On Wednesday night, at the monthly Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild general meeting, we had a fascinating presentation from author Russell Kirkpatrick. I’m gonna say it was about story shape, because that’s what he said it was about. But that’s kind of like saying Lord of the Rings is about hobbits.*
Somehow Russell talked us through sculpting the shape of a story using an analysis of wave files from his extensive and eclectic music collection, with a particular focus on prog rock. I’ll just leave that there.
One thing that really jumped out at me, though, was a point he made at the very beginning of his talk. This was: don’t let the fear of not being original stop you writing your story. He illustrated this with clever 1 second grabs from three wildly different songs. This showed how a particular element that has current, on-trend appeal might get picked up and used, not just in different songs, but across a range of music genres, either because it is currently looping in the common creative consciousness, or, if you’re more cynical, to deliberately broaden the appeal of a song. Probably even both. And what’s more, they get resurrected, as samples, years later for new works, by new artists in new genres that didn’t exist back then.
This struck a chord with me (see what I did there?), because earlier that day I had been thinking about an online news headline I’d seen. This is it, complete with the pic that accompanied the story:
A curious Ohio boy who sneaked into an abandoned house over the weekend discovered a mummified corpse hanging inside a closet, unnoticed for nearly five years.
You can see the appeal, can’t you? There is story there. Layers of it. I spent my entire ride, both to and from work yesterday, immersed in it.
Imagining the boy: a bundle of trepidation and curiosity, creeping through the dusty, creaking, damp-ridden dark; peering into empty rooms, lit only by murky shafts of light leaking through boarded-up windows. Seeing the cupboard, wondering if there was anything interesting inside…
Or thinking on the story behind the guy who died – a homeless man who had bought the house for cash after inheriting a sum of money from his mother. What was it about finally owning a place to live that drove him to such despair that he took his own life?
And that’s just based on what was in the news article. There are endless possibilities for making stuff up from there. What about the police officer who had to attend the property after the call from the boy’s mother? Did she see something off-kilter that lodged in her mind and had her waking up in the middle of the night months later, wondering about the verdict of suicide?
Or…is there something else entirely? Something lurking under the floorboards of the house, scuttling through the roof space. Something bitter and steeped in spite that talks to you in your sleep and leaches the peace from your waking hours. Or perhaps it is the house itself. What happened there that sank into the fabric of the peeling wallpaper? That spreads across the sagging ceilings like black mould, and taints the very air with a grief you breathe from the moment you step inside?
The scope is endless!
But, it’s hardly original, is it?
Despite the fact that this one actually happened, I reckon you could probably find a dozen crime novels built around the premise of “Curious Kid Discovers Body In Abandoned House” without trying too hard. And probably another dozen each of psychological thrillers, horror stories, kid’s adventures and paranormal romances to boot.
And you know what? They’ll all be different. Some will be great. There will be memorable characters, sadness that stays with you and killer twists. And some will be pretty ho hum.
But at the core of each of them is that same identical 26 word hook (or one-second sound grab). Because the potential for story here is just so immense.
So, yeah. Maybe there’s a thing in your story that’s not so original. Write it anyway. Make it good. If it’s good enough, it probably won’t matter that we’ve seen it before. We can just lose ourselves in it all over again. The frisson of familiarity might even be what makes it for us.
Madonna’s Express Yourself v Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, anyone?
*Russell is from New Zealand. I kind of had to mention hobbits.