Thursday, March 22, 2012

Using familiar tropes to create unique stories

On Tuesday, I posted on how some writers (and marching bands) rely on "kits", ie pre-packaged familiar stories and characters.

But of course all writing is inevitably predicated on what came before. And I believe by studying stories' commonalities, we can help ourselves to tell better stories (whether by following the expected path, or diverging from it).

During my MA in Writing for Young People, a tutor assigned writing a contemporary, realistic adventure story, with a female protagonist, for ages 9-12. But before we started, we discussed the adventure story trope: distant lands, hot climates, pirates, armed natives, resourceful men, high tech gadgets...

Then the tutor asked what challenges are inherent in writing a contemporary, realistic adventure story for children. Well, if it's going to be a high-stakes situation, you're going to get the children away from their parents, as well as their cell phones. And what kinds of high-stakes adventures could happen in the UK? And how can children possibly (and realistically) be the heroes?

I loved the idea of thinking about these story challenges before getting knee-deep in the writing, mired in an unworkable plot. Since then, I've developed this thought-process into a habit before I start any project. I watch movies in my genre, read books, list the challenges these storytellers encounter, and how they solve them. Then, with a little help from all that's gone before, I can chose my unique path.

Course, when I still end up knee-deep in the writing, mired in a seemingly unworkable plot, I only have myself to blame (and that's the point where I start dreaming about those kits...).

Do you use other books and movies as jumping-off points? Or do you prefer to work as independently as possible?

*The picture is mine, from Bristol's SS Great Britain. It's as good an illustration as I have of Anne plotting her own little sea-faring adventure.

8 comments:

  1. You look fabulous, Anne, navigating the seas. Even from the port. Love the picture.
    Sorry about my dismissive tone in a comment to your last post. I was in one of those moods, and I felt like taking on clichés and formulaic writing. Here’s the bottom line- work whichever way works for you. I’m sure movies and books and others’ stories have influenced me. But I’m a subconscious stealer, not a conscious one. I wouldn’t use another’s story as a take-off point.
    P.S.
    Well, I still dislike kits.

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    1. No need to apologize, Mirka. Your last point made complete sense to me, and your horror at kits made me smile. I mostly agree with you, other than in my dark moments where I despair of ever weaving a fully functioning plot together. While analyzing how other plots and genres work has certainly helped as a jumping off point for my own writing, I can easily imagine the other side, where one is loathe to study other stories.

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  2. What an interesting post! I definitely allow books and movies to influence me, although I always have a bunch of sources per novel. Keeping a library of plot types, character types, conflict types, gadget types, escape types, etc. in my mind does help me. The trick is not to let it show, however!

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    1. Exactly, Anne, I think that's the goal: using various sources but managing to keep your story original. I wish I could keep a library of all that stuff in my mind, but I think it leaks out of my ears, so I always need to study up with each new idea or revision.

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  3. I like that approach! It really is so important to know your genre (mystery, adventure, etc.) because then you know what your readers expect and how those expectations might affect your writing process.

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    1. And knowing is half the battle! (sorry, couldn't resist). But I totally agree. Chances are, these problems are going to come up, better to tackle them head on.

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  4. Although I've not tried it, the approach sounds interesting. It would lead a writer, I'd think, to going beyond the same-old-same-old. I try to do this but haven't any sort of process for it.

    Love Anne-the-Captain pic. You look like you are having fun!

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    1. hehehe. Thanks, Bridgette. I was having fun!

      I'm not sure I have any real process, I just keeping trying things and hoping something works! ;)

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