Using Story Templates

When you first start creating your story, you may try to create an original story, but there are no original stories. Instead, look at existing movies and try to create a different variation of that story. For example, there have always been stories about underdogs in sports, but “Rocky” helped define that genre that quickly spawned other sports underdog movies like “Hoosiers” and “Breaking Away.” When “Die Hard” arrived, it too spawned a host of copycat stories like “Under Siege” and all those awful Die Hard sequels.

You don’t want to blatantly copy the story formula too much, but you want to follow the underlying structure disguised in a new story. For example, the original “Karate Kid” followed the “Rocky” sports underdog story template. Basically it’s the same story but with different characters, settings, and goals. Yet it’s still familiar. In sports underdog genres, the appeal is an underdog battling against a superior opponent in a sports setting. In a “Die Hard” story, the hero is alone, battling against a large number of better armed opponents. In the “Alien” genre, a group of people are trapped against a single enemy that can’t be killed, which is the basic story template for horror movies.

So what makes your story unique and interesting besides the specific details? “Rocky” is less about boxing and more about an underdog trying to prove himself to himself. Strip away the specifics of “Rocky” and you have the story template of an underdog trying to prove himself against a superior opponent in a sports championship. In “Alien” and horror movies, you have a group of people trying to survive against an unbeatable foe. In “Die Hard,” you have an outnumbered and outgunned hero trapped against a larger number of opponents.

Basically you can boil down the story templates to this:

  • One hero against one villain (“Rocky”)
  • One hero against a bunch of villains (“Die Hard”)
  • A bunch of heroes against one villain (“Alien”)
  • A bunch of heroes against a bunch of villains (“Little Miss Sunshine”)

See what type of story your own idea best fits into, and then study movies that follow similar story lines. The story structure may be the same, but the way you tell your story will be different. Romantic comedies have been around for decades, yet the story is the same where two people are trying to find happiness by finding each other. Yet “Sleepless in Seattle” is different from “While You Were Sleeping” which is different from “Pretty Woman,” which is different from “500 Days of Summer.” Even though the story template is the same, the details of how that story plays out is what really captures our imagination.

By following existing story templates, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Instead, use the plots of existing genres to define your own story. Then make your story different by creating an interesting world that puts us in a new environment (“Avatar” or “Star Wars”), gives us compelling characters to root for (“Rocky” and “Die Hard”), and shows the hero pursuing an interesting goal (“Little Miss Sunshine” and “Die Hard”).

What captures our attention isn’t the story structure or template, but how creatively you can use that story template to tell your unique story. Where stories fail is when they follow the story template too closely so they feel like a pale imitation of a much better story, much like all those bad “Die Hard” clones that came out, or those bad “Star Wars” science fiction movies that Hollywood released after “Star Wars” proved to be a hit. Ultimately, what grabs us is a sympathetic hero pursuing an interesting goal. We don’t see the story template, but it’s there guiding your story behind the scenes, much like a skeleton holds a human body upright. Even though a supermodel and a fat, overweight man have the same skeleton structure, they look entirely different, and that’s the way your stories should feel. Similar in structure, but totally different on the outside, and that’s how you create an original story by not being original in the structure, but being original in the execution.

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