More on Plots
You may have already several plot ideas in mind. We all have incidents in our lives that can be dramatized into stories. However if you are aiming at being more than a one-novel author – and I hope you are – you’ll soon exhaust your stock of ideas based on your own experiences. Where, then, do you get fresh ideas for a novel?
Dean Koontz, best selling prince of horror, was once asked how he came up with ideas for his often bizarre stories. His answer was that he frequently found the germ of his novels in newspaper articles, some of them quite unremarkable, but intriguing enough to set his imagination in motion.
Stories, therefore, are literally all around us. Another tip is to do what many writers do and have done before. You mine the store of existing plots out there in the public domain and, from those, tell stories that are uniquely yours. By all means get inspired by reading your favorite authors but never be tempted to use their stories. That, among authors, is considered plagiarism. Even though copyright laws protect only the actual words, not the ideas, it’s unprofessional to “lift” stories from other authors.
High profile lawsuits are not unknown in the industry, involving authors who have been less than scrupulous where they took their stories from, and sometimes copied actual passages.
How, you may ask, can one take a plot that has been around for ever and create something original with it? The answer is simple. You use a technique called “deconstruction-reconstruction”. It sounds complicated but is not. The process involves taking apart a story on an existing plot (deconstruction) and rebuilding it as your own (reconstruction).
Many authors have used this technique down through the ages. For example, West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet that Shakespear based on a story by an earlier writer named Boccaccio who himself borrowed it from an even earlier Greek writer. The same goes for My Fair Lady, a modern makeover of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmallion, itself a story from classical Greece. It shows you can use stories lost in the midsts of time.
Re-inventing stories from the classical literature is legitimate. Doing the same with a novel written two or four years ago is not. Laws governing intellectual property have been strengthened over the years, and hopefully will continue to get stronger. Being accused of “stealing” a story would be a sad way to start a writing career.
I think I mentioned earlier the classical story of Cinderella. The tale was originally collected from folklore by Frenchman Charles Perrault in the eighteenth century, then by the Grimm brothers in the nineteenth. The story has endured because it contains a number of very powerful themes. The boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girls-back theme is the very essence of romance novels. Nowadays, it might read girl-meets-boy-girl loses boy, etc. A second theme is rags to riches one that appeals to all of us. Isn’t it why people buy lottery tickets?
Let’ see a reconstruction of this underdog plot à la Cinderella. It could go something like this:
Young Ella works at a menial job (how about a dishwasher in a swish nightclub) to support her ailing grandmother who raised her after the tragic death of her parents. The club is run by two (or one) bitchy sisters (or relatives) who make sure that good-looking Ella remains well out of sight of wealthy male patrons. By disobeying the rules, Ella catches a glimpse of the hero. Let’s call him Colt, who wanders in one evening.
Ella is unhappy but powerless (lack of money, etc.) to do anything about her situation. She needs the money and is fearful to lose the only job she could get.
Colt is a handsome businessman, a regular at the club. They can’t meet while Ella is stuck in the kitchen. We need something to break the routine. Let’s have the owner-sisters throw a big party at their luxury house. At the last minute the caterer tells them he’s shorthanded and needs an extra waitress. The sisters phone the club and tell the bartender to send someone over. The bartender is a family man who feels sorry for Ella (he is the “fairy godmother” i.e. the facilitator) and sends Ella to the caterer and so to the party where she attracts the eye of the hero who immediately wants to get to know her better. He asks her for a date for the next day, her day off. She has a good time but, out of fear (here we need a good reason, maybe a secret that would hurt the grandmother), doesn’t reveal who she is and what she does. She has to get back to her garret before the sisters’ return.
In the car, her locket – keepsake from her mother – slips from her neck. She hasn’t given the exact address, just a street nearby, and begs him not to come in with her. The hero is intrigued. He finds the locket and begins his search. First at the house where he dropped her off, and so on, until he ends up at the club. He asks the bartender who facilitates the reunion.
This particular plot line isn’t likely to make the romance bestsellers’ list, but it serves to illustrate how an age-old plot can be reworked and adapted to a modern setting – deconstruction-reconstruction.