Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ideas are Worthless! (Storytelling Tips from Comp Class)

 garbage cans,household,industry,trash,trashcans,waste cans

One of the advantages of teaching composition is that ideas from class spill over into other aspects of my writing and vice versa. Writing and teaching writing feed off each other like a very small and mutually beneficial food chain.

For example, here’s a tidbit of writing wisdom from my Comp I textbook: “Topics are worthless.”[1]  

Instead of writing about the grandiose ideas every other student writes about, such as stem cell research or abortion, the authors encourage students to say something new about the most mundane of topics: why you dislike certain foods, how you overcame shyness, how you learned nothing from a boring history class.

In other words, the topic isn’t as important as what you have to say about it.

The same logic applies to writing stories.

It’s been said that there are no original ideas. Even the most successful books and films are based on well-traveled themes:
  • Harry Potter is about a boy seeking to discover his special powers in an ordinary world.
  • The Help is about women seeking to overcome prejudice.
  • Most super-hero stories can be boiled down to good versus evil.
The trick, then, is to do something different with the idea. Here are five tips to help you forge new paths on a well-worn trail:

1. Ask yourself why you want to write about this idea in the first place.  What attracted you to it? If you write about sparkly vampires, are you doing so because they’re popular right now or because they appeal to you in some other way? Would you write about them if they weren’t popular?  (Hint: If the answer is no, perhaps you should write about something else.) 
2. Read other books built around a premise similar to yours.  Knowing what’s already been done with your idea will help you avoid covering the same ground by accident. It’s impossible, of course, to read every book featuring, say, zombies, but studying a representative selection of zombie stories can give you a sense of what's worked and what hasn't.
 3. Read a variety of books and articles not related to your idea.  Most comic book writers know their respective universes inside and out, down to the smallest bits of trivia. That’s well and good, but many modern comic book writers bring little else to the table. Their stories become insular and repetitive, covering the same ground, plowing through the same mega-crossovers year after year.

Classic comic book writers from the Golden and Silver ages steeped themselves in science fiction or just plain science. They drew from other fields to add something fresh to their stories.
 4. Don’t strive to be original—be truthful.  While fiction does indeed consist of being original—“making stuff up”—it is also about telling the truth: your truth.

Your truth is different from my truth or the truth of the person sitting next to you. That’s because we’ve all lived different lives. Tap into that well of uniqueness that is you and write about the one thing no one else knows: what it’s like to live your life.
 5. Connect the dots.  A writer I recently met described his book as a cross between Lord of the Rings and The Family Guy—two series that seem miles apart. Yet he somehow makes it work.

Find the connections between your idea and something that seems unrelated.  (Yes, I wrote “find” on purpose. Finding connections is better than inventing them. Invented connections can seem forced or phony.)

Everything is connected to everything else—the “six degrees” theory. Your task as writer is to discover those connections and connect the dots.
Finding something new to say about a timeworn topic or idea can be challenging, but it’s also the most rewarding aspect of being a writer: discovering that piece of originality that is not only inside you but is you.

[1] Jack Rawlins and Stephen Metzger.  The Writer’s Way. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. 286. Print.
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Dennis Young said...

1. Agree. I’ve met too many people who say “I want to write but I don’t know what to write about”. If you have no passion, it’s hard to write; writing is about passion and feeling, little else.
2. Disagree. Why do you want to see how other people did it? Make it your own. “Have it your way”.
3. Agree. Read for fun, read for inspiration, read for information. But read.
4. Agree. Another way to say this might be “keep your world consistent. If blue-eyed people in your world are the only ones who can drive a car on Tuesday, so be it; but stay consistent to the rules you put in place. Unless breaking them is part of the story”.
5. Agree with qualification; it’s OK to leave questions unanswered, but confusion is out. If you leave unanswered questions at the end of your story, be sure it’s clear to the reader you meant to leave them that way.


Greg Gildersleeve said...

On No. 2, Denny: The analogy I use in class is Picasso. He studied both the old masters and contemporary artists before he "had it his way" and developed his highly distinctive abstract style.

Likewise, writers can learn from other writers in their genre, including what to do and what not to do.

Writers who do not study their field run the risk of inventing wheels that have already been invented, as the Professor did in the first Gilligan's Isle reunion movie: He had invented a frisbee, not knowing that, while he was stranded on a deserted island, someone else had already done so.

And studying other writers does not mean you can't make it your own. It may sound paradoxical, but in my experience, the more knowledge you have, the more liberating it is as a creator.

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