May 26, 2014

Adventures in Genre-Hopping: Dissection

"Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal."

--T.S. Elliot

I think Pablo Picasso said something similar: "The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal."

I don't plan to plagiarize, here, just for the record. Writers steal all the time, and it's perfectly legal, if you know how to do it right. I'm not stealing other people's works or words and passing them off as my own.This is research of the market and of the genre. To be able to write a time travel novel, I need to understand a time travel novel.

Joanna Penn wrote on her blog: 

  • Steal ideas. Read other people’s works, or look at other people’s art work. If you like an idea, ruminate on it, muddle it around in your brain and see where it ends up. Write the same idea in your own words and you can bet it will be a different story or a new angle on it. Steal other people’s experiences and write about them for plot. Steal their words as they speak to help your dialogue. How many books about the end of the world are there? How many unrequited love stories? How many quest adventures?
So I want to take some of my favorite time travel stories that I've read so far, and find out what makes them tick. Have you ever taken something apart and put it back together, just to see how it works? (Neither have I. I'm not mechanically inclined, but I hear some people do this.)

This involves the following steps:
1) Read books
2) Choose a few that are excellent
3) Read them again, looking for structural elements
4) Write those elements down
5) Analyze them. Do you see any patterns? Have these structures been used by more than one author? What works? What would you change?

So I'm mapping out a few stories. The notes I'm making (the parts that I'm "stealing") are things like: 

Mentor is in conflict with main character's Norm
Call to Action
Main character tries to return to Norm, but encounters disaster

So, for Back to the Future, I might start off my notes with:
Main Character in the Norm (good things and bad things) and receives object that will help later
Main Character is introduced to time travel
Main Character inadvertently time travels (without being fully prepared)
Main Character changes the future, which would destroy the Norm
Main Character seeks out Mentor
MC and Mentor use object to formulate plan

**Spoiler for Back to the Future I (you know, from 1985...)**
The Mentor is Doc Brown in this particular story, but it could be any knowledgeable character. The "object" is something I didn't even notice until I started paying attention to the structure of the story: it's the flyer that Marty gets from the crazed lady in front of the clock tower. That flyer has information on the lightning strike that will help get him home near the end of the movie. Marty only keeps the flyer because his girlfriend wrote a phone number on it (because why else would a teenage boy carry around a flyer to "save the clock tower"?)
Hopefully, I'll figure out a plot structure that is totally awesome and works for my characters and my ideas. Once I have my basic time travel ideas and characters created, I'll see if I can plug their particulars into these structures. It might work, it might not, but I'll be able to see my story in a new light.

Part of me thinks I should map out some good stories from other genres...maybe mystery or thriller. Thoughts?

For now, I'm going to let these ideas simmer on the back burner.

Do you ever think about the structure of a story? Besides structure and basic plot, what does a story need?

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