There is a horrible truth to be discovered by people who study the underlying structure of their favorite books and movies. This secret explains why my daughter’s two favorite movies are The Lion King and The Care Bears: Nutcracker.
Let’s break them both down.
In The Lion King, a young prince named Simba tries to lose has lost all memory of himself after a tragedy. But then, with help from his friends he remembers himself. Simba then returns to the kingdom he left long ago and faces down the false king. Scar has run the formerly glorious kingdom of Pride Rock into the ground by forming an unholy alliance with the hyenas. But Simba overcomes his uncle and is crowned king, restoring the kingdom to its previous prosperity.
In The Care Bears: Nutcracker, a young prince named
Simba the Nutcracker tries to lose has lost all memory of himself after a tragedy due to an evil spell. But then, with help from his friends he remembers himself breaks the spell. Simba The Nutcracker then returns to the kingdom he left long ago and faces down the false king. Scar The evil vizier has run the formerly glorious kingdom of Pride Rock Toyland into the ground by forming an unholy alliance with the hyenas rats. But Simba the Nutcracker overcomes his uncle the evil vizier and is crowned king, restoring the kingdom to its previous prosperity.
Well that was interesting.
The next time you’re at the movies, if you swear you’ve seen a brand-new movie before, the stunning truth is that you probably have. Various surveys of thousands of novels, short stories, and movies have turned up only 36 possible plots, depending on who you ask. Some estimate 32, others go as high as 40. But 34 to 36 plots are the most common results.
Does that hamper creativity? Nope. It frees creativity. Plot isn’t the level that interacts with the audience; characters interact with the audience. The Nutcracker and Simba are totally different characters — and not just in species. While the Nutcracker is motivated by wanting to remember himself and is a natural leader, Simba is motivated by forgetting himself, running from his tragic past, and is a poor leader. The Nutcracker is the perfect choice to restore Toyland to its former glory; Simba is the underdog who has to rise to the occasion when cleaning up Scar’s mess.
The kids and Care Bears are eager to help the Nutcracker. Only Nala encourages Simba to recapture himself; Timon and Pumbaa want nothing to do with the problems at Pride Rock. The kids and Care Bears actively encourage Nutcracker to battle the vizier to restore the kingdom, while Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba to forget his problems and wile away the hours relaxing.
On the plot level, the two stories are absolutely identical. But, when we layer in the characters, tone, and spectacle the stories part ways and wind up light years apart.
So, aspiring authors, if you watch a movie and think “Gee, I could have done that movie so much better,” go ahead and do it. It’s been done 1000 times before, and will be done 1000 more times before Christ returns.