Have you ever spent time with art-minded intellectuals who wax snobbish about the primacy of originality? For some people, anything that is not pushing the boundaries is pathetic because it is “derivative,” “vanilla,” and “insipid.”
I get where these people are coming from, I think. Our human nature is to seek the next new thing, to the point of distractibility – “squirrel!” And presumably we gain perspective by looking at ourselves and the world from unique perspectives. Finding new angles means charting new territory, right?
Still, it’s annoying.
I believe that it’s more important to connect with many readers with a story from the heart than it is to impress the cognoscenti by focusing on novelty and abstraction. And I believe that we can write good stories by studying the story structure that has served storytellers well for ages. For this I recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Exploring the idea that all stories and even life itself follow a sort of universal structure I will leave for another post, because I think there’s another way to study story structure and to grow as a writer, and that is by imitation.
In the Synthesis Project, one of the first things I have my students do before we begin to create a story map is vote on an exemplar book to read. Last year, the students chose Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. We all read or reread it and discussed what makes it a good book. So, for example, we talked about how this sort of fantasy story amuses readers by juxtaposing the Ordinary World with the Special World. Percy is a Half-blood, half human, half god. Poseidon is his dad. He doesn’t know this at first, so it is fitting that we readers are introduced to him in his everyday life, at home and at school. When his pen magically turns into a sword just as he needs to do battle, it is amusing and cool. Readers love it. We all have used a pen at school countless times, so from the familiar immediately arises a big what if: what if I had a pen that could turn into a sword? How did Riordan pull this neat trick? By juxtaposing the familiar (Ordinary World) – using a pen at school – with the extraordinary (Special World) – a pen becoming a sword. (Note also the riffing on Shakespeare’s “the pen is mightier than the sword.”)
Another example of Riordan’s prowess in this department is his comical chapter titles. The book’s first chapter is titled, “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher.” This is clever because it juxtaposes the ordinary – pre-algebra teacher – with the special – vaporizing. It also tickles our funny bones because of the wish fulfillment factor. What kid doesn’t want to vaporize his or her math teacher? Notice that English teachers have been spared here. No one wants us vaporized. Ha ha. Yeah, right.
The group studied The Lightning Thief not to learn what not to do (in order to be oh-so-original) but to learn what to do (to learn from the best). In other words, we approached the writing of our book, The Heart of Atlantis, with a mind for imitation. This led, for example, to the writing of a chapter in which Devon Kensington, our book’s protagonist, is given a pink scrunchie (ordinary) with powers of healing and water control (special). We titled the chapter, “My Hair Ties Hold My Hair and Power.” Our story definitely shows the fingerprints of its nine adolescent girl writers, plus yours truly, but it also takes advantage of what we all learned by imitating Riordan’s work.
In writing my screenplay Snoop, I made use of imitation by always keeping in mind my second favorite Christmas movie, A Christmas Story. I watched the movie again, for the umpteenth time, and I bought and read the script version of it, too. Snoop turned out to be very different from A Christmas Story except that it captured some of the playfulness I was striving for. The lesson here, I’d say, is that imitation does not lead to duplication. Your version of anything, provided that thing is complicated enough, as is a novel- or script-length story, will be unique because the material has been filtered through you. And you are unique, even if you doth protest. This is one reason why hearing a modern cover version of an old song or hearing a crooner perform a standard or hearing ten different singers each release an album featuring the same twelve Christmas carols can still be interesting: because it is fun to experience the familiar filtered through a different, unique personality. So don’t worry too much about losing what is vital in the process of imitation. And if you are a teacher, let your students know the same.
(Photo by loungerie.)
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.