Friday, March 16, 2012

Find the real story beneath your BIG IDEA

Are you putting the finishing touches on your dystopian YA novel about kids who are chosen by lottery to fight to the death on national television? If so, this post is for you.

MaryAnn’s enlightening post on emotional resonance has had me pondering what else poetry can teach us about story. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a poetry workshop with Richard Jones and subsequently falling in love with his collected poems in The Blessing. He talked about where he got his ideas, and how everyday things can inspire poems like The Altar, about the joys of sharpening a pencil. But he also said that some themes come up again and again, such as the tragic death of his young nephew. His analysis of whether this was a problem, which I'm paraphrasing from patchy memory, was something along the lines of: So what? Mary Oliver's been writing the same poem for thirty years.

If you’ve read much Mary Oliver you’ll know why everyone laughed. You’ll also know she’s one of the most universally loved poets of the last few decades. 

To say that reading one Mary Oliver poem is like reading them all would be like saying that every time you hug your child is exactly the same as every other. Of course it isn’t. He grows and changes and sometimes he hugs hard and sometimes he hugs soft, and sometimes he asks in a whisper if reindeers get Christmas presents and sometimes he tells you I love you the best of all, Mommy, except also I love Daddy the same because I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

You wouldn’t ever not want another hug, just because you’d had hugs before.

Storytellers seem to diverge from poets here. No one wants to reinvent the wheel, or more pessimistically, beat a dead horse. (Even worse: a flesh-eating horse that won't die.)

The speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons publishes two laugh-out-loud lists of dead horses: Stories We've Seen Too Often and Horror stories We've Seen Too Often

When I'd finally caught my breath again after imagining the horrors of being a slush reader for Strange Horizons, I noticed that star-crossed lovers, man vs. nature, kidnap & rescue, and any others of the 1, 3, 7, 20, 36 or 42* basic plots were not on these lists. Maybe that’s because it’s a speculative fiction magazine, but my money is on the fact that classic plots don't hinge on clever world-building or twist endings.  They are frameworks for universal experience and emotion.

Some authors do amplify their stories with fascinating new ideas, which is exciting. It’s also rare. And relying on originality to sell a story is risky; someone else may have had the light bulb go off just before you did. 

When I think about what makes poetry work, I realize that a unique premise is overrated.  I think this is true even in that skeleton of the literary closet called genre fiction. 

My current, never-ending work-in-progress has vampire characters. Sometimes I wish I had a 12-step meetings for vampire writers where I could publicly admit I write them and everyone would nod and welcome me and we’d all drink weak coffee in styrofoam cups. 

I guess I’ll just admit it online and make my own coffee.

This novel was never supposed to be about vampires. Supernatural undead aren’t the point of the story. Fear, love, courage, family, finding your way out of a rock and a hard place… those are the point of the story. I could change the vampires to some other ambiguous evil, or even take out the supernatural altogether, and I may someday. Paranormal stuff is fun to write, but the premise is not the story.

Most of the items on the Strange Horizons lists are ideas where the premise is the story. For instance, #12 on the Horror List:
Initiate into religion discovers that the religion is actually killing/destroying its initiates.
Before we continue, I must review the warning from the fiction list:
One more thing: We know it's tempting to look at this list as a challenge. Please don't. In particular, please don't send us stories that intentionally incorporate one or more of these items.
In other words, don't try this exercise at home. And if you do, don’t send it to Strange Horizons.

Back to business: I don’t know that this plot isn’t salvageable. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But I do know that if the whole story is just building up to this horrifying revelation, you will never meet the challenge that you were already advised not to take but we’re hypothetically taking anyway.

Let’s say you already started this story, and now you stumble across this list and bang your head on your desk. You declare you’re done with fiction forever because you’re a writer, and prone to histrionics.

There’s a good chance you initially approached your story with the time-honored question: What if? Perhaps: What if a religion’s sole purpose in recruiting new initiates was to kill them? You were very proud of your idea until you read that website, or this post.

I say the game isn’t over! Maybe, just maybe, the premise isn’t your problem. Maybe it’s the question. 
What if? is a great question. I support what-iffing. But if you think your story has already been written, you might need to ask, What would it feel like?

What emotional state makes a person vulnerable to a predatory cult in the first place? How does it feel to find acceptance? What does it feel like to have your sense of meaning—of purpose, of life and death, of God—crumble under the weight of betrayal? How do you find the will to fight?

When a timid voice of intuition tells you something is wrong, what does the air feel like on your skin? What do you smell? What seeps through the filter of your senses?

These aren’t light questions. These are heavy questions. Some of them are questions that poetry asks all the time. Poems grapple with love, friendship, grief, loss, meaning, death… They tackle these over and over and over again, and yet poetry has never been exhausted. 

Neither have stories.

Whether you’ve written The Hunger Games, Twilight, or murderous cult story #12, don’t despair. Figure out what your story is really about—not the cool what if idea, but the story underneath. The what would that feel like? story. That's the story that only you can write, and when you find it, the rest is fixable. I think.

And if you lose your way, read some Mary Oliver. That same poem she’s been writing over and over? It never gets old.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own…
                                               From "The Journey"; Dream Work 

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
                                                From "Wild Geese"; Dream Work

*Okay I made up that last number. It just seems like there should be 42 basic plots.


  1. I've never heard of Mary Oliver, but those poems were beautiful.

    This is a great post. I've never read it, but I've heard that Hunger Games had a similar premise to Battle Royale, and Twilight certainly wasn't unique either (girl falling in love with vampire/monster had been done to death long before twilgiht).

    I see a lot on forums where writers put up a story idea and ask has this been done before. The answer is alway, "Yes, but do it anyway." We are all unique individuals and have our own unique way to tell the stories in our hearts.

    When you're done with Vampire Writers Anonymous meeting, come on over to the Fantasy Farm Girl/Boy with Special Powers Group. We have cookies. :)

  2. And the Girl With Newly Discovered Super Powers Group meets every other Wednesday, if anyone is interested.

    This post was beautiful, Sarah.

  3. The group I belong to, The-Insecure-Girl-Who thinks-That-Hot-Guy-Should-Love-Her-So-She-Can-Love-Herself, is currently dieting, so I think I'll skip the next meeting and go to the Fantasy Farm Girl meeting instead. I like Cookies.

    I like this post, it highlights one of my trappings as a writer, I write a...I think...brilliant original story, and then read it's premise on a "stories we've seen too often" list.

    I'm with MaryAnn. Sometimes you just need to tell the story that's in your head, even just so you can get it out of your head and move on to more sell-able stories.

  4. I'm so glad that you wrote this! I feel the same way about stories: Find the emotional core. Peel and pare your story like an apple until you hold that core in your hands. Any good story is never about the plot, or at least not *just* about it. It's about the characters, how they react to external & internal elements, how the story changes them, etc. That's the problem with a lot of "twist" endings, I find. The writers relies too much on the shock of the twist and not enough on the way the characters handle it. In fact, I was watching an episode of Breakout Kings in which I saw the twist ending coming a mile away. While that annoyed me for a few minutes, I didn't mind too much, because of the way the characters handled it.

    This is closely related to something else that annoys me about books: People who assume that just because books share many of the same plot elements, one is obviously a rip-off or a rehash of the other. The Hunger Games is forever being compared to Battle Royale, and each of these comparisons annoy me. To me, the books aren't about the same things at all, though they share similar ideas. Of course, I couldn't get through even a third of Battle Royale, but I read The Hunger Games in about 10 hours. Which I suppose also makes my response one about the importance of prose as well, because I found the writing of BR clunky and unappealing (I feel obligated to point out that BR was a translation, which may account for some of that), but I found Katniss' voice such an easy one to slip into. Also, while the Games themselves made for a horrifying framing device and crucible for the tributes, I always saw the story as really being about how Katniss was going to get back to her family to take care of them. The novel was less about the basic premise and more about the characters.

    Basically, if the author has done their work and the idea is written well, I don't mind reading books that have basic plot points in common.

  5. I've loved those lists for a while now. My favorite has always been "twee fairies fly around being twee."

    Since I read half of everything we get at FFO, I've gotten very tired of certain things:
    -story ends with narrator's suicide
    -spouses kill each other
    -story starts out like it's being told by a human, but turns out to be from the perspective of a cat/dog/fish/alien/body part. (not making that last one up).

    But the thing is, none of those are really plots, are they? The first three are definitely devices rather than plots. And the problem with the last is that the particular structure makes it a trick ending ('ha, ha! did you not see the clever hints I left that the narrator is really a dog?')

    I think it's really devices that I get tired of, rather than plots. But there are always exceptions, stories that I thought I was tired of that, with the proper treatment, can be new and fresh again. So write what's true to you. But read up on those cliches; if nothing else, it can help you shape unique ideas in the future.

  6. Why of course there are 42 basic plots. 42 is the answer to the universe, just as Douglas Adams.

    Very good post, I needed this bit of encouragement.


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