So I watched the very brief panel at San Diego Comic Con this year for Netflix’s up-coming movie Bright, debuting in December, mostly to watch cast members Will Smith and Terry Crews goof around. But it was really funny to listen to them all talk as if they’d invented the genre of urban fantasy with this movie, and as if no other movie or t.v. series in that genre, much less thousands and thousands of books and some games, had existed in it before, (not to mention that more than half of those stories involve cops or other forms of law enforcement.)
And then there was one guy in the audience who asked a question at the end of the session, somewhat hostile, about whether they’d ripped off the popular RPG game Shadowrun, a question that they side-stepped with a certain amount of perplexity, as well they should have. This guy was acting again as if contemporary fantasy novels with elves, etc., hadn’t been published for decades before Shadowrun was created in 1989. Shadowrun itself, of course, borrowed copiously from the “elves with computers” novels of contemporary fantasy that were particularly popular in the 1980’s.
In contrast to Shadowrun, Bright is much less cyber-oriented and more grit police procedural thriller – like again many, many contemporary fantasy stories and a few science fiction stories involving usually aliens, including the story it most resembles on the cop part: the movie Alien Nation (1988,) followed by the television series adaptation of the movie (1989) under the same name. Alien Nation itself borrowed heavily/was descended from many, many science fiction stories in which a human and an alien were cop or other law enforcement partners (building on the buddy cops who are opposites idea from suspense fiction.) More recently, the SF television show Almost Human paired a cop with an android AI in a near future Earth, also a favorite in science fiction.
Does any of this matter? No, it has little effect on people’s enjoyment of a particular story being told, be it written fiction, game, movie, t.v., web series or theater play. Occasionally, a fan of one property will be quite put out if another property is anywhere near the same neighborhood, under the mistaken impression that it somehow harms the property that they love or that the property they love now owns common elements like vampires, elves, time travel, love triangles, etc. When the television adaptation of The Vampire Diaries came out, for instance, many fans of Twilight assumed the show was ripping off their beloved book series, even though The Vampire Diaries had been a bestselling YA book series back since the early 1990’s, long before Twilight existed, and its television show started a year before the novel Twilight was adapted into a movie.
Plots are made out of smaller building blocks of structure. Every combination of these building blocks has been played out one way or another over and over again in story-telling, so much so that people learn at an early age what possible block combinations might be tried once a story-teller sets up a universe and a situation. This is not just applicable to what we call genre stories, but to any kind of fiction. It’s of particular importance to mystery writers, who have to set up clues to the answer to a mystery that are slowly uncovered, include false clues to keep readers guessing, and play with reader expectations of who caused the mystery (usually a murder,) through their use of characters in the plot. No mystery author can keep all their readers from guessing the answer correctly because readers are so familiar with plot and the little structural signs of how story-tellers use character, detailed description and imagery to indicate the levers of plot. But they can try to keep readers unsure of whether their guess is correct or not, to keep reading, and they can work with other aspects of character, plot and theme that stem from the mystery plot or are connected to it but that are interesting in and of themselves.
Every author creates something that is original, because the characters, the exact nature of the story world, and the emotions and relationships, as well as the specific use of words and imagery, all within that story are unique to that author. Characters can become dear to many readers, not because they’ve never encountered a character similar to that one before, but because within the context of the story they are in, they specifically connect with readers. That turns the story into an experience for the readers – which is what art is – an experience through story/language/imagery/sound, etc., that personally resonates and so is valued, (or does not and is critiqued.)
But the bones of what they create will always, always be familiar to readers, always be connected to all the different building blocks readers have encountered, from the time they were small, in other stories and sometimes in real life and history. When a reader is surprised by something in a story, it’s not because of a clever plot twist, but because the reader missed the clues in the structure of the story that would have led them to expect it, or because the reader did notice the clues but other clues created an expectation in the reader that a different building block/direction was where the author was going for that story. That can be delightful when it happens, but it won’t happen with every reader and it doesn’t have to happen for readers to be immersed, engaged, and fall for the characters and world of a story.
Take for instance Ned Stark, in the novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. [ Though it’s quite late in the game to bother, I will issue a SPOILER warning here for those who have not yet read the book or seen the television adaptation. If you don’t want to know stuff, stop reading this part now. ] Martin is, above all else in his series, using mythic structures and imagery to tell a massive fairy tale. In the opening parts of the novel, six children of a lord come across a dead parent (mother) dire wolf with six puppies in her belly. These six puppies are given to the six children, very symbolically, by their father. Just previously, their lord father Ned Stark had to execute by beheading a deserter from the Night Watch, because that was the law. And then Ned Stark is asked to come back into far more complicated but equally heavy politics by his friend, the king.
The plot structure of the story is clearly, because of the symbolic dire-wolves, that the six children are destined to be separated, scattered across the lands, and have to deal with different arduous situations and different fates that lead towards the ultimate plot showdown the book sets up at the very beginning in the prologue – as happens in classic myths. They will lose their protector to mainly cause this process – their father, whose dread about taking up the role his king wants him to do will prove to be mythic prophecy. And because of parallel symbolism, the father, who beheaded the herald deserter who warned them about the end, will in turn be beheaded, causing the beginning.
If you’re familiar with mythic story structure, with those combinations of building blocks, and you read the novel, it’s pretty clear early on that Ned Stark is going to die, and in that particular way, and that this event will be the lynch-pin that sends his children into being lost, scattered and driven low by events. It has to happen for the story to unfold properly. He is a supporting character to the six children – Chosen One figures symbolized by the six magical dire-wolf puppies – and their fates.
But the adapters of the television show knew that they could shock a lot of viewers of the show who hadn’t read the books by misdirecting the audience with expectant clues. They hired Sean Bean, a big name actor, to play Ned Stark, while of course the children were played by young, not well known actors. They promoted Bean as the star of the show, so that unfamiliar viewers would think he was the protagonist, etc. They played up Ned Stark’s scenes, while still following the fairy tale structure of the book. It was kind of fun to watch my husband, who hadn’t read the books before watching the first season of the show, freak out when Ned lost his head.
Why would he be especially freaked out at this development? Because it is a familiar story structure, particularly for movies and t.v., that the protagonist doesn’t die – a plot building block. It’s just that the book and thus the t.v. show were using different and also very familiar mythic plot building blocks (see “dead parent” movies.) (Also some building blocks kill off the protagonist, for that matter.) Even if I had not read the book before seeing the t.v. show, I would have known that Ned was destined to die because the t.v. show adhered very closely to the book and used the prisoner beheading and the dire wolf puppies symbolically for the six kids. It would have been clear to me that Jon Snow – the illegitimate, mystery son who decides to go to the Night Watch in exile where the big action would eventually be – was going to be the protagonist, etc., and that all the kids were in for a fall. Because these are plot building blocks of an epic journey/fairy tale/coming of age. For some viewers, even if they hadn’t read the book, those blocks were familiar.
So was the surprise for some over Ned Stark’s death important for the t.v. show’s success? Not particularly, any more than it had been in the book. It certainly didn’t hurt that the show managed to trick some of their viewers (and entertain their fellows who were in the know over their surprised reactions.) But the show didn’t lose viewers when Ned Stark turned out not to be the protagonist and died, when the path the show was taking turned out to be different from what some expected the plot structure to involve. Viewers were engaged in the characters, the world of the story and the images and scenes on the show, whether they knew/guessed that Ned Stark would die or not. [ End of SPOILERS.]
When we’re engaged in a story – its language, imagery, characters and so forth — we aren’t really worried about originality – or rather about being surprised by plot building blocks because we missed or misread clues about them. We’re more focused on seeing what the author has chosen to build just for that world and characters, just for us, and drawing out what meaning the story has for us personally. When we’re less engaged, when we’re bored by a story, then we are likely to carp that the story is too flat, predictable, maybe too like some other story we were more engaged in – it’s not a strong experience for us. Sometimes those comparisons can be pretty ludicrous, such as accusing The Vampire Diaries of time travel, or declaring all elves in gritty contemporary settings to be attributed to the Shadowrun game. Other times, they’re just really acknowledgement of common DNA in plot building blocks — of story ideas, themes and relationships that are of familiar resonance to ourselves.
I’m going to enjoy Bright when it comes out, even if it is directed by the guy who made the movie Suicide Squad for DC/Warner – a film I consider a hot mess. But it will be the umpteenth story I’ve seen/read involving gritty cops and elves and/or magical species. It’s going to be fun, it may even be something I find really well done, but what it won’t be is unique, mind-blowing or radical. Because human beings live on stories – and down deep we know every trick a story-teller can play. We can still be surprised sometimes, we can be impressed with a creation in and of itself and its combinations. But no story owns or invents those basic building blocks of plot structure. Not even if you combine cops and elves one more time, with feeling.