Activities to inspire you with new subjects for your creative writing (IV)
In this fourth installation of my inspiration for creation series for aspiring writers of fiction I have a favorite old method of finding ideas to share with you. You will be familiar with it in some form, though you may not have done it since school. I am talking about story re-invention!
At first this seems simple... just take an old story, fairy tale, fable etc. and retell it in your own style. However - a simple retelling is not a re-invention. It is not enough to just twist it a bit to fit your style. No. To fit in this fascinating sub-genre of re-invented tales, your story must be completely novel in its aspect. It must be as dissimilar from the original as possible while still being able to recognize where it sprang from.
Even this at first seems not to steep a task but when actually sitting down to write such a piece, one discovers it all to easy to stray too close to the original and thus be uninteresting. If you want to read an example of a master at re-invention I do not hesitate to bring up the name Neil Gaimon. His re-invention of the story of Snow White amongst others in his collection of short stories called Smoke and Mirrors is a masterstroke!
In this hub then I shall explain my own method of re-invention. It is not the only way - in fact there are many - but I share what I know works for me in the hope that any like-minded writer reading this will find some tools in my method that may be of use.
1. Right... well first things first. In order to re-invent a tale (and I know this is rather self-evident) you first need to choose an appropriate tale to be re-invented. The first instruction then, is to read. Go out and gather old stories from as diverse a number of sources as possible. If you are researching properly, you should have yourself a good-sized little pile of stories, fables, myths and legends to draw on by the time you are ready to make your choice.
2. Once you've gathered and read from a broad selection (I read from ancient mythology and, of course, Grimm's Fairy Tales) then it is time to choose. How in gods name do you choose? How can we tell which stories are most ripe for re-invention?'
The story must not be obscure. This is important. If the tale is not, as it were, in the popular consciousness then it defeats half the point of using a pre-existing story as the inspiration. A large part of the pleasure (at least, for me) in reading a re-invented story is being able to make the links, comparisons and juxtapositions in style and content between the original and the new creation! It adds an extra dimension to the reader's participation in the story.
The story must have recognizable characters. It is no good if the villain is just a wicked person... they must be contextually recognizable like a Witch. Of course -you can have fun with this by layering the story with clever foreshadowing clues to the identity of each character. I read a re-invention a long while ago in which the main character's step-mother seemed lovely at first but subtle between-the-lines references to things occult built up the impression that she was at least figuratively the "Wicked Witch" of the tale.
Other than these two main requirements it is an open field of play in the matter of choosing the story that will spawn your next creation.
3. Once you have picked your story it is time for a bit of free-association brainstorming! Hooray! I love this bit :)
The story I picked as my inspiration was The Sorcerer's Apprentice... the brainstorm that bubbled from my brain is below:
The next two steps are for those who think in an organised sequential way... i.e. folks who like to have a plan. If this ain't your bag and you are more of a free-flow organically writing fellow/felless?... then skip to number 6.
4. Next Develop the character's a little more by doing some basic character biographies. If your style is very character driven then this is a great way to start. What kind of a life has your character led? What has sculpted them into the type of person they are? It is good to have this sorted so that when you're writing and a new plot twist comes into your head you will know how your character will react. You will instinctively be able to carve a believable set of circumstances to guide your character's to their respective catharsis/undoing etc.
5. Story board. This is your opportunity to develop a rough outline for your plot. It can help to start with the skeleton plot from the original and then just play with it. For example,
The rough plot from the original
The hero is introduced – a young village boy with good intentions, he is quick and clever.
We meet the sorcerer, villain of the piece
The sorcerer takes on the boy as his apprentice but treats him like a slave teaching him only in tiny tidbits
The boy learns in secret – steals knowledge
The sorcerer confronts his apprentice and they duel with magic
The boy wins through his cleverness and goes on to free the villagers and do good with his power
The rough re-invention
The tragic hero is introduced – an ascetic sage who is ancient and full of arcane knowledge
The villain is introduced – a young beggar girl on the streets of an unnamed city
The old man takes the girl home as he is lonely and he pities her
She discovers her host has secret knowledge and resolves to learn in secret
The sage is undone by his need for human contact – the girl drains him of his life and takes his power
She goes out into the world
6. Now it is time to get stuck right in there. Let the words flow!
In the example piece I wrote, I chose the form of a short story though equally a novel or play would be appropriate. Anything goes. Being in this format I made sure not to go to heavy on the description. Economy with words is one of my weak points on occasion which is why I am trying to do shorter prose more often. We only learn through practice after all :)
I won't tell you how to write the main body of your short story/novel/play/thing as you already have your basic ideas, characters and structure in mind. What comes next should be an organic outflow from this. Don't edit yet. Try and maintain a good stream of consciousness. Batter out a first draft in quick order.
7. Edit and improve. Go back through and re-read your work - you know the score. Replace lackluster words with more interesting synonyms, beef out weak description with simile and metaphor. Make sure your character's behave in a way that is coherent with what the reader knows of them and what your original intentions were. Make sure the dialogue flows well and is natural. People often fall down with this one... it is all too easy to write dialogue in prose style by mistake. Read it out loud to yourself - does it sound natural. The rhythms of real speech are actually much more different from prose than is immediately apparent.
With the final edit done... well... you know what to do don't you? Publish! The re-invention of an old tale that I wrote can be accessed in the link below. It was very fun to write - and completely different from anything which I have done before. When we first learn how to write stories in Literacy lessons at Primary school the tried and tested method is to use known stories as a framework from which to build our budding creations. It is lovely to go back and explore that way of creating again but with the experience and knowledge of an adult.
As a first go at re-invention (since schooldays) I'm pretty happy with the end result. There are flaws in the plot development and possibly with the behavior of the villain of the piece... but I'm not going to rush back for a re-write anytime soon. I hope you enjoy it - and please - if you re-invent a tale let me know so that I can have a gander and put the links down below for others to enjoy.
Thank you for reading :)
The story I wrote using this very method...
- The Sorcerer's Apprentice: A Variation On The Theme
A short story on the theme of the sorcerer's apprentice. This is is a re-invention of the classic that bares only a very loose resemblance to the original.
Other hubs in this series
- Activities to inspire you with new subjects for your creative writing (I)
The first in a new series of 'back-to-basics' activities for generating creative writing ideas starting this time with a word association game.
- Activities to inspire you with new subjects for your creative writing (II)
In this second writing activities hub, I give a step by step account of how to inject your creative writing with an original twist using a non-association word game
- Activities to inspire you with new subjects for your creative writing (III)
Links to relevant work by other hubbers
- Creative Writing Prompts for Short Stories and Novels #2
This is my second hub that contains prompts for story writers. It is menat to help you break through writer's block.
- Five Key Elements Of Writing A Short Story
A widely popular examination of five essential elements for strong short stories and the explanations of why each matters so much.
- Writing Tips: Short Story Writing - How to write a great short story