Is It Okay for Our Stories To Be The Same?

I saw an article the other day that uncovered striking similarities between several country music hits. The blog, Saving Country Music, posted about the mashup from Greg Todd which you can view below:

Sir Mashalot (Greg Todd) took six different current hit country songs and combined them at the same key and tempo. The result produced an eerie combination of, in its rawest form, the same song.

Just recently, I was working on a jingle with a producer/songwriter. After weeks of back and forth with the producer, I gave up. He wasn’t willing to change. I bagged the project about a month ago. Why? It sounded like everything else on the radio.

The combination of these two events got me to thinking about the writing industry. You can find millions of new books each year. Yet, the majority of them read like the same book. Once you scrape away the window dressing — “tweak them with tempo and key” — you’ve got the same book.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

A writing guru I respect very much makes a living by teaching others how to produce books that will catch an agent’s or publisher’s eye. Larry Brooks at has coined the “Story Engineering” concept. His teachings of thematically and structurally building a novel are akin to physics. He is very explicit in what it takes to get a book published. Brooks is so specific in his theory that he has identified the exact point at which certain actions should take place.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The truth is, whether you’re a musician or an author, the creative process has hundreds of years of influence behind it. Each time we tap away at the keyboard, we can’t help but to tap in to the past.

But, here’s the question, “Is there a template or format for good writing?”

In structure and theme, most novels are probably more similar than different. In the end, that’s okay. You see, we like the familiar. We’re comfortable with events happening in sequence. Even in music, you gravitate to similar feelings and sounds.

Is that a good thing or bad thing?

More and more, it feels as if many of the “A” list authors are mailing it in. How many of you have drifted away from someone who used to be a favorite author? If cookie cutter sells books, why not write cookie cutter books?

Because we want more.

We’re looking for that five to ten percent that rises above the norm. That’s what we’re striving for — the breakout book that becomes the standard by which others try to copy.

Do you follow a basic structure? Are you purely freestyle without regard to what is “mainstream?” In the end, a great book, regardless of structure, will rise to the top. How are you getting there?

Author: Jim Devitt

Jim Devitt’s debut YA novel, The Card, hit #1 in three separate categories on the Kindle Bestseller list in early January and was a finalist in the Guys Can Read Indie Author Contest this past summer. Devitt currently lives in Miami, FL with his wife Melissa and their children. Learn more about Jim at his blog and his Amazon author page.

22 thoughts on “Is It Okay for Our Stories To Be The Same?”

  1. These are excellent questions and ones I think we would be wise to keep in our awareness as we write. I suspect that many writers are blissfully unaware of how much their story resembles many others. Sometimes it’s hard to be ‘unique’. Readers, too, tend to choose what to read by what they liked in the last books they read. Familiarity is comforting.

    On the other hand, if we wish to stand out from the crowd we need to either find a ‘new’ story or present our familiar one with such clever crafting that it rises above its competitors. Very few of us will be remembered in posterity for our greatness. Many of us do not even strive for that.

    So, is it all right to tell a story well, and thereby entertain our readers in a satisfying way? I think there is room for both – as long as you know what your goal is and how to work towards it.

    On the other end of the spectrum, though, I believe there is no excuse for sloppy, formulaic writing that is poorly edited, formatted and published before it is polished.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne. I have to say that I agree with you. On all accounts. There is no right or wrong to this question.

  2. I try to hear the voice in my head, and write that. I don’t know if I subconsciously or unconsciously copy authors I like – but i try not to. I want my writing to be ME.

    1. Thanks, Ray. More power to you. I would definitely agree that your writing is you. You’re one of the best.

  3. I hate to read the same stuff over and over again. Innovation is key to me. Originality is where it’s at. I love it when people read my work and say, “That’s not conventional, but I love it.” Makes my day.

    I write for me. If other folks like it, that’s a plus. But like Yvonne says, it better be polished.


  4. So true: “We’re looking for that five to ten percent that rises above the norm. That’s what we’re striving for — the breakout book that becomes the standard by which others try to copy.”

    There may not be anything new, but that’s really not a limit in a universe that recombines the same atomic components into the vastness of life. Every book is, after all, just 26 letters, rearranged. When we write, there are infinite different and better ways to express the same ideas — and sometimes when they are recombined in unique ways, it seems like we’ve created a whole new world.

    1. I love your explanation of 26 letters rearranged, Kae. You are exactly right. I always think of Stephen King’s novel Bag Of Bones where the words are rearranged on the fridge. Classic. You’re 26 up on him.


  5. It is not only important to tell story with structure – it is almost impossible to tell a meaningful story WITHOUT structure.

    Think about music: there is a REASON that we use certain beats, tempos, rhythms, and such. There is a reason why we don’t just randomly place notes on a page, but instead write music which fits specific patterns.

    Story fits patterns too. And when a story FAILS to hold its pattern well, we know it – and we react negatively to the story, viscerally and intuitively understanding that the story has failed, even if we’re not sure precisely why.

    That’s not to say that experiments with new forms are wrong: they can lead to interesting advances in form and structure. But they can only succeed when the author has a DEEP understanding of existing, known, working story structures. Writing experimental fiction only works when you know the rules you are breaking, and do it with intent, and a deep knowledge of what rule you have broken, why you have done so, and how that will impact the work and the reader.

    I’ll leave one last thought:

    The biggest complaint that novice writers have about “writing into the dark”, or “pantsing” (as opposed to plotting) is that they end up with plot holes, dead ends, loose story arcs which never get resolved, saggy spots in the story, and so on. Advocates of plotting out stories say that careful plotting and making up story beats prevent all these issues. And they’re right.

    But master storytellers can write into the dark – no plotting in advance – and NOT have all those plotting issues. (I, alas, am not there yet, although I have made enormous strides in that direction over the last couple of years.) They manage this because they understand story structure SO WELL – it’s embedded so deeply in their process – that they simply tell stories with strong structures the very first time, every time.

    1. Kevin, thanks so much for an insightful response. I’m on your side of the fence. I believe that story structure is necessary for a variety of reasons, many which you touched on.

  6. People always talk about the romance genre as being all the same. They’re right, in a way. They all have the same basic formula. Girl meets boy. Eventually sparks fly, then they don’t, they they do again. Happily ever after. But there are vast differences between the specifics in that same basic formula and the popularity of the genre isn’t waning. (I’m sure Jackie Weger will come by to agree with me here.)

    But at a certain high to medium level of abstraction, there are only so many different stories. I forget which of the old philosophers said there were only two stories, comedies and tragedies. A couple years ago I saw a list that had a small number (I don’t remember the exact amount, but somewhere between 80 and a couple hundred) stories that had about the same level of abstraction as my description of romance above. They claimed (and I suspect they’re right) that every story fit one of their frameworks. That’s not a lot of stories for the number of books being written every year. I think the reason many popular authors appear to have mailed it in is that they have their genre and there are a limited number of frameworks that fit. After a while they start repeating themselves. (I sometimes feel the same about the reviews I write.) The specifics get changed up as much as they can, but the readers notice the same frameworks. I suspect that’s why the last several years John Grisham has been writing books that aren’t legal thrillers.

    1. Al, thanks for your input on the levels of abstraction. Very interesting. For the record, I haven’t picked up a Grisham novel in a long time.

  7. You know the old formula: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl (or the coastal version: buoy meets gull). Even though 90% of the time we know the final outcome, it’s our job to make it seem as though that outcome is not guaranteed. As a reader, I enjoy books that keep that end hanging in the balance, yet I still want the satisfaction of having things resolved. Sure, the basic skeleton is well known, but there’s a ton of room for leeway. It’s that leeway area that we get to play with and, with luck, create some compelling and memorable dynamics. To me, saying all the stories are the same is like saying all books have spines and covers. True enough as far as it goes, but it goes much farther than that.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. I love your take on, “It’s our job to make it seem as though that outcome is not guaranteed.”

      That’s it in a nutshell.

  8. This is what bothers me about a lot of so-called craft books — you know, the “How to Write a Fill-in-the-Blank-Genre Novel” books. They hand you a cookie-cutter formula for writing a “successful” novel. All you have to do is fill in the blanks with your characters and plot points. One from Column A, two from Column B, and hey presto, you’ve got a novel that reads just like every other book you’ve ever read.

    There’s something to be said for familiarity, sure. But I don’t want to write those books. I want to write something original — and, with any luck, better.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Jim.

  9. I just watched the video posted here – the country music mashup. Whether you like country or not, I STRONGLY recommend it.

    Because it is art.

    It shows the hand of a real artist. Heck, if *I* tried to do that mashup, it would sound like a disaster. 🙂

    But what this shows is that a true artist, given the smashed rooftop of the Sistine Chapel, could take Michelangelo’s work and generate something new, fresh, entirely different – but still art – from the shards of the original.

    The artist who made the track did nothing to prove country is cookie-cutter… Rather, what he proved was that he was able to carve shards from multiple good songs and generate a new song that isn’t bad at all. It’s artwork by collage, which we see a lot more in visual media than audio – so I think it’s pretty cool. 🙂

    But if the person who made the collage hadn’t been an incredibly skilled musical artist, s/he would have made the musical equivalent of my 3rd grade macaroni noodle collages. It would have been funny to listen to, but not good art.

    No formula made that song. An artist did.

    1. Yes, Kevin. This guy is very talented. I’ve run across a few of his things and they are amazing.

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