Building on the legacy

On November 4, 2012, Ellie Mayerhofer wrote on my website, I was wondering if you had any advice for a story I’m writing. It’s a twist on Red Riding Hood, but I’m including at least two other fairy tales in it. I have read several versions of RRH, and seen a few too. I’m trying to write something completely original, but sometimes I feel like the story is too much like other versions of RRH. Is there any way I can be sure that it is completely original and not too much like other versions? It is based on the fairy tale, but I want it to be totally different than anything else I’ve read/seen. 

Also, with Red Riding Hood (I’ve named her Rosaly), I want her to be ‘fierce’ (for lack of a better word-she’s a hunter in a really dangerous forest-the one with the wolf-to provide food, she helps defend herself and her Granny from attacks from the wolf {the wolf is NOT a werewolf}) but also funny, and when she decides she trusts someone she is really loyal and well, trusting of them. The only family she has left is her Granny, and she is strongly defensive of those she considers family/friends. However, I am having trouble showing all sides of her (complex) personality. Any advice???

Ellie had another question, too, which I’ll get to next week.

Several questions are rolled up in this one. First, originality, which I’ve discussed before on the blog (check out the old posts by clicking on the label). I doubt that complete originality is possible, but if the impossible were achieved, I further doubt complete originality would be understood by readers. Writers and readers build on what went before. We take stories in and manufacture new stories based on our experience of the ones we know. The stories we read and hear are simple when we’re very young children. Then as we mature, our idea of what’s possible expands. Oh! we discover, a story can be this, too, and that, too. Each added complexity builds on what went before.

Rather than complete originality, I’m hoping in my writing to expand the range a little, so that someone else can build on what I’ve done. We writers stand on the shoulders of our predecessors, building acrobatic writing towers.

In our search for the new, we want to avoid two pitfalls that are the reverse of originality. The first is infringing on someone’s copyright, which can happen if our plot hews too close to someone else’s or if our characters are too much like another writer’s, or, of course, if we plagiarize – copy sentences and paragraphs verbatim without mentioning the source. I’m not a copyright specialist, and copyright is complicated. My words above are vague: too close or too much like. How much is too much? How close is too close? The courts decide.

For the poor writer, unless you’re deliberately appropriating somebody else’s work, you’re probably fine. If you’re making an effort to be as original as you can, I don’t think you need to worry. But, for extra safety, when I’m using a fairy tale, I avoid reading (or watching) contemporary versions because I don’t want another writer’s take sliding into my subconscious and exiting, unnoticed, through my fingertips.

To be sure, confine your reading to fairy tale adaptations that are old. I’d say (remember, I’m not a copyright attorney) 110 years old and you’re home free. I go to the Andrew Lang fairy tale collections which are for certain in the public domain. Public domain means that they’re no longer copyright protected; they’re out in the world, and anyone can use them.

The second pitfall is being too predictable, cliched. The reader can tell what’s going to happen next because she’s read so many stories just like ours. Not that our new story violates anyone’s copyright, just that events play out according to expectation. For example, if a hard-luck child falls in with a crotchety old codger, I’d put good money down that the codger will turn out to have a heart of gold and that the two will save each other. If said codger dies at the end but the child has gained enough strength and wisdom from him to succeed in life, I win double.

As we gain story experience we start to recognize these cliche patterns and we can avoid them, either by creating stories that don’t follow the format or by going against expectation. If the codger turns out to be fundamentally horrible, the reader will be thrown off balance in a good way and our story will be energized. When, as readers, we feel that a story is original, I think it’s usually because we’re surprised. The story elements are there but they’re combined in fresh ways.

My favorite strategy for avoiding a cliched plot is to list possibilities for what can come next in my story, and I don’t settle for my first idea. Generally I write several ideas and then get stuck. I stare out my window and rush back to my desk when a couple more arrive. I write them down and get stuck again. Repeat process. Usually one of the latecomers will work in my story and surprise my readers.

Characters can be key to creating that sense of originality. In the RRH tale, an interesting Rosaly will help, but so will a grandmother who goes against type. In versions I know (including my own), authors have had a field day with the wolf, whose character is central to the tale. And in a novel, naturally, there will be others who can amaze the reader.

When we think about our characters – maybe we fill out a character questionnaire like the one I provide in Writing Magic – we may come up with a list of traits, which don’t become real until we’re writing the story and putting our character into situations. What we have from Ellie for Rosaly are these characteristics: fierce, funny, loyal, and trusting of the people who are close to her. So when we start writing we want to put her into situations that will reveal her this way.

For example, she’s out hunting, hiding on the edge of a meadow. The wind is right for her, and an unsuspecting buck starts grazing. She has a clear shot. As she nocks her arrow, she says under her breath, “Such a beautiful creature. Too bad taxidermy hasn’t been invented yet.” And she lets fly. We’ve now met her unsentimental sense of humor (and mine). If the animal she’s shooting happens to be a tiger rather than a deer and the same things happen (except for the grazing), we’ve also encountered her fierceness. She isn’t rattled in the face of a tiger, and she can even get off a joke.

Of course, the incidents that reveal Rosaly’s character also need to move the story forward. Maybe we see her courage and her humor as she saves her grandmother from both a snake and a nosy neighbor. And so forth. We look for situations that will bring her qualities to the fore. Coincidentally, they should also demonstrate the grandmother’s character. Is she burying her head under the pillow in an ineffective attempt to escape the snake, or chattering all unaware of it, or reaching for her rifle, but Rosaly gets there first?

Here are three prompts:

• I’ve laid out the cliche of the grumpy old man and the homeless child and suggested one way to write against it. Think of three more ways. Pick one and write the story.

• This is the opposite of the advice I gave above, to stay away from contemporary fairy tale adaptations when you’re thinking of doing one of your own. I hope you’ll try this anyway, just this once. The Andrew Lang books are available for free online. Here’s a link to The Blue Fairy Book, which I think has the best known tales: Read a fairy tale that you know in more than one version. List the major plot developments and characters for the Lang version. Then make the same list for at least one contemporary adaptation. Feel free to use “Cinderella” and Ella Enchanted if you like. Now think of a third way to go, your own take on events. List the characters and plot points. Next, naturally, write the story.

• These traits are ingrained in our MC: brainy, argumentative, kind, and impulsive. Make her the heroine of “Beauty and the Beast” or another fairy tale of your choosing and develop incidents that reveal these characteristics while also moving the story along.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Ooh, I like this post, I have had the same problem. the book I am currently working on does seem a little clichéd, but I'm just going to leave it until revision to straighten out. Oh, and this post came perfectly timed too, today is my birthday! 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for all of your advice. It was great to hear. I read your blog every week and I was excited when I saw you had posted my question. Thanks for helping all of us teens. You rock!
    (by the way, this is Ellie Mayerhofer, I just show up as Xmay):)

  3. I am on 10,222 words at the moment and I am stuck. I am planted in the ground. My story is about three girls- all of which have run away from their homes and (this is in an old fairy-tale land) all live in this horrible forest- but they learn how to live there and are happy. Most of this ten-thousand words is flash backs- but I have no idea where to go now. And I really do not want to waste this work- It had taken three months, on and off.
    Any ideas?

    • Two thoughts. Can you find elements in the backgrounds of one or more of them that can threaten their present happiness and go on from there? Or, rather than flashbacks, can you tell the story in forward time, starting with the struggle of each of them and ending with safety and happiness in the horrible forest?

    • There are some questions that I would ask myself:

      What is each girl's flashbacks predominately about?
      If for example, Gina misses her boyfriend, then she will probably leave to go find him.
      What are my characters like? If Valerie finds the forest to hard to live in than she might leave. Which could prompt Cassandra to go look for her, and since Gina hates being alone she would go too. But I agree with Ms. Levine, SOMETHING has to happen that threatens their happiness in the horrible forest. It could be in the flashbacks, or some horrible beast attacks, maybe the local authorities discover them. It can be anything really, but some sort of big jarring shock must occur.

    • My favorite method for getting un-stuck is forcing myself to write at least ten ideas for what could happen next – ten really abstract ideas. I tell myself that they’re supposed to be crazy and even purposely make the first one ridiculous (one time, my first idea was that plastic flamingoes could come to life, kidnap my MC, and try to take over the planet – don’t worry, I didn’t actually use that one). For some reason, it seems that if I write all the silly ideas I can think of, good ones gradually creep into my mind and I can write those, too. And I always force myself to come up with at least ten, no fewer, because usually there is a good idea somewhere around #6, but great idea somewhere around #9. If you keep an open mind and convince yourself that it’s okay to be creative, you’re almost guaranteed to get “somewhere.”

  4. For anyone who likes to play with cliches, is a good resource. It tracks tropes in all forms of fiction and how twist them into something unique.

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