Archetypes vs. cliches

by | Mar 2, 2010 | Writing Advice, Writing Novels | 89 comments

Archetype vs. cliche

There are many, many stories involving a young man, often of unknown/mysterious parentage, who suddenly realizes he’s the chosen one and has to embark on a quest against impossible odds to save his people.

And yet Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, David and Goliath, and countless other stories are all different and beloved.

There are many, many stories involving a girl who meets a mysterious/scandalous/acerbic man who she falls in love with even though she probably shouldn’t, and often even though the man tells her she shouldn’t.

And yet Gone With the Wind, Twilight, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and countless other stories are all different and beloved.

The fine line between archetype and cliche

There’s an old saw that there are really only six or a dozen stories (the number changes) ever told. These are archetypes, and we’ve been telling variations of these stories since the days we recounted myths around campfires and painted them on cave walls.

At the same time, especially when dealing with very familiar arcs, there’s a very fine line between archetype and cliche. We’ve all read stories that feel tired and worn – whenever an author is trafficking in archetypes they run the risk of the reader rolling their eyes and saying, “Yeah, I’ve read this before.”

So how do authors navigate archetype vs. cliche?

What sets novels apart

It’s no great mystery: by telling a story differently. The tricky part is: doing it differently is much harder than it seems.

I think there’s a mistaken belief out there that all you need to set the 1,000,000th take on an archetype apart from the previous 999,999 is a little twist.

I really don’t think that’s the way it works. It’s not a matter of coming up with a twist and otherwise appropriating a previously created world. That’s when projects fall into cliche. The way you use archetype is by telling the familiar arc in an entirely new world with its own rules, with unique characters, and in a unique style.

That’s why we have beloved stories as varied as Star Wars and Harry Potter, even though the basic arcs of the stories are similar. The worlds and characters could not be more different.

What makes your novel unique?

It’s not enough to start a story with a high school girl swooning in the midst of the cranky new kid’s smoldering stare. What’s different about this world and about these characters?

It’s not enough to start a story with a boy who has to save the realm/galaxy/kingdom from disaster. What’s different about this world and this character?

The road to cliche is paved with imitation. Start fresh.

Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!

For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.

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UPDATED 8/26/17

Art: Kätzchen im Boudoir by Karl Reichert


  1. Mira

    First, my post is not a sequel from yesterday's post.

    In case you were wondering.

    However, like yesterday's post, I completely agree with everything you said, Nathan, and, no offense, but I really wish you'd stop that! How can I pontificate and write posts that I later have to delete/apologize for/or continue ranting about if you're writing things I agree with??

    I think you can see how no one wins here.

    That said, I think you're absolutely right. You can't just tweak a small detail and write another work that will touch people. If there is a magic forumla for writing books, it's not in the choice of previously successful topics.

    I also like that you described the Twilight character as 'grumpy'. Lol. That's pretty funny.

  2. D. G. Hudson

    This post shows how fine the line can be that differentiates success or failure of a manuscript (in varying degrees). Our selection of what to write is influenced by our own paradigms, but we must also be aware of what has gone before to avoid repetition.

    Archetypes can be a good place to start creating a character, but one must infuse them with a life of their own, give them angst, hopes, etc. After all, a pure archetype could be irritating as a real person.

  3. Rebecca Knight

    Great differentiation! 🙂 As a fantasy writer, I've been wondering about this. Thanks for the info and your take on it!

  4. The Writing Muse

    'There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don't know.'
    Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

    Soooo…harness the knowledge and learn how to work the doo-dad that will turn your 'not-so-original-novel' into an original.

  5. r louis scott

    Wow, Nathan, just how many queries have you slogged through since getting back?

  6. Margaret Yang

    I think that's also a danger when writing queries. If you compare your book to another famous book, the agent might think it's a knock-off of the famous book instead of something fresh and new.

  7. Matt Ryan

    Nathan –

    Once again, your post is timely with the events in my head. I'm doing my best to avoid the cliche storyline with my current project, but still using elements of other books (Fight Club, No Country. . .)that fit my unique spin.

    If I can stay true to my story, but incorporate these elements (technique, structure, POV), I can use them to pitch my novel on what it's similar to, but also how it is unique.


  8. Milo James Fowler

    So to a certain degree, we can't help but be derivative? I'm often concerned that I'll never be able to come up with something truly "original". I want to write "District 9", but I'm afraid my work is more like "Avatar".

  9. Debauched Sloth

    And while we're at it, I wouldn't mind seeing more of "a high school boy swooning in the midst of the cranky new kid's smoldering stare" and "a girl who has to save the realm/galaxy/kingdom from disaster," please! Sometimes that seemingly small twist can provide the impetus you need to get you on the road to "starting fresh."

  10. Malia Sutton

    "The worlds and characters could not be more different."


  11. Bane of Anubis

    Makes me think of that Despair quote about individuality: "Always remember that you are unique. Just like everyone else."

  12. Anonymous

    I agree with Margaret Yang.

    I have found a great deal of cliche sounding query letters, (mine included) where reducing the elements makes so many writers' works look all the same when they can be vastly different in their pages.

    My husband talks about the tried and true theme: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

    But if she's a monkey riding girl and the boy is afraid of monkeys, then we have…something. (maybe)

  13. LGS

    I'll probably screw this up, but there's a native american story that makes a point of showing how everyone sitting in a circle will have a different view of an object in the center. Even though they're all looking at the same thing, everyone's take is different. It's all a matter of perspective, and there ought to be as many perspectives as there are individual writers.

  14. T. Anne

    I have to say the first forty pages or so of my new WIP is always a small twist on the last WIP until I find the characters voice and figure our the world she lives in. If it doesn't feel authentic and fresh to me I figure it wont to the reader either.

  15. Marilyn Peake

    I agree. I think archetypes are important in literature because they reflect, on a deeply unconscious level, different aspects of what it means to be human. If the story doesn’t work on an unconscious as well as superficial level, the symbolic characters become cliché. I wrote an article entitled ARCHETYPES IN FANTASY WRITING that’s been published on The Fantasy Guide and websites. In the article, I explain Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and the archetypes that arise out of it, and discuss a number of specific archetypes, including mother, father, wise old man, child, family, hero, maiden, animal, shadow, and persona. I also talk about the successful use of archetypes in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, HARRY POTTER, Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, STAR WARS, and CINDERELLA. When they’re developed with depth and meaning, archetypes add immeasurably to a story. Archetypes should breathe life into a story, rather than bore the reader with the monotony of cliché.

  16. Katrina

    It's always nice when you don't realize what the age-old formula of the story is, until you're so deep into it, that it hardly matters.

  17. Jill

    I agree that there is a very fine line, indeed, between archetype and cliche. The few who have done it newly and differntly and creatively have been both lucky and savvy.

    When it turns something on its head (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for instance) it can work and can be great fun. But…

    Better to be fresh. Better to come up with something new than to recycle… even with a twist.


  18. Rick Daley

    I think your characters and the setting are the defining points if you're treading over familiar story lines.

    A great example is Edgar Sawtelle. It's a re-telling of Hamlet, but the main character is a mute teenage boy, and a great supporting cast of people and dogs rounds it out.

  19. Lydia Kang

    Man, this is so hard to do. But it's one of those things you just know…when you read something, you either can't stop reading, or you say, "Cliche alert. Meh. Been there, done that."

  20. Postman

    Most of your posts (a) make me terrified that I've committed whatever sin you're delineating and (b) intensely relieved that you posted something about it exactly when I was questioning whether I or not had committed it.

    In other words, thanks. This was very helpful.

  21. Munk

    When a story borders on the cliché, add a an evil stepmother.

  22. P. Grier

    The word, "derivative" comes to mind, as does, "band wagon". It works for some, like the gazillioneth vampire novel, but then something actually creative comes along and wows them all. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example.

    One is just a copy-cat, and the other is just dammed clever.

  23. E. Elle

    I completely agree and I think it's a common struggle among writers, trying to find that new niche within the old way. As one of my college professors said, "good writers borrow, great writers steal."

    Well, to an extent, anyway. ;o)

  24. Kathryn Paterson

    THANK YOU for saying this! I have argued with people that there is a difference between archetype and cliche (and archetype and stereotype)and often get a weird deer in headlight response. It is SO hard to touch on archetypes without going to the cliche, but you're absolutely right that it takes a different story WORLD and unique and interesting characters to make it work.

    I've ended up subconsciously tapping into mythic structure in my own novel, but didn't realize it until after the first draft. Now I'm consciously playing on a few things, but making sure that I use the tropes creatively, rather than falling into cliche. I hope it works. We'll see.

  25. abc

    One way to start is to come up with really interesting bad guys. So we know that Harry Bosch is always going to get the guy (or at figure out who it is), but we don't know just who he is going to come up against and that is what makes it the most fun.

  26. Genella deGrey

    I always wonder about the dozen (or so) plot line myth. How many billions of people are on this planet, each with their own story? It only takes a simple decision to turn yourself (or your character) into a hero or a villain.

    – To chase the purse-snatcher (or be the purse-snatcher.)

    – To pay for the stray dog's treatment you took to the vet after it got hit by a car –

    – To decide to stay and wipe away her tears –

    Any or a combination of these could skew a character onto a path to good, evil, romance . . . which could change their fictional world and views forevermore – and, depending upon how you go about it, invent a different story line.

    G., who is getting over a sinus infection – which is what the babbling is all about.

  27. Mira

    Oh, I want to add one thing.

    I don't think it's possible to write about anything other than archtype in fiction. There are no other stories.

    It's all archtype. And doing it well – that's where talent and skill and the creativity come in.

  28. The Daring Novelist

    Yes, success in writing a great archetype story is in the details, not the twist.

    Unfortunately, getting agents and editor to read the millionth version of a story can require that twist.

  29. Christi Goddard

    I'd like to add something. To do it well, you also need to make the archetypes real. They need flaws, they need situations they don't win, and they need masks and trusty comical sidekicks.

  30. Crystal

    I love this post so much, that it's the first post I shared on facebook! Thank you Nathan, I always struggle with trying not to make things cliche, and this really helps! So now I know a twist isn't good enough…guess I have to stick Larry Motter in the drawer and start from scratch. 🙂

  31. Kristin Laughtin

    Very well said, and yet this can be a very difficult thing to do. I have seen lots of stories advertised with "It's just like [bestseller], but with zombies/angels/parrotfish/pirates!" No. No no no. Adding the hot new trend of the week as the twist isn't enough to take it out of Cliché Town. You've got to do more than that.

    I wonder if this gets harder for some serious/aspiring-to-be-published writers as they continue to write books. We're told to pick out comp titles, or we see what's selling well now. How many people look at those titles and decide to write a story just like them, but with a twist that doesn't really make anything feel new?

  32. Kristin Laughtin

    Marilyn–Going to read your article now! It sounds right up my alley. I once wrote a short practice story centered around Jungian archetypes. (Alas, I was young and it wasn't very good).

  33. Deep River

    "There are no original ideas in fiction, only original execution", according to an Eng Lit prof of mine from long ago.

    For those interested in the idea of a handful of archetypical plots, I recommend 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias, MFA and Professor of Media and Theatre Arts at U. of Montana.

    I once came across an essay of Tobias' in which he argues there are a maximum of 36 plots, but several (I guess 16 of them) are no longer relevant due to the fundamental changes in culture (the plot of the Greek play Oedipus Rex being one of them).

  34. Linda Godfrey

    I hadn't even thought about the archetype inherent in my current WIP but now I see it oh so clearly. I am wondering if that new insight will affect how the story develops. Is it better to be consciously aware of things like that as you write, or not?

  35. AjFrey

    All of humanity falls on the shoulders of one boy who hasn't learned to tie his shoes yet. Yep, I think Sword and the Stone falls in there too.

    Related, but unrelated.
    I am having a contest on my blog that is a fun twist on an old campfire way of telling stories – but with authors. The story is building, and the twists just keep getting better and better.

  36. Deep River

    @Linda Godfrey: I think it helps to have an awareness of the common elements of archetypical plots as a guide. A painter paints from a certain range of colors; a composer composes from a certain range of notes; likewise, a writer writes from a certain set of plots.

  37. Rachel Hamm

    just another wonderful, informative post. how'd you get to be so awesome, nathan?

  38. wendy

    I've whinged about this before, but I'm in the unusual position of having written a story like Twilight before I realised Twilight existed. However I don't claim to have written a story as well as this one in any way. It's just this coincidence that I can't get over. Mine doesn't have a main male character who is as charismatic and loving as Edward, though. And I've combined liberal amounts of Christianity and inspirational which is prob. a no-no in a paranormal. However this story is unique to me and everything I believe and have experienced or have drawn from imagination. It's the best I can do. I know I should move on and create other stories now, but I'm old and tired, so it's harder as I know how many years – even decades – of work are ahead, as this is the speed I work at.

    Sorry to sound so downbeat. I've been feeling rather defeated and hopeless lately.

    Some well-thought out posts have been written, I think. Some great minds visit this blog and run it. 🙂

  39. Susan Quinn

    How about a heroine who goes on a quest to save the world while (unsuccessfully) trying not to date the bad boy?


  40. Anonymous

    It's like Star Wars, only the dark side wins! Voila!

    This falls into the 'Ooops, you goofed.' category. As a Star Wars and Sci Fi fan, this not only sounds cool — it was at least partially the basis for a best selling Star Wars video game, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (the new expanded edition has the Dark Side winning missions and the protagonist of the game itself is Vader's apprentice).

    While I understand you were trying to create some cliche storylines, you might want to beef up your own knowledge of books and writing if you think that this isn't a fantastic idea.

    Now we know why agents don't pick up great books — they can't tell a great idea when they see one.

  41. Nathan Bransford

    Oh anon…. anon anon anon….. it's a great idea for Star Wars. Don't try and out-nerd me when it comes to the Force. I will go Boba Fett on you faster than Han Solo ran the Kessel run, and I won't get eaten by the Sarlacc either.

  42. Tambra

    When I create characters, I have to make sure the GMC-goal, motivation and conflict both internal and external are right before I get down to the deeper aspects of plotting and creating a believable world. It's the experiences of the hero/heroine that help make the difference.

    The past of the character and their experiences impact their decisions now.

    The better I know my characters, the easier it is for me to plot.

    If GMC is a problem area, I highly recommend Debra Dixon's book GMC-Goal, Motivation and Conflict. It isn't just for romance writers.


  43. Jared E. Larson

    Another insightful post from Nathan. You're the C.S. Lewis of the writers world, thank you for the shared wisdom.

  44. Holly

    Beautiful photo. There's something about that Mexican light.

    I enjoyed reading your comments from San Miguel. My brother lived there many years ago.

  45. Anonymous

    I will go Boba Fett on you faster than Han Solo ran the Kessel run

    You lose the geek test. A parsec is a measurement of distance, not speed. Han wasn't bragging about how fast his ship went, he was bragging about his piloting skills through an area of variable distance like navigating near several black holes. 😉

  46. Nathan Bransford


    Just as "light year" is both a unit of time and a distance, so too can a parsec be used in a similar fashion. And Han was specifically responding to the question, "Is this a fast ship?", so it stands to reason that he was referring to speed.


  47. Darin

    I have to jump to Nathan's defense on the whole parsec thing. In our reality, a parsec is a measurement of space, but Han Solo's quote is that the Falcon made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. Now, you might argue that in a lot of the written Star Wars stuff, they have tried to retcon this to say that Solo meant space and not time, but I bet if you went back and asked mid 70's Lucas what he wanted Solo to say, he would say it was a time unit – because he wanted the Falcon to sound FAST.

  48. Susan Quinn

    I love it when the Nerds come out to play.

  49. Marleen

    I've never heard it explained better. But I consider the archetype the basic formula as in romance; boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl back. The story is all in how you write it to keep it from being a cliche.

  50. Andrea M. Bodel

    Margaret Yang – I just wanted to say, great point! I'll keep that in mind when I'm finally ready to start querying.

  51. John Jack

    Archetypes, stock characters, stereotypes, love 'em in fiction. Not so much as sociopolitical labelings.

    Is not a hero or heroine an archetype? A protoganist? An antagonist?

    A character cliché happens when a character's personality is a sum total of what the character's purpose is in a story. A two-dimensional villain depicted like Snidely Whiplash is doesn't depict his motivations, his conflicts and complications, his trials that makes him as human as a protagonist ought to be depicted.

    Mr. Potter is a stock character archetype: Friedman's Sentimental Plot, a weak character wins through, Friedman's Testing Plot, noble character is tested to the extreme, Friedman's Education Plot, protagonist learns something important. Jungian archetype, Potter opposed by Voldemort, the shadow of the split psyche.

    That's just a few of the many complex archetypes Potter represents. He's a complexly rounded and dynamic character. And that to me is what distinguishes a potent archetype from a cliché.

    A literally or figuratively orphaned child striving to come to terms with his or her circumstances is a common archetype in many of the best stories and is a cliché in many of the worst stories.

  52. Jean Reidy

    This makes me wonder about a retelling of a classic tale and how different is different enough.

    Should there remain only a glimmer of a connection to the classic? Or can a parallel story line with different characters, setting, and subplots be enough to break from the danger of cliche.

  53. Nathan Bransford

    anon, you're just trolling at this point. If you want to have this discussion you can do so non-anonymously.

  54. Anonymous

    I think an archetype is a cliche done right.

  55. AjFrey

    I think i'll go for a zombie trying to save the universe from the light side while trying not to fall in love, meanwhile fighting evil robots, during an epic blizzard, (counts on fingers), and overcoming his betting addiction which he was cursed with by his God. There, I think I got all seven.

  56. Olleymae

    When you break it down like that, I can suddenly see pretty much every story I love in one of those story lines. Awesome, but kinda scary.

  57. Moira Young

    Well-said, Nathan.

    So perhaps in other words, "Write your own story, and THEN see how the archetype fits?"

  58. Josin L. McQuein

    It's more than a twist. You need characterization. You need voice.

    You can tell the same story from 12 points of view, and have 12 different stories. Whether they work or not is a matter of skill and voice. The reader needs to connect to the characters somehow.

    Every story has a kernel of others, because ever story is inspired by something that already exists.

    (Oh good Lord, did I step into the middle of a nerd-off? Do I need to get my Yoda robe and green face paint?)

  59. Bethanne

    I have no problem with archetypes and/or cliches. I may not want to see cliched phrases in a book, but as far as story lines go, there's a reason I have favorite books.

    if I can find my favorite book with new characters and in a new city, fighting new badguys… yeehaw. I know I will enjoy it.

    I don't think making a story unique has anything to do with archetype. 🙂

  60. G

    Woof…shows you how much of a newbie I am, I had to look up what 'archetype' meant.

    Isn't basically every book of fiction out there today an archetype of some sort?

  61. jimmy Ng

    So you're saying that a single twist isn't enough. It's got to be a number of twists, right?

    How about Twilight in a spaceship, going to Mars for the first time in human history?

    Just wondering.


  62. John Jack

    Depicting a character–archetype–a milieu, an idea, or an event without a life-affirming transformation of existence is unlikely to be a story, an anecdote or vignette perhaps.

  63. Cathy

    You make a very good point Nathan. All stories contain elements from previous stories. The art is to rennovate these well known archetypes with a fresh design, same room, different everything else.

  64. Nathan

    This post worked on so many levels. (Even the nerd in me was satisfied.)

    I agree, even as I am likely falling into the dilemma of walking the line between archetype and cliche.

    Then again, I may be over the line(or is it that my story inhabits a big grey area where inevitably low-sale, but publishable works reside by veering from one side to the other?).

    I hate not being sure, but I guess if it is picked up, there's the answer.


    I think the cliche is poor execution. I also think the archetype is about plot, more so than character.

    And I think the notion of archetypes is useful as a form of literary analysis–like a taxidermic tool, splitting the world into flora and fauna and animals. But within each category, there are thousands of possibilities.

    Archetypes, to me, reflect a desire to provide mythical and heroic dimensions to a character, an attempt to elevate such a character.

  66. Christine

    Quote: "So how do authors navigate archetype vs. cliche?"

    One of the things I like to do is browse through and I swear the site is a time suck (which I justify under the guise of, ahem, "research"). The site is a wiki where anyone can contribute so one way I judge how much something stuck with viewers and readers — with teens and young adults anyways — is how many contributed to an entry.

    Usually, I'll go in after finishing a manga or anime or starting a new TV show. But recently, I find myself going in, picking a trope and comparing examples and seeing which ones get which reactions from readers and viewers. I also like the basic format of explaining the trope in its most cliched form at the top and letting people contribute examples below. And I like how contributors point out when tropes are averted or subverted.

    Recently, I realized things such as: Nobody notices a loser but, when said loser is made of 200% m*****f***** loyalty (Code Geass), fans notice and want more. Everyone dislikes a deus ex machina but when the machine is THE GOD (Supernatural) viewers sit up and want to know what God is up to.

    I don't think it's a bad thing to be so cliche that something ends up as the trope namer or as The Example because, it stuck with people in some memorable way. If anything, the TV Tropes taught me that everything has multiple cliches/tropes and where it gets dangerous is when one's plots and characters are so undistinguishable from the another random example that they aren't even mentioned on the site, as weird as that might be.

    …At the end of the day (or a web surfing session) maybe I waste hours on that website trying to figure out the answer to the question I quoted and I still haven't figured it out yet. But clues are good. *nods*

  67. Corra McFeydon

    Hi Nathan –

    Thanks for sharing your view on this. As a new writer it's helpful to know that a story retold isn't necessarily an 'old' story unless it repeats the same. Kind of Like on American Idol, how the judges all keep saying –

    "Sing it in a new way! Blow us away – in your voice. Don't be a Karaoke act."


    Please tell me Twilight hasn't been uplifted to a place among the greats??? Sure, it's a story, but is it of the same caliber? At all?

    Great post! I found it inspiring (which I reckon was the point.)


    from the desk of a writer

  68. Icy Sedgwick

    I couldn't agree more. Vladimir Propp posited that there was only ONE narrative, after he managed to distill Russian fairytales down into one essential narrative. Obviously the various elements can, and do, change order, but all narratives are basically the same. Even if you apply this to Hitchcock and realise all of his films are the same story, they're all so different. Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars and The Searchers are all essentially the same narrative, it's just the characters and settings make it feel so different. Fiction would be more inventive if authors let themselves create new worlds, and then people them accordingly, instead of copying what's gone before.

  69. Jen

    I think you can vary old archetypes and avoid cliche by doing two things 1) offer a unique time in history or 2) unique setting.

    Maybe people don't do that enough. I wonder how many ms are being written about smoldering teenage vampires and lusting teen girls that take place the time of Pharaoh? WWII?

    thanks for the topic Nathan. Good one!

  70. Zoe Courtman Smith

    I used to spend a lot of time fretting about writing horror, because, especially in that genre, there's just nothing new. No new monsters, no new heroes, really – then I realized what everyone's been saying all along. Just write the story that you have inside you. What differentiates you is your voice. Your perspective. How you'd react to situations, which informs how your characters would react. The rest is all execution of that voice, which is what (hopefully) makes it unique.

  71. Anonymous

    I'm super late to this post, but I wonder if you can touch on a similar topic?

    I was flipping through a popular YA author's new girl-centric book the other day and the entire plot seemed to be a ripoff of Ocean's Eleven.

    Same with a ugely successful book about a teen pitted against other teens in a huge battle for survival — that whole plot set up was already a movie called Battle Royale.

    So, my question is, at what point is derivitive okay or not?

    Because I have to admit it bugs me. I think most writers do know not to use the specific archetype of Bella in Twilight, for example, because they simply won't get published. But shouldn't we avoid entire, recognizable plot set ups and situations that have already successfully been done in other books or film? Because YA best seller lists don't seem to bear this out. I'm not seeing anyone take a stand and say, hey, you swiped this from a movie, what gives?

  72. Ulysses

    So this makes me wonder, what's the archetypical cliche? (or, of course, the most cliche archetype?)

  73. Perry Robles

    I’m confused…

    I started my first book that details my family’s illegal entry into The United States. My mother died. I stopped writing and quit the university.

    Two years ago, after a considerable mourning period, I was admitted into a CW Master’s program. I didn’t want to continue with my first book. I wanted to write about my mother’s death.

    Does that make it a sequel?

    I thought I was writing/telling a different story.

    A little help please…

  74. Anonymous

    Perry —

    You can't write a sequel to a book that was never finished or published to begin with. So no worries, you are writing a new, fresh book. Also, I think Nathan is talking primarily about fiction. For non-fiction, and memoirs, there aren't really "sequels" — just different aspects of that person's life they are choosing to write about. Like the author (name slips my mind) that wrote Marley and Me, about a dog he and his wife bought. His next book was about his Catholic upbringing. Same person, different time frames and focuses.

    My condolences on your mom's passing. Good for you that you are back in the swing of things now.

  75. Sue

    This is an awesome post- next one should be, "cliche sells incredibly well but shouldn't because…"

  76. Timothy Fish

    As the term Archetype is used here, we can’t avoid it. Yes, stories are told over and over, but I think the problem people run into is that they don’t know what makes a story good and rather than copying the “archetype” they copy the other elements, piece them together into something that isn’t good and the story fails. Archetype is at a much higher level than the other elements. Television shows follow the same archetype week after week, but the audience doesn’t get bored because details are significantly different.

  77. Mira

    This is a deceptively simple post that is really growing on me.
    Nicely done, Mr. Bransford! 🙂

    And your line:

    "The road to cliche is paved with imitation."

    Oh, well. That's just…..that's just really good.

  78. lotusgirl

    I think a lot of it is in the delivery as well. Not just the different setting, characters, etc. The voice changes everything–even the exact same story.


    If I understand my Jung (and I probably don't) or my Erich Neumann (and I am sure I don't), ANY story you write will fit an archetype.

    No reason to worry about it advance, huh?

  80. Matthew Rush

    Dear Mr. Bransford,

    This is completely off topic and I apologize for that but I would just like to say thank you for your blog. All the wisdom you share here for the world to see is incredibly helpful and informative (especially to writers hoping to one day be authors). On the other hand so many of your posts are also very entertaining, and often hilarious, so I imagine readers who have no aspirations for becoming published enjoy it as well.

    Your optimism and friendly attitude are truly inspiring. So thank you.

    In the meantime while we await your next post any amateur writers who have felt discouraged by the query process can read my blog: TheQQQE, a clumsy attempt at catharsis by a novice writer brand new to blogging.

    There is a sort of tribute to you there Mr. Bransford, and if you find the time to read it I certainly hope you don't consider it blowing smoke.

    Don't go Lakers and all mosquitoes must die!

  81. Ishta Mercurio

    I love this post! Such great advice – can I hire you as my personal sage?

    It is a very fine, and difficult, line to walk. Thanks for your take, and good luck with all of those queries!

  82. Julia Weston

    Thank you, Nathan, for posting right in front of me in simple terms the thing that's been trying to coalesce in my head for years.

  83. Kay

    OMG, how the heck did I miss this post?? I guess I'm a day late and dollar short. Oh, well. I'm going to reply anyway.

    Someone on here mentioned Carl Jung, but I was surprised to see (at least in my brief scan) that none of the Star Wars fans mentioned Lucas' mentor, Joseph Campbell. Nathan alluded to The Matrix and, of course, talked about Star Wars. Both Lucas and I believe the Wachowski Brothers used Campbell's "Hero's Journey" as a model for their films. Some Disney movies have even been modeled after it.

    If you look at the outline for the "Hero's Journey" (Call to Adventure, Initiation, Return), the pattern becomes very clear in both Star Wars and The Matrix.

    Yet, both movies are very different. It's that "twist" thing Nathan was talking about, I suppose.

    My question is (and I doubt anyone will answer it since this blog post is from last month): How do you treat sequels with regard to applying this concept (I'm referring to the "Hero's Journey," only b/c Star Wars was mentioned)? Does your character just keep repeating the journey? Or are some elements eliminated? I'm assuming the MC has grown by the conclusion of book one. Are they allowed to digress (e.g. deny the initial call to adventure again) in the sequel?

    *Sighs* I need to pay closer attention to this blog.


  84. Idem

    I would just like to know what those half-dozen or dozen plots that exhaust all of human storytelling are. People often make this claim, but never accompanied by a list. I would imagine that given a list, one could challenge the claim by concocting a plot not on it. In fact, there might even be a diagonalization algorithm for doing so.

  85. Young Writer

    I am in constant doubt that there are any stories that are not cliche. The difference between good and bad stories is this: a good story is so good you don't realize or don't care it's overused. A bad story, that's all you can think about.

  86. Anonymous

    What about 50 Shades of Gray?



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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