Is it just me, or does anyone else think Cormac McCarthy's novella The Road bears striking similarities to Ernest Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea? Both of them are basically the myth of Sisyphus, though McCarthy tacked on something like a happy ending (to which I cry foul and cowardice, by the way but whatevers).
My point, possibly, is that theme is eternal, or at least some themes are. How many takes on "Romeo and Juliet" (itself a retread of much older material) or the theme people will destroy themselves and their whole world for love have there been? How many more are to come? The theme never dies.
Over on my blog yesterday I was musing about the purposes behind the actions of characters, the hidden motivations. Lately I've been trying to look more deeply into story structure, to see what forces lie far beneath the surface. I have an image of a narrative--what you'd call a novel--as something like the surface of the earth, but it's just a skin stretched over a more primal, possibly molten and unstable core. I want to look at the core, at the center of the earth.
I'm starting small, or trying to, by looking at my characters this way. As I told Anne Gallagher on my blog, a protagonist has to want something, but that something isn't necessarily the swag they're diving for in the story. That swag likely represents something deeper, something never seen by anyone and possibly something within the protagonist that the protagonist never thinks about, at least not directly.
This is not necessarily support for the "psychological novel" where the character's actions in present day are to be explained by some event from their past (some trauma they haven't come to grips with or whatever), but I do think that stories--great stories--tend to be "about" people who are acting to defend their basic humanity in one way or another. Possibly all great stories are in the end the myth of Sisyphus, but in some of the stories the stone finally remains at the top of the hill and Sisyphus builds a house in its shade.
Where am I going with all of this? I don't know. I am rambling on a Tuesday morning. I don't necessarily belief that "there are only X many plots" or that every well-formed story is a Campbellian Transformative Journey of the Hero. What I do believe, at least this week, is that surface elements are the least important part of a story. To my fellow writers I suggest that when you're looking at your character and asking her what she wants, don't listen to her first answer. If she says "a sports car," ask her "why." Keep asking. Don't listen to her facile lies. It might also be instructive to ask yourself, dear writer, why you think your character wants a sports car. What is it about you that makes you think a sports car/money/the magickal whatsis is desirable? Why? No, really. Why? Be creative. Don't accept any answer you've read in another book or seen on TV.