How to keep your plots/stories from being repetitive?
So I’ve already discussed expanding your vocabulary in order to keep your sentence structures from stagnating and also how to keep your characters from feeling interchangeable and both of those will help make a story fresh. However, even if you use new vocabulary and make sure to differentiate the voices of your characters, there’s still a level in your story-writing that can make them seem similar to the point of rehashing the same-old same-old things. This is a mix of your setting and plot.
1) Integrate your conflict with your setting
If you took space out of Star Wars you’d get a very different story. So make sure that the placement of your story is integral to your plot. That you can’t tug it out and throw it away and stick a new one in. Even in contemporary stories, this is paramount. If your story is in New York, it better not be able to be thrown into Chicago. If your story is about a secondary world, then that world better not be able to be replaced by any other made-up world. Make the setting as much a character as your characters are.
If you are setting a series all in the same place, then you might only be able to alter the setting in minute ways, but I urge you to do your best here. To make the characters interact with the setting in a different manner than the last story. Maybe the last character was a tourist in a resort town and was seeing everything for the first time. Maybe the new character has lived there all their life and knows the secret places or the drama behind the sparkles of the place.
When crafting in secondary worlds, always keep your options open. Don’t slap down rules and guidelines that cover an entire world on your first go, leave some space for the world to grow and morph, for new types of people with new cultures and ideas and magical abilities to appear or to have their own pockets of space within this world. Don’t say the desert is devoid of people. Mention a people out there to give the impression that the world is bigger, to give yourself a new way to interact with the setting in the future. Don’t tell me that every island has the exact same creatures on it; give me the impression that each is dangerous in its own way.
2) Layer conflicts
If I crochet a chain, then all the chains I create will look pretty much the same, regardless whether they’re fatter, skinnier or made of different colored yarn. If I add layers to my project, then suddenly I have more options on where I can do tighter stitches, loopy holes or shapes. Same with stories. If you only have one single conflict, then it’s easy to see similarities between your story and others. On the other hand, if you layer multiple conflicts–an internal character-driven-one on top of multiple inter-personal ones, on top of a survivalist one on top of a magical, fantastical one–well, you’ve got something far more complicated that won’t feel much like anything else. At least not taken as a whole.
So when crafting your tensions and conflicts, set up multiples at those different levels. Your characters should not all get along; they should not all want the same thing or agree on the same way to achieve the same thing; even people who are friends or allies should disagree–otherwise you’re opting out of a huge opportunity for tensions that could spice the story up. You would end up with scenes that read like an echo chamber of “everyone’s smiling and happy and just congratulating themselves on a job well done!” Go to an echo chamber on a social media forum if you want to read about everyone thinking the same way. Your novel should have people plucked from different walks of life, bringing with them all their own baggage and biases, whether external or internal.
3) Alter character motivations
If your lead characters always want the same thing, then that arc will lead the plot down the same paths toward getting whatever that thing is. For instance, in a romance, the characters could conceivably always be looking for love, leading to each romance feeling like a rehash of the last one. Which is why it’s important to give your characters other motivations that don’t revolve around love or romance itself. Think in terms of what that character might or might not do regardless of whether they get the romantic partner they want, and craft the story threads around that motivation as well.
If might sound like I’m telling you to make the love/romance secondary. And, in a way, I am. Because if the romance motivation is always primary than it will cause the stories to become cookie-cutter/fill-in-the-blanks types of books. If filing off the serial numbers is fine with you, then pump these types of stories out, for sure. But if it’s not. If you’re looking to capture your reader in ways that will make your story linger rather than just be swallowed along with a dozen other romance novels that are then promptly forgotten, you must give the characters further motivations and make those motivations a part of the core of the story.
4) Swap genres
And when all else fails, do something new, try something you’ve never done before, a new genre or subgenre, one that forces you to research or forces you to think outside the box. This can cause you to reach for new ideas automatically before you start filling your plot.