Things become overused precisely because they work well. Cliches are cliches because they made so much sense or sounded so good that everyone wanted to say them. Trite plots are trite because they entertained and drew people in so effectively that it was hard not to use them. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using those plots — just that you have to give them some depth and dimension.
Let’s take the quintessential overused plot device for a moment: a princess (or other notable female character with a wealthy and/or important family) has been kidnapped and the party has to rescue her. It’s been done a billion times, and most of you are probably groaning already. But let’s see if we can find some ways to make this plot fun again.
The Devil Is In the Details
Much of the depth in a plot can come from details. If you know you’re using a plot that’s a bit trite, then pay particular attention to your details and be sure to make them in some way unexpected and interesting. Some of those details can be physical: The princess isn’t being held in the traditional dank dungeon or high tower; she’s being held in a posh hotel or seaside resort. Some of the details can be details of plot: Her kidnappers aren’t evil faceless bad guys; they have some lofty goal in mind (perhaps they want to force the princess’ evil father to free their families, who are prisoners of war).
Take your trite plot and write the gist of it down. Then write out all the overused elements that typically go into that plot, and several details that exemplify those elements. Then think about how you could change those details in ways that will change the plot itself, making it new and interesting again.
Character, Character, and More Character
Almost any plot can be made interesting and new by populating it with unexpected and fascinating characters. The princess in this plot usually fits into one of several categories, for instance:
- She’s pretty much just a plot device meant to get the main characters moving, and has no real personality.
- She’s spoiled and petty.
- She’s a paragon of virtue and helplessness.
- This is a comparatively new permutation, but in some cases the princess is a spitfire who gives both her captors and her rescuers no end of trouble.
You’ll note that in all of these cases she has a fairly one-note personality, if she has a personality at all. Instead she needs to be a “real person”. Give her the same treatment you would any character around whom a plot revolves. Give her history, motivations, quirks, agendas, and layers. Don’t stop until she comes alive on the page.
Take the characters involved in the plot (in this case at least the princess, some of her family members, and a few of her captors), make a list of the traditional or expected character choices, and then do something different. Write at least one paragraph about each character, and do a full write-up on at least one character from each group or side, including elements of back-story, history, and motivation. Give the personalities a few layers. Specifically describe what about each of these characters makes them unusual or unexpected.
Background, Motivation, and Context
Make sure the plot and the characters involved in it have back-story, background, and motivation, and again, try to play with the unexpected. Traditionally:
- The princess’ family is good and noble. Or, the princess’ family is wealthy and just doesn’t really notice the “little people”.
- The kidnappers are mean and evil, or at least irrational and very misguided. They’re doing this for money, for revenge, or to force the princess’ family to do something bad.
Instead, perhaps the princess’ family is cruel, exploiting people for their own gain. Maybe they arranged to have her kidnapped as part of a scam (is she in on it, or is she innocent of the plot?). Or maybe the kidnappers are reasonably decent people who just want to stop the family from doing something horrible.
In this case, you can usually come up with interesting motivations by going back to that last section on character. As you come up with interesting characters, new motivations tend to suggest themselves. You can take this one step further, however, by taking everything else you’ve written up and looking at the larger context — then ask yourself how you can change that context in order to shake things up a bit.
For instance, the “princess” is the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker who bilked a lot of people of their money, and she’s been kidnapped by someone whose inheritance was lost in the stockbroker’s scams. Now remember that there’s a world in which this plot is taking place, and this is the context for the plot. Play with that. Perhaps law enforcement officers are simultaneously closing in on the stockbroker, and the kidnapper needs to hurry before the cops confiscate the stockbroker’s money. Maybe, unbeknownst to the kidnapper, the stockbroker recently lost most of his money to a better con artist.
Twists and Turns
One of the best ways to shake up a trite plot is to set up the players (in a roleplaying game) or the readers (of a story) to expect a certain, normal plot thread, and then twist it at the last minute, surprising them. This isn’t a sure thing of course, since different people will anticipate different plot twists. Some people are very good at predicting where a plot will go and some aren’t. Just play around a bit, try to do some unexpected things, and hope that now and then you manage to surprise people.
For example, I was watching a movie recently. It set up a certain expectation that one of the bad guys was conflicted about what he was doing, that he was falling for the main female lead, and that maybe this would turn him against the other bad guy. It’s a pretty standard plot and it was set up well. So it was actually quite surprising when the moment of choice came and the bad guy very quickly and with few qualms at all decided to remain every bit the bad guy he’d started out as (yet looking back, that choice made perfect sense for that character).
One plot twist I’ve seen a few times in the kidnapped princess plot is the one where the princess is actually a part of the kidnapping plot. She wants her own revenge against her family for some reason, or her kidnapper is her lover and she wants the ransom money in order to run away with him. There are plenty of other twists and turns you can play with as well–and if you do play with this one, you should probably change things yet further.
Again, playing with context and character should help you to come up with something new and unusual. Keep in mind that what’s new and surprising to one person can seem old to another (each of us has read different books and watched different movies), so don’t despair if now and then people think something you’ve done is a bit trite.
By the way — if you really want to see an interesting variation on this plot, then watch the movie “Fargo.” In this case the “kidnapped princess” is the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and the would-be rescuer is a very pregnant sheriff–and things only get stranger and more surprising from there.
Write down as many of the ways in which you’ve seen your plot play out in movies, TV shows, books, and roleplaying games as you can think of. Put an X next to the ones you see as being the most overused and trite. Try to brainstorm some new things that aren’t on the list already, or ways in which you can subvert things that are already on the list.
One Step Further
One last thing you can do when trying to turn a trite plot into a new and interesting plot is to take it one step further than you think you should. This can take one of several forms:
- Something happens in the middle of the plot that turns it into something else. (The rescuers reach the princess and she’s already dead, for example. The plot now becomes revenge, or justice, or just trying to convince the princess’ family not to have the characters killed for failing to rescue her.)
- The plot turns out to have been something else all along. (The entire kidnapped princess plot was a ruse meant to draw the rescuers to a particular location where they would be ambushed, or to get them to raid a place they otherwise wouldn’t be willing to touch.)
- Something else interesting happens at the point where the plot usually ends. (Typically the good guys rescue the princess then take her home. Any number of interesting things could happen on the way home, however, to take the plot in new and interesting directions.)
Make a list of major plot points, steps, or events. At each of those points, brainstorm a list of alternatives to the expected course of events. Pick something new and unusual and make use of it.
Just because a plot is overused and trite doesn’t mean you can’t still get some mileage out of it. It’s been said that all the plots in the world can be boiled down to some small number (six? Seven? I can never remember) of basic plot structures, and this is largely true. Which just makes the point that it isn’t the plot that matters–it’s how you dress it up and play it out.