Tropes are storytelling devices. Used well, they enrich a story; used badly, they result in the dreaded cliché. This series of articles takes a closer look at some major tropes relevant to comics and the pitfalls they may present.
This is my own title, as I couldn’t find the existing trope for this concept (I’m sure it’s out there under another name.)
You’re doing a story set in medieval Japan. Your plot has everything an interesting plot needs: conflict, action, romance, humor, engaging characters. There’s no reason for it not to be great, right? Actually I can think of a very good reason, that is all too easily overlooked: is your story native to your setting? If you take your characters, change their names and costumes, and set that same plot in Middle Earth, or the Caribbean, or another planet, does it still work? If it does, that’s not good news. You’ve written a Copy-Paste Plot.
This is a plot that is not grounded in any time or place, and so it will work anywhere, anytime. It’s a goldmine for screenwriters and anyone who has to generate scheduled stories, as they can recycle it endlessly, but it takes all the art out of writing, and all the originality out of your story. Remember, pretty much any story you write is going to fall under one of the Seven Basic Plots. So what makes a story stand out?
What makes a plot that’s based on one of seven variations feel fresh and unique? There’s the setting, of course, but there isn’t an unlimited choice of those. More important are the dynamics between plot and setting. The setting should generate and or/nourish the plot. For your medieval Japan story, it’s not enough to make the plot revolve around an ancient scroll that validates the Emperor’s bloodline: that’s only a veneer of local flavor. You can shift it to the Aztec empire or to Atlantis with minimal substitution. On the other hand, if your plot’s starting point is a pearl-fishing village that finds itself an object of rivalry between two warring states, then you have something pretty rooted to work with.
While writing your story, you’re should research the period extensively and get in the heads of the people who would have lived in that time and place. Their motivations will be just as alien to you (and your readers) as their homeland will be different from yours. Things completely irrelevant to you would drive them to great lengths. Therein lies the potential for exciting new events and situations. An example of comic series where the storyline and settings are intimately tied is Sur les Terres d’Horus, which takes place in Ancient Egypt under the reign of Ramesses II. The plot revolves around the unorthodox worship of certain gods and other investigations involving the laws of the place and time; even the romantic tension has a twist that turns stories of “forbidden love” on their heads (given it was not forbidden in any shape or form in Egypt). Other examples that come to my mind are all from the Franco-Belgian side (Michel Vaillant, Yakari, Barbe Rouge, Buck Danny) but what they all have in common is obviously immersive research, even more so, I dare say, than Craig Thompson with his recent masterpiece Habibi, because the latter is transmitted with the enormous effort of the outsider. The authors of the series above are living and breathing their subject, and so should you if your intentions as a storyteller are at all serious.
1. Choose your setting.
2. Soak in your subject with in-depth and extensive research.
3. Highlight findings of a peculiar nature, for possible plot uses (this can range from a geographic oddity to a rigidly dress code.)
4. Intersect your basic story idea with the yield of your research, all the while allowing your story to be changed and directed by the essence of the setting.
In addition to this, keep a close eye on that aspect of your readings from now on. Can you easily change their setting without losing essential plot points? If yes, has the author camouflaged that fact skillfully enough to get away with a copy-paste plot? If not, what anchors the plot to the place? Figuring out how others have done it will help you when it’s time for you to attack your own story.
See more of Joumana’s comic and articles on http://www.malaakonline.commakingcomics.com