Tuesday, January 13, 2009

One Plot Idea – Many Stories

One Plot Idea – Many Stories

“The story is not in the plot but in the telling.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

Most writers have probably heard that there are no new stories or plots. So does that mean we as writers cannot possibly write a story that no one has ever written or read before? Take heart – new stories are written all the time. The plot lines may be the same, but different writers bring their own writing styles and voices to these stories, as well as populating them with different characters and different settings.

Mary Balogh, New York Times bestselling historical romance author, had wondered if it would be possible for four authors to use one story idea and come up with four different stories. She and three other regency/historical romance writers each wrote a novella using the same premise: “A man and a woman, who have neither seen nor heard from each other in ten years, meet again when they first find themselves staying in the same inn for a twenty-four hour period.” The only restriction these writers put on their stories was that each story take place in a different season. I encourage you to discover for yourselves the four very different novellas written for It Happened One Night by Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh, Jacquie D’Alessandro, and Candice Hern.

I imagine if any one of us took the same premise from above and wrote the story with our own characters and settings, our stories would all be different as well. For example, Mary Balogh’s characters had eloped ten years ago and had a chance to consummate the marriage. But before the night was through, the heroine’s father and brother had caught up with them. They sent the heroine to pack her bags while they laid a licking on the hero. The heroine only discovers this ten years later. All these years she had harboured resentment towards the hero for not coming after her. She didn’t realize that he hadn’t been able to travel immediately after the beating to come after her. Even if we took Mary’s scenario developed further than the basic premise from above and placed the characters in the 21st century, the story would be much different.

Now compare Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story, two stories based on the same premise of a hero and a heroine from feuding families/gangs. The premises are similar but the stories took place during two very different time periods and locations. How many romances have we read based on the same premise, thankfully without the tragic endings?

In fact, aren’t all romances based on the same plot premise: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and they live happily ever after?

Yet these stories are all different because of the characters, their personalities, their backgrounds, their desires and their greatest fears. These and the writer’s voice make the stories new, different and refreshing. It’s our job as authors to tell these characters’ stories in as compelling a way as we can.

Have I oversimplified this or do you agree that romances are constructed on the same basic premise, taking into account subgenres? If you agree, what do you think makes each story written unique? If you don’t agree, what is your opinion about the premises that form romance stories?


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse, I don't think you'll ever find 2 people who will write the same story even if given the same particulars.

I participate in a writer's challenge at www.eharlequin.com that uses this principle. Every 2 wks we are all given a scenario just like in Mary Balogh's example and we have to write a story or scene under 1000 words. Sometimes we only have a couple entries and sometimes we many more but we've never had 2 even remotely the same.

It's like a recipe. I taught my daughter to bake and we can be standing side by side with the same recipe and using the same ingredients. We can even bake the cake or muffins or whatever at the same temp for the same amount of time and yet the baked result is never be the same.

You're right - it's all in the voice and our perception of the world we live in.

Karen said...

Hi Suse, I think give a person an idea and they'll make it their own. What a coincidence, my current manuscript involves two people who knew each other ten years ago and who are now reunited. I imagine my story will be completely different from the others you mentioned. That's what so great about ideas, if you use them right they never get old.

Janet said...

Great post, Suse! I had the chance to hear Mary Balogh speak at the recent Sask. Writers Guild Conference in Saskatoon. First of all, I'm a huge fan of Ms. Balogh. Second, she spoke about this premise and her novella. I haven't read this collection yet, but it's on my TBR list.

It's interesting, not only does an author bring her own voice to the work, but also her own experiences, hopes, dreams, even fantasies. All those tie in to make a story unique. And, yes, I would read the same premise over and over again if it was told in an interesting and captivating way.

Suse said...

Hi Anita,

It is amazing how different a story will turn out, even if given the same particulars. You must find it really interesting with the eharlequin challenge to read all the different scenes/stories that people create. And I bet some of the stories you read from this spark more ideas, whether related to that challenge or not.

I think as we read or write, we always bring our own experiences or perspectives to the story.

It's interesting and so true that two cooks or bakers can make the same recipe yet get different results. Part of this comes from experience as is true in writing as well, but some of it would also be with that extra flair that the cook or baker adds to the recipe, as a writer would to a story. Sometimes I think it comes from just having a "feel" for the recipe or in our case the story.

Suse said...

Hi Karen,

It's funny how coincidences happen, with your story having a similar premise to the novellas that Mary Balogh and her friends wrote. A few years back at a writing retreat, both Jana and I had the same story premise. It was eerie how closely the ideas mirrored each other without our ever having discussed the stories. Of course, with our different characters, our two stories played out very different.

Sometimes, it's these coincidences that spark ideas for new stories, or help us remember things that we've experienced, seen or heard that will add to our current story.

I think it's great that writers all have their own personalities, so that we get to create and experience so many different stories.

Suse said...

Hi Janet,

I'm a big fan of Mary Balogh as well. I've always been impressed with her writing, but I've also been impressed with her as a person. She was my mentor way back when SWG ran a program for romance writing. Mary even agreed to meet with me at her home when we were down visiting my in-laws one weekend to discuss my manuscript. I remember when she first published. I was teaching high school in the next town over from where Mary lived. They were discussing Mary in the staffroom about her book being published, and I had thought to myself, "That's what I want to do too." It took me several years before I actually put pen to paper though. However, I think it helped to know of someone in our part of the world who had published a book, especially a romance.

It never gets old reading romances. I know the hero and heroine are going to get together at the end, but what I want to know is what was their journey to that happy ending.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
What an interesting post! How boring it would be if all our stories turned out the same. I agree that romance can be boiled down to that basic statement "Boy meets girl...etc.etc." but look at the endless diversity that has come out of that simple statement.

Mary Balogh is one of my favorite authors as well. Her plots are great, but what I love most about her writing is the emotion she puts into her stories. I met her once when she came to our fall retreat, and I found her very gracious and very willing to help other writers.

Jana Richards

Anita Mae Draper said...

Speaking of Mary Balogh, I've never read any of her books, but I've listened to them on audiobook and I was very impressed.

I haven't met her but I imagine her driving by all the time between her condo in the city and her farm near Kipling. I'm right between the two.

Now how's this for a scenario...desperate writer waits for days on side of road to flag down established author and beg for help. Ha!

Janet said...

Ha - Anita! I see you with a placard - perhaps "Stop if you write romance." Or "Desperately seeking Mary - romance writer in need." (OK, it's late and my muse has already brushed her teeth and gone to bed.) Too funny!

Suse said...

Hi Jana,

It is so true that romance stories can be boiled down to a basic statement, but thankfully most romances are not boring. I am always amazed at the stories that are written. We can only hope that someday people will be blogging, etc. about our fantastic stories like we have about Mary Balogh today. Hopefully we too can bring that emotion to our stories that people will remember for a long time to come.

I also hope that not only does this blog help our members with our writing, but that we can also help and inspire other writers.

Suse said...

Hey Anita Mae,

I can just imagine you camping out by the side of the road. That would make an interesting story, or maybe even an essay.

I like your suggestions about the placard, Janet. Too funny.