What’s Wrong With The Wheel?

I think most of us have heard the theories on how many basic plots exist in fiction. Depending on the source you go by, the answer is as simple as one or as many as  . . . well, there isn’t any agreement on how many possibilities there are. And since these possibilities have been used so much in storytelling, writers are told to make these basic ideas FRESH! and NEW! I think this can get confusing because if you go too outside the box, no one can relate to your story. But if it’s too familiar to an existing story, you’re accused of ripping it off.


I’ve been thinking about this since I watched Premium Rush. The plot is in no way mind-blowing: bike messenger is trying to deliver a package that a dirty cop is willing to kill for. A Chase plot, according to James Scott Bell. If I wasn’t a total Joseph Gordon Levitt fanboy, I probably would’ve passed on this one until it came to Netflix. But since I can’t help but go to all of his movies, I bought my ticket and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

I think this was due to the overall fun of the movie and likeability of Levitt’s character. He’s the first person you meet and he’s quickly established as a sarcastic,  slightly insane (with the way he rides through Manhattan) kind of guy who rides through the city on one gear with no brakes and never looks back. From then on, I was hooked and wanted to see what mess he’d get himself into.

Most comments I’ve read about the movie are people saying they’re not interested in seeing it because of the less than grabby premise.

But . . .

Everyone who has seen it, has really liked it. From the little bit I read, the feedback was all positive for the same reasons I had. It was fun and Levitt’s character was likable. I have a feeling this movie will do well once it’s rentable. Definitely reminded me of Gleaming the Cube or the lesser known B.R.A.T. Patrol. (No listing on Netflix OR Amazon. WTF?)

Coincidentally, the book I’m reading also has a not so mind-blowing plot, yet I’m still loving every second I’m in that world. It’s called Spider’s Bite by Jennifer Estep and it’s the first book in the elemental assassin series. The hero, Gin, is on her latest assassin job, which doesn’t go according to plan and has been framed for a murder she DIDN’T commit. But just like Premium Rush, Gin is introduced in a way that you know what she’s all about and like her immediately. By the time the main story is in motion, you’re set to follow Gin wherever she goes.

When I decided to watch Premium Rush and read Spider’s Bite, my objective was to be entertained by a FUN story. While I love a deep, thoughty story as much as the next guy, I still have a place for fun. This doesn’t mean a fun story gets a pass on having a solid plot. It still needs one. But maybe it doesn’t have to blow the hinges off what’s been done. Maybe the place to really concentrate on our uniqueness is in our characters and the way they react to the basic premise we put them in. What do you guys think? Any other examples of stellar characters livening up a basic plot?

4 comments on “What’s Wrong With The Wheel?

  1. Some of my favorite books are the most simple stories. The one that immediately comes to mind is Ha Jin’s A Free Life. The premise is incredibly simple. A man and his wife move from China to try to make a life for themselves in America. It really is a straightforward as that, and nothing too tumultuous or groundbreaking happens in the course of the book, just Life As We Know It, but it’s written so beautifully and the characters are so engaging that you just fall right in love with it. At least I did.

    Sometimes, I think the simple stories are even better because they’re not bogged down by their attempts to be new and different. A book or movie or television show or whatever is so much more than a premise, anyway. A premise will only get you so far; it’s the storytelling that makes all the difference.

    Thanks for this post, Andrew. It’s always good to know I’m not alone in just liking a damn good story every once in a while (and making me feel better if some of my own work is on the pretty simple side of things).

  2. It’s always about the characters for me. That’s the only “new” about a story. The same basic stories can be told a million different ways depending on the characters. We invest in the characters rather than the plot. The easy reads are always the ones with interesting characters, imo.

    And Levitt is very watchable. 😀

  3. A recent post on tumblr was making the rounds, which was a defense of fanfiction by an English professor (legit, yo’). The reason I thought of that in connection with your post here is that her argument was, essentially, people prefer to read what they know. The Legend of King Arthur was retold countless of times by different writers in the medieval era not because no one could think of anything new, but because people preferred hearing about interesting characters they already know and love.

    So it seems there is a relation here to your description of “simple stories with characters we genuinely like.” New and interesting is FUN, and can be clever, but in the main an enjoyable story is more often than not a retelling of a known plot-line (and so tropes are born!).

    For me, Dune fits in with this. Really, it is nothing more than a mish-mash of the Bible’s old and new testaments. It’s a simple story and very, very old. But with world building and interesting characters, Herbert made it fascinating.

  4. I love a fun story, fast-pace, entertaining. But the characters are very important to any kind of story for me, even action-packed stories. You asked for an example of stellar characters? Basically, everything that Stephen King has done. No matter what the plot, his stories always make you feel like you KNOW the characters. Another example is a favorite character of both yours and mine. Agent Pendergast in the books by Lincoln and Child. 🙂

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