Refreshing Fiction Continued

As most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer or their love conquers and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable differences (until they are reconciled – 😉 ).

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see the romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else.

Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters) and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Another tack is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty and you have Shrek. Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history look like?

What would a romance between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack look like?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the ideas that present themselves when we writers first start contemplating a story.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am  Comments Off on Refreshing Fiction Continued  
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Fresh Fiction Writing Refreshed

Yesterday, the heart of my post about writing fresh fiction was this: A fresh story is a familiar one told in a new way. Or a different story told in a familiar way.

While I think those statements are true, I don’t think they are particularly helpful to a writer who is trying to figure out out to tell a familiar story so that it comes across as something new and interesting.

I think of King Arthur stories, since there are so many of them. It seems next to impossible to tell the tale in a new way, and yet Bryan Davis did in his Dragons in Our Midst series of YA fantasies (AMG Publishing).

Part of his stories, but not all, were flashback scenes of King Arthur and good prophet Merlin saving the dragons from dragon hunters by turning them into people. Reviewers often said their favorite parts of the books were these Arthurian legend scenes.

Obviously Bryan told the familiar in a new way. But how? For one, he linked Arthur with dragons, something I don’t think is part of the traditional legend. He also made dragons in need of saving and gave Arthur a pivotal role in doing so. In other words, Bryan’s fresh take enhanced the existent story and built upon the character’s strengths.

Stephen Lawhead also re-imaged a familiar story in his King Raven series (Thomas Nelson)—Robin Hood. He changed the legendary setting from England to Wales, then in the final book of the trilogy gave a credible explanation how the English adopted the story based on a “real” Welsh hero.

A third example of a fresh take on a familiar legend is the movie Ever After, the story of Cinderella, told as if by an aging relative who passed the true story along to the Brothers Grimm. In this “real” version, Cinderella is anything but a helpless woman, though she is mistreated by her step-mother and one step-sister (the other turns out to be of some help later in the story, though she doesn’t stand up to those who are abusive).

The magic elements of the story are changed into real events/people, with only a perception of the fantastic. Another twist is that the prince, when he learns who Cinderella actually is, feels betrayed by her and is unwilling to marry beneath his station. Later he comes to his senses, rushes to save her from a brute who has bargained with her step-mother to marry her, but finds she has already freed herself from the man’s evil clutches.

These three examples do not hide their source but make a concerted effort to alter the story in some significant way: Davis by incorporating dragons in the Arthurian legend, Lawhead by changing the setting of Robin Hood, and Ever After by explaining away the magic of Cinderella and adjusting the plot accordingly.

Making full use of myth and legend while altering the source in some significant way is just one method of telling the old in a new way. But I’ll save any further discussion of fresh fiction for another day.

What Makes a Work of Fiction Fresh?

Hang around acquisition editors and agents (or their blogs) for a while and you hear the oft repeated phrase, I’m looking for something fresh. What exactly does that mean? After all, isn’t it fresh to write a fantasy called The First Zepina of Xingkit? I bet no one’s written that one before!

Of course, there’s no guarantee, since we don’t know what a Zepina is.

The first rule of freshness would seem to be, it must be on a recognizable vine. In other words, “fresh” doesn’t mean something so unknown that readers aren’t curious.

When I ask someone what they do for a living and they answer that they transpose the digital data from the analog system in the xzgkrst imnblop wazseb, well, you can see where they lost me (though the process probably started after “transpose.” 😉 ) In these instances, I’m so lost, I don’t know enough to ask any more questions.

In the same way, if a story seems so foreign to a reader, he doesn’t know what questions to ask as it unfolds, his eyes will glaze over and he’ll put the book down.

“Fresh” also hasn’t been sitting on the vine so long that it’s started to turn black or mushy to the touch. In other words, it can’t be overdone. A story that is fermenting is one that has been done and redone in many, many ways, but a writer wants to tell it yet again sans significant changes.

These stories, some actually getting in print, are the ones readers and reviewers alike tag as derivative. They’ve been retold in a way that does not change or camouflage the source material. Take a look at these lines from some Amazon reviews:

  • I kept feeling as if I where reading a poor reproduction of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME.
  • I find [the] plot more reminiscent of Star Wars than of anything else.
  • the events and ideas come from other authors.
  • These comments, by the way, are about the same book. (Any guesses which one?)

    So “fresh” can’t be too off the beaten path, nor can it be down Main St. Central. Then what IS it?

    The simplest explanation is, a fresh story is a familiar one told in a new way. Or a different story told in a familiar way.

    Here’s what’s hard for us pre-published authors, as I see it. Since we haven’t earned anyone’s trust yet, selling someone on the idea that our story IS fresh—not too weird or too stale—is hard work.

    I have a writer friend who had a test reader put down her manuscript because she thought she knew what was coming next. Never mind that the author had perfectly set her up for the surprise twist she wouldn’t see coming; the reader never gave the book a chance.

    Bottom line, agents and acquisition editors need to be convinced, before they’ll look at complete manuscripts, that they are looking at something fresh.

    Published in: on June 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm  Comments (7)  
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