It is said that there is no such thing as an original story, that all stories can be broken down by a set of “master plots.” In truth, it’s a fairly accurate statement, things like the “Hero’s Journey” are pervasive throughout fiction. At the same time however, I think the assumptions that often accompany this idea, both from the perspective of a writer and a critic alike, is somewhat flawed.
How often do you see, or hear, someone speak about a movie they’ve just seen and say something to the effect of “It ripped off the plot of X movie, only they did it was magic instead of space wizards”? I know I’ve personally seen accusations that Harry Potter has the same plot as Star Wars, and while looking for other common examples I even stumbled across a term I was unfamiliar with that refers to this, “Twin Films.” Of course, they aren’t always films, not by far. It’s a pervasive phenomena that is present in all forms of media, and the reactions from people who notice the commonality are often fairly derisive. Which is unfortunate, as in many cases I don’t think they’re giving enough credit to the creator. While “Twin Films” may often be fairly blatant copies of one another (from the little I researched), cases like the Harry Potter/Star Wars comparison show just how ridiculous the claims can get.
Are the stories similar? Yes, of course they are. Both follow the Hero’s Journey model to an almost painful degree, both have quite a few parallel characters and even a few not dissimilar events. They are, as it were, using the same “Master Plot.” However, it can’t really be argued that they aren’t very different from one another. While the basic plot remains similar, the settings are radically different, a few of the literary twists are unique (as much as such a thing is possible) to each, and both show remarkable originality in the ideas shoved into their world lore. Prior to Star Wars many of the now-common tropes about space where simply not there, and J.K. Rowling added any number of details to her books, including an entirely new sport played on broomsticks. That is/was a NEW thing, something no one had really thought up before. At least not in that particular way.
Which brings me meandering back to my original point. “Master Plots” are a thing that can’t be avoided, but originality is still possible by the introduction of new ideas, different perspectives, and creative subversion of the expected elements. In truth, many times the stories we find most compelling tend to be those whose creators (be they writers, filmmakers, or any of a dozen other professions) managed these points of originality the most frequently, and in the most interesting ways.
So the next time you read, watch, or play something and notice that “Hey, this has the same plot as that other thing,” do both yourself and the creator a favor and try to look beyond your revelation to see just what they’ve managed to do with the old idea. Also, on a note that may or may not be related, avoid tvtropes.org/ if you don’t have a few hours to lose….