Narrative Traps

Ever had that feeling that every book you read seems the same or every movie you watch has the same plot? Is there a creativity trap where whole genres seem to be stuck?

The most egregious example is fantasy where every other book seems to be set in a schoolboy imagining of Medieval or Renaissance Europe.

This is sad considering the rich cultural antecedents of the genre. Consider the culturally immersive experience of the Arabian Nights. Medieval Baghdad with its exotic sounds, scents and tastes, its forbidden delights and refined customs is a world you could lose yourself in.

There are some refreshing authors who have chosen to follow unconventional paths. There is Aliette de Bodard’s trilogy Obsidian and Blood which is set in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and uses the rich and hitherto under-tapped Aztec mythology for backdrop to murder investigations. Through her imagination, she conveys a very alien world dominated by an awesome and terrifying system of beliefs.


Even when staying on the fairly conventional ground of Medieval Europe, the idea of taking incidents from real history instead of myth catapulted George R. R. Martin’s work into a league of its own.

Jasper Fforde chose to create a more contemporary world in his Thursday Next novels. But wisely, he chose to give realism a miss and build a world where people behave the way readers wished they behaved. The results is a world where Shakespeare is more popular than Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber put together.


Go Different Young Man

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Science Fiction on the other hand is stuck in a Star Trek inspired Space Fleet trap.

Horror suffers from a shortage of good new villains. All the good ones date from previous centuries. Demons, vampires, werewolves, ghosts and zombies advance with monotonous frequency. We need new monsters.

Dan Simmons did an interesting take on vampires turning them into mind controlling empathy deficient megalomaniacs in Carrion Comfort. The story was better for its original take more than anything else.


Finally, there is the grand daddy trap of all, Joseph Campbell’s story arc. Campbell was a scholar of cultures and myths from around the world. By comparing and weaving mythologies, he created a template for the archetypical hero which has been followed since the Epic of Gilgamesh.

  1. Hero starts in the ordinary world
  2. Hero receives summons to adventure
  3. Hero faces tasks and trials
  4. Hero achieves great gift or boon
  5. Hero must decide whether to return with boon to real world

Variations of this script may include the presence of older mentor figure in stages 2 and 3, the presence of a false climax about half way through the story or love interests.


Does this sound familiar? It should. Campbell was a friend of George Lucas. Lucas used Campbell’s theories as framework for his Star Wars films. Hollywood has since used it as a fill in the blanks template throwing in jokes and settings in a futile attempt to make it seem fresh.


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