

It seems like every story has been written, but that’s because it has been. A creative writing instructor once told me that there are only two plots in the world: a stranger comes to town, and the hero goes on a journey. Any story in existence follows those two patterns, whether the “stranger” is actually just someone the main character is getting to know finally, or if the “journey” is more mental and spiritual. Name a story that doesn’t follow either plot, and I’ll owe you a Coke.

Superman? Stranger comes to town. Harry Potter? Hero goes on a journey (many journeys). Pride and Prejudice? Stranger comes to town, AND hero goes on a journey (the book would have ended a lot earlier had Elizabeth not ventured to Pemberly. You get the picture. All the stories are written. There’s no place for writers in this world so we’d better just go to law school.

Just kidding.

All the stories have been written, big deal. That doesn’t mean they can’t be rewritten. Take The Simpsons. I was watching it the other day, and two episodes played back to back. In the first episode, Bart is sent to military school due to his bad behavior and Lisa, fed up with Springfield Elementary’s lack of a challenging curriculum, joins him. But while Bart flourishes in the new environment of guns and war, Lisa struggles to be accepted by the boys who can’t stand the idea of a girl in their ranks. Bart begins to help her learn the ropes (that cliche means more if you’ve seen the episode) in secret, afraid of what his association with Lisa would do to his reputation, but ultimately he decides to have her back in her time of need, making sure his little sister doesn’t fail at what she truly wants to accomplish.

In the second episode, after Springfield Elementary’s principal makes some off-the-cuff remarks about girls being bad at math, the school is split in two. While the girls’ side of the school is more aesthetically pleasing, Lisa finds that the classes aren’t very academically challenging. So she infiltrates the boys’ school, disguised as “Jake Boyman,” and begins to learn and rise to the top of the class. However, acting like a boy isn’t as easy as she’d anticipated, so Bart, after discovering Lisa’s secret, takes her under his wing, teaching her how to spit, eat, and fight like a boy, making sure his little sister doesn’t fail at what she truly wants to accomplish.

Oops. Did I just write the same closing line twice?

The episodes are several seasons apart, but they follow the exact same story structure and basic plot. Lisa enters an all-boy setting because she wants a challenge. Bart helps her fit in. Lisa triumphs. But I love both episodes because despite the fact that the plot is the same, the details of the story are different. Different characters and a different situation make for entertainment in a different tone. Even the overall message is different, with one episode more about brother-sister unity and the other attempting to answer why boys are perceived as better at math. Even though the story had been done, it could be … redone.

I don’t think we should be discouraged when we think up an idea that’s already a book or movie or show. Not that we can ripoff Fight Club or Harry Potter, but we can use those basic themes that the greats set for us. While countless chosen one and messiah stories exist, they can detail different journeys with different messages for readers or viewers at the end. Wonder Woman, for example, is perhaps the most original chosen one film I’ve seen in awhile, and it’s because her story adds the twist that the hero actually charges into battle with no qualms about leaving behind a “normal” life (for a more detailed look at why Wonder Woman is such a good turn from the chosen one genre, check out this article).

It is possible to find originality in repetition. Remember, all the stories may have been done before, but they haven’t been done by us. Don’t give up if you think your story sounds a lot like Fight Club; you just may be working on the best thing since Fight Club.

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