The secret to writing the same – but different

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now – The Hobbit and Star Wars (the original 1977 movie) are exactly the same story. Really. So is The Wizard of Oz, the movie. They’re all expressions of the classic Hero Journey – a specific story structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

And yet they’re also totally different. So how does that ‘same but different’ work? It’s one of the biggest challenges fiction writers face. Writers have to be original. But if they’re too original the audience isn’t there. Sure, there’s a kind of ego boost in knowing you’ve just written the sort of stuff that leads to being fawned over by pretentious pseudo-intellectual literati, if you’re in to that sort of gratification. But nobody outside the 3 other people in that circle will have ever heard of you. And validation-by-pretension doesn’t pay the bills.

There are reasons why most novels, stories, plays – any piece of fiction, in fact – fall into a particular shape; the introduction, the exploration of the story, then the denouement. Three acts. Sometimes those acts are subdivided, but every story – one way or another – broadly meets that pattern. I’ve seen it argued that it’s actually hard-wired into human nature. I’ve discussed the hero journey before, and using these examples; but let’s explore, now, exactly HOW they differ.

  1. Structurally, they’re the same. Tolkien and Lucas adopted exactly the same narrative structure. And it’s totally classic. The hero, who doesn’t know he’s the hero – is kicked out of the everyday world by a dramatic event, and initially guided by a mysterious wise father-figure. Adventures follow during which the hero discovers more about himself and learns. The father-figure is lost, but by this time the hero has learned enough to be able to meet the challenge they then face. They meet the challenge, and then return to the normal world – changed.
  2. In a narrative sense, however, they’re totally different stories. Tolkien drew on the folk tale tradition, blending that with his evolving Middle Earth imaginarium; Lucas drew on 1940s sci-fi movies. The result was very different characters, plot details, setting and so forth.

I mention these because they’re such clear examples – both The Hobbit and Star Wars follow the hero journey in its specific form. But they’re not alone. For variations, check out Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, or Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

All these are kids books – but that’s not surprising; the hero journey is very much a ‘coming of age’ story, well suited to younger audiences in particular. Robert A Heinlein used it in all of his ‘juveniles’. That base story also features in adult books, if you know where to look. Tolkien repeated it in adult form in The Lord Of The Rings, with other adult-pitched variations in The Silmarillion. And the ultimate form of the hero journey, to my mind, remains Kerouac’s On The Road. See what I mean about ‘same but different’?

Think of these things as layers. The trope provides the foundation, the base that shapes the story and makes it ‘the same’ for readers, something they can identify with and understand. But above that, the author has to create a wholly new superstructure, original, imaginative and ‘different’ – but which, built on that familiar foundation, carries the reader into it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

A Super-Short Mega Story writing challenge

Welcome to a Super-Short Mega Story writing challenge. Your challenge is to use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word super-short story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun.

Lake Dunstan, central Otago.

Lake Dunstan, central Otago. Photo: Matthew Wright,

If it all works and everybody has a lot of fun – which is what all this is about – I’ll keep the contest going. Let me know what you write!

We kick off with a picture I took of Lake Dunstan – an artificial hydro lake in Otago, New Zealand, formed in the early 1990s. But your story can be about anything…can’t it. Are you ready? Set…


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How to avoid the lure of other people’s ideas in your stories

A few years ago I fielded an approach from someone who’d penned a short story and wanted to know what I thought of it. I had a look. ‘Well,’ I explained, ‘good story, but you need to make up characters of your own. Don’t use the ones J K Rowling invented.’

Wright_Typewriter2It’s not just the fact that Rowling’s characters – or, for that matter, Gene Roddenberry’s – are the intellectual property of their authors and that using them is – technically – stealing. It’s the fact that using somebody else’s characters is naff. It smacks of lack of imagination. Writers need to make up characters of their own.

The same’s true of that awesome scene from The Latest Hit Movie that you just HAVE to end up working into your own story. A derivative scene is usually the fastest way to kill the suspension of disbelief – the emotional entanglement the reader has with the story. I still remember reading a story by a quite well known sci-fi author – it had been published, and everything – and thinking ‘hey, this whole plot is Casablanca!’. Killed the story stone dead.

So why does it happen? One of the main reasons, I think, is that some people are captured and inspired by the emotional response they get – particularly – from movies or TV. But instead of analysing how the scene or characters provoked that response, they look instead to the surface narrative or features that inspired them – and trigger their own writing from that.

Again, apart from the derivative aspects, the risk here is that a film provokes emotion in particular ways. You can’t directly translate those into the written word.

So the onus is on writers to look deeper – to explore why it is they feel so inspired, or fulfilled, or validated, by something they’ve just experienced in another medium. The answer, always, will be in the interaction they have had with the scene or setting. And it is those reasons that will inspire readers – but they have to be clothed in a very different form. Otherwise the writer’s just plagiarising.

It’s that principle of having a good foundation – that emotional response – but building a unique superstructure on top.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – bright skies before a tropical rain

A couple of autumns back I spent a week on Rarotonga, where I took this slightly dramatic picture of a tropical storm looming.

Tropical rain approaching in Rarotonga.

Tropical rain approaching in Rarotonga.

Luckily I was able to get my camera packed away before the storm broke. It was an evocative moment; the feeling of oppression, the stillness – and then the rain, with its feeling of relief. A moment to inspire writing? Absolutely.  You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why it’s still ‘Mary Sue’ fan fiction, no matter how it’s clothed

Have you ever run into a ‘Mary Sue’? The term was coined over 40 years ago by Paula Smith, in a short story taking the mickey out of what had become a fairly standard Trek fan-fiction archetype of the day; the fan themselves, starring in their own wish-fulfilment Trek story.

You never see the model from this angle in the series.

You never see the model from this angle in the series.

The plot is usually straight-forward. Mary Sue is a young noob on board the Enterprise, but (oddly) is sensible, intelligent, attractive and knows all the answers without being annoying, Wesley Crusher style. The ship runs into some sort of trouble, they all run around panicking – except Mary Sue, who provides the answers, saves the Enterprise, and then usually has a romance with Spock (or sometimes Kirk).

What it is, of course, is wish-fulfilment on the part of the author. They feel powerless about something in their own lives, and it comes out in their story. I’m not sure why Mary Sue always has to be female – but that’s where the trope went.

The thing is that Mary Sue stories don’t need to plagiarise Roddenberry’s universe to exist. Or, indeed, anybody’s universe – it’s quite possible to have a Mary Sue story in a wholly original setting. But it’s still Mary Sue. Here’s why:

  1. The lead character doesn’t have self-doubts. Bad move. Everybody has self-doubts (it’s one of the reasons why Mary Sue stories get written – think about it). More to the point, a character like this doesn’t need to go anywhere – there’s no development.
  2. The lead character is flawless – intelligent, physically attractive, heroic, and an unerring sense of the sartorial. Uh. OK. Tell me if you ever meet anybody like that – and if you do, I bet there’ll be something you don’t know about them.
  3. The lead character always gets what they want without having to change anything significant about themselves. That runs against the way dramatic tension’s built – in which a character has to learn to change before they get what they need (see what I said there – need and want? No?).

You see where all this is building up to. A Mary Sue character is boring. BORING. Because they can’t be made to have a character arc. And it’s the character arc that makes a story interesting – that captures readers, that drives them to want to finish the book.

Not the superficial artifice of plot or narrative, which is what most Mary Sue stories pivot around – the narrative of Mary Sue getting what she wants, without too much effort, all the while showing herself to be fabulous. Urrrrgh.

When I read a story, I want to know about all the imperfections – I want characters that aren’t characters. They have to be real – gritty, flawed, self-doubting, insecure – and then they have to learn something that fixes it. A bit, anyway.

Of course, plot’s important too – which is how they learn that lesson – but it isn’t the driving force. More on how that works soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations found in a photo of a beach scene

Every so often I happen to take a photo that I later find inspiring, one way or another. Like this beach scene from Petone, at the north end of Port Nicholson in New Zealand.

Petone Beach, Wellington district, New Zealand.

Petone Beach, Wellington district, New Zealand.

For me, in this scene, it’s the interplay of wind, of colour and of shape; an abstraction that gives rise to abstract ideas as much as to the memory of the day I took the picture. Hopefully you’ll find it inspiring too.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

It’s coming up for a decade now since the reimagined Battlestar Galactica rid us of the imagery of that terrible 1970s Cowboys-and-Indians original. And one of my favourite parts was always the tagline – the Cylons had a plan. Not that we found out what that plan was until well down the track. But it gave a sense of purpose – and of drama – to the whole series.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!

Personally I like planning with a slide rule…

Plans are important for all sorts of things – and especially for writers. They show us where we’re going. They make it possible to get the structure right, first off, without floundering. Really, they’re an essential part of the whole process.

Now, I know some writers like to ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through what they’re doing. And that’s fine. But to me that’s writing for personal entertainment. Without some kind of idea of direction there’s a high risk of floundering – of losing structure. That leads either to massive re-writing, later, or to a written piece that isn’t going to work.

I’m aware of the argument for it, of course – the idea of spontaneous creativity. And that has its place too. But to my mind that needs to be done around the initial plan. Put it this way: a builder isn’t going to put up a building without a plan. Writers shouldn’t write without one, either.

So what is a plan? It doesn’t have to be exceptionally detailed – in fact, for that very reason of spontaneous creativity, it shouldn’t be. But it should show the broad structure of the intended work. If it’s a novel, it needs to lay out the broad plot – making sure that the plot and character arcs coincide correctly with the necessary dramatic structure. And it should show the end point. That way a writer knows where they’re going.

See what I’m getting at? A plan doesn’t have to be a prison to the imagination. But it is essential for writing because it makes sure the author has direction, has a broad idea of the necessary structure, and that the work overall is going to be in good shape when it’s finished.

If the proverbial ‘good idea’ comes in along the way – well, plans are there to be revised, aren’t they?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015