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Monday, January 26, 2009

I met you before the fall of Rome

At Confusion this year I was on a panel talking about The Short Story. It was a great panel moderated by Jim Hines. With Mer Haskel, William Jones, and Cat Rambo as fellow panelist I was speaking way above my pay grade. The audience was attentive, polite and asked a lot of good questions. Really, nobody asked the "agent question." That's a pleasant step-up.

One question that usually comes up, and it did this time as well, is the question on originality. So let us tackle that one first.

Okay, off the bat, it's all been done before. No, really. If you're not seeing this it's merely because you either aren't reading enough or not able to dice out structures (plot, story, characters, etc) from the whole. Don't worry, this is something you can learn how to do. It's a reductionist kind of thinking, there are thousands of classes out there that can help. This is being able to see the trees from the forest. That doesn't mean you can't do something fresh. You should be, because the editors have read it all before.

How do you make something fresh? I'm glad you asked, Grasshopper. There are basically four ways to become "original" or "creative."

1) Tell the story in your (or the character's) voice. The first is the easiest (at its basic level) and something we're already doing or should be doing. Do I need to find examples of this?

2) Closely related to #1 is to update/set the story in a different time/place. Stories, plots and characters are all products of their time. Shakespeare is often the victim of these changes and you can find a large percentage of his catalog updated and told for different times (Hamlet told as a WWII fable, West Side Story is essentially Romeo and Juliet, etc). Or just refresh the language usage (now it's fashionable to not emphasis the iambic pentameter rhythm of the dialog). A subcategory of this is to change the set up of the story. Neil Gaiman does an excellent rip on Snow White called "Snow, Glass, Apples" and is told from the mother's POV (see #5), making Snow an undead creature like a witch/vampire, and the Prince as a necrophiliac. Sounds horrible but it really is a good story.

3) The Mash-up. Taking two stories and flinging them at each other to see what happens. This is actually very effective when you can do it well. Sometimes it just dies, though. One major example of this that I can think of is The Princess Bride. (BTW, I love the new cover design of the DVD. It's just fabulous. Don't know what I'm talking about? Go to the store, grab the DVD, and then turn it upside down.) The frame part of the story (Grandfather telling his grandson a story showing his love) is a stock premise, the book/play within a book/play. The story he tells is a mash-up of Hind Horn and Sleeping Beauty (the second half of the story, after Beauty marries Charming and goes to live at his castle). Now, some character substitution happens (see #2 - the Ogre mother-in-law is played by the Prince himself, and the Woodsman is split between Fezzik, Inigo, and Vizzini), and some other stories are mixed in, but that's the basic plot line.

Since I'm talking about it, usually the token of love in Hind Horn is listed as either a diamond or pearl ring (among other things, in The Princess Bride it's the phrase, "As you wish") more than likely the original was an opal which can lose it's brilliance and luster.

4) Change the POV in the story. Gregory Maguire has practically made a career out of this. Cinderella is also a favorite of this technique, usually portraying Cindy in an unfavorable light.

While I gave my examples in the form of fairy tales, because it's a literary tradition I've been studying lately, you can find this in all genres and mainstream literature. In conclusion, there is one basic story, "there's this character and something happens." Everything else is just being wordy.

4 comments:

vince said...

Cat Rambo and Mer Haskel? I am so so jealous. And I hadn't realized that The Princess Bride was a mash-up. Both a favorite book and movie, I'll have to go back and reread Hind Horn.

Jim C. Hines said...

It was a fun panel, even if we didn't end up doing the whole thing in question format.

But really, what kind of hack just retells old fairy tales?

Mer said...

But really, what kind of hack just retells old fairy tales?

*whistles innocently*

Steve Buchheit said...

Vince, it was a rockin' panel, it was. Hind Horn is an old story related to and considered a shortened version of King Horn.

Jim, did we forget to frame all of our answers in the form of a question? I wouldn't know anybody who just retells old fairy tales, would you?

::joins Mer whistling, not looking directly at anybody::