Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Inventing New From Old



What people like to read about is something new and different. Something they haven’t experienced before.

What people also like to read about are things they recognise and are familiar with and know well.

Herein lies the problem for writers.  Go too far from what people are used to and they don’t want to risk wasting their time on something they may end up not liking.

Stick to what’s been done before and get treated like a hack and imitator.



It’s difficult because while most people will say they’re interested in exploring new areas and giving a chance to risky propositions, the truth is it’s the clichéd and the predictable that top the bestseller charts.

The same thing dressed up slightly different is what sells. That’s probably true of most art forms at the moment. Truly original and fresh is how we’d all like to be successful, but those successes are rare, and for every one that makes it, there are hundreds that failed.

Trying to satisfy the reader’s desire for something unique yet familiar, and creatively satisfying for the writer is no easy task.

At its most crass it can seem very one note. It’s Die Hard on a hovercraft! Wuthering Heights with werewolves! But I’m not talking about big conceptual ideas—whatever the premise of your story it should be something that appeals to you.

What I’m talking about are the basic building blocks of a story. How do you make those seem fresh and original even though they aren’t the main focus of the story.

For example, if I’m writing a big love story that lasts a hundred years and features alien visitors from another dimension that will all seem very exciting and different I’m sure. But if one of the scenes within that story shows Diane, my main character, going into a meeting wanting to impress and get the promotion she knows Sally is being lined up for, how do I make that feel less familiar and obvious?

Because even though the overall story may have lots of exciting and innovative concepts to it, people only read one chapter at a time, and each scene has the power to send the reader to sleep.

Often what I see when reading a WIP is a realistic depiction. Diane works for a company that sell a rival to iPhones and she goes into the meeting and talks in marketing jingo and when Sally points something out she shuts her down. Typical boardroom scene.

The obvious way to make that sort of scene feel less familiar and predictable is to have Diane come up with a truly impressive and revolutionary idea for selling phones. Not very easy. In fact, if you could come up with something like that you should probably stop writing and contact Samsung.

But there are plenty of other opportunities in a scene like that for adding something different without having to do too much. You could change the thing they’re talking about. Instead of mobile phones, maybe the company sells unicorn horns. Obviously it would have to be something that fits into the story you’re writing, but my point is that one small change can make a big difference to how the reader will react to what was a fairly standard set up.

Or you could take the meeting out of the boardroom and have it on the roof. You can’t do these things for no reason, you have to provide believable explanations, but that’s completely within your power as a writer.

Perhaps the meeting is all women, or the chairmen is twelve, or a there’s a cage with a tiger in it. These examples may seem random or requiring more explanation than you would like, but I’m using extreme examples to show the way the brain works.

If you look at a familiar painting and one thing stands out, that’s the thing your brain will focus on. But the important thing isn’t to note what that thing is, it’s that the brain is focused. The shift from “taking it all in” mode to “trying to work it out” mode is a change in the level of engagement, and once you get the reader in that state of mind the fish is on the hook.

Simply by adding small unexpected details you can add enough newness to a familiar set up. Of course, you still have to make the rest of the scene entertaining, but with the reader already engaged, you have a much better chance of keeping the their attention.
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28 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Basic concepts are all right - it's the details that make it unique and special.
Same thing dressed up slightly different - sounds like the US's music industry. That's why I enjoy so many European bands. They aren't the same flavor of vanilla.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I think everyone has to make their own call, but the general direction things are going at the top end can be very disheartening. Safe and familiar is way ahead of any other approach.

nutschell said...

ooh! I didnt know you had your stories up on wattpad. I've just discovered the app on my kindle. I'll have to go check them out:)
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@nutschell - Please do. I'm getting quite a few reads but not many comments.

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

I've recently gotten some fan mail from folks who read my books and said they are very original. It made me feel great even though I know that they are "weird" or "strange" and some have even described them as "nothing I've ever read before is quite like this..."

I think it takes courage to branch off in a different direction. I'm glad that I did but yeah, I won't be topping any best seller lists anytime soon.

J Keith said...

I find the direction of many of the movies and scripts written to be the same old crap over and over and not even with new twists. I'm even noticing some of the best selling novels to be the same old story.

M said...

It IS tricky. And for me, who has recently published a novel in a different genre than my regular readers are used to, it has been quite the feat to (a) keep my regular readers happy while (b) also finding new readers. (When I shopped The K-Pro, agents and publishers couldn't figure out what genre it was. So . . .)

~MPL
http://pepperwords.com

mooderino said...

@Michael - sometimes weird hits and then everyone acts like they always loved it.

@J - It sells. Hard to argue if you're a businessman.

@M - new directions also have a bigger chance of failing, so I can appreciate the reluctance, but people need to take a few more risks in life.

Beth said...

Thanks for stopping by!

mooderino said...

@beth - I was in the area.

LD Masterson said...

When I heard someone was rewriting Jane Austen with vampires (or was it zombies?), I sat down and cried. Have we really come to that?

Jenelle Leanne said...

LD - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is actually pretty entertaining.

mooderino said...

@LD - Yes, we have come to that.

@Jenelle - I don't think it's about whether it's entertaining or not, it's more the status accorded to those sorts of ideas. Makes it much harder for newer, less sturdy ideas to find their feet when you can make money with well established concepts remixed.

Li said...

I find that even a tired old plot will hold my interest if the characters are well-drawn and the setting is either unique or so descriptive that I feel like I'm there. After all, most of the time I'm reading as an escape...

Al Diaz said...

Same but different. I read this proposal on Save The Cat and I chopped the author's head of. Ironically, I'm accepting the proposal from you because your way of explaining it is different. Cannot get better example than this. Same but different.

Julie Luek said...

I've often read there is really nothing new to write about, it's how each writer infuses it with their unique vision, details and feelings that makes it new. Maybe that's true.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Interesting post! And then there's the writer's voice which can take about anything and make it seem original if done right.

Patricia Stoltey said...

It's boring to write the same old stuff using the same old formula. I think it's worth the risk to try something new. The market will probably be ready for it someday.

Bob Sanchez said...

Happy to retweet. A problem implied in your post is that writers need to appeal to everyone, which I don't think is true. Write for yourself, and you'll please some people and perhaps displease others. That's okay.

Krista McLaughlin said...

Definitely a tricky problem. We have to find a good balance between what a reader knows and how far we can make them believe. :)

Lynda R Young said...

It's a familiar catch-ophrase in Hollywood: "I want the same, but different!" You've explained it well.

mooderino said...

@Li - the familiar is comforting, but not particularly mind-expanding.

@Al Diaz - Personally, I prefer the more out there ideas, but i think it's good to have an understanding of what constitutes success in the business.

@Julie - I still think there are new ideas out there. But it's definitely harder to get an audience for that stuff, especially earlier in a career.

@Karen - some people certainly have the knack. Wish I was one of them.

@Patricia - I hope so.

mooderino said...

@Bob - I read a lot of WIPs that feel like I've read it all before. It's those manuscripts I think could be vastly improved with small additions.

@Krista - the only way to really find the right balance is trail and error.

@Lynda - Hollywood has rather too much reliance on this idea.

Miranda Hardy said...

All great points! The imagination is an amazing thing, but crazy ideas may not be too attractive to others.

mooderino said...

@Miranda - and some crazy ideas just work. Shame it's so hard to tell one from the other.

sassyspeaks said...

It's all in the details yes. I like to focus on my characters and make them unique with a twist to their story and how the story chaanges them

Mary Gottschalk said...

Nice post. Oliver Sachs recently did a wonderful article on this same subject ... that "creativity" is simply the imaginative re-arranging of our memories ... things we already know, but sometimes do remember that we know. Not sure it's appropriate to put the link here, but let me know if you want it.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I found this a useful post. I'm in the middle of a rewrite, and it's a nice reminder that the familiar with a different twist works well, and that details make the difference between something ho-hum and something interesting.

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