Friday, December 09, 2011

You Spin Me Round: Adding a New Twist to an Old Idea

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We've all heard it. Put a fresh spin on an old (or common) plot, and you can make it work. But what if your idea is something that is so well known and well loved that you fear it's impossible to find a new angle?

I offer the boy at wizard school premise.

Let's see if you can name this novel...

A boy goes off to wizard school. It's really hard, he's sure one of his teachers is trying to kill him, one of the other students taunts and bullies him at every turn. His family wants nothing to do with him and one of his friends is someone the others pick on all the time.

Harry Potter, you say?


Skin Hunger.

Both Skin Hunger and Harry Potter deal with boys at wizard school, but you'd never confuse the two books. Kathleen Duey and JK Rowling brought their own style and twists to the simple premise, and created wildly different novels. Because a boy at wizard school is just a premise, not a story. The story comes from what happens at that school and the problems that boy has to overcome there.

If you're looking at a common premise you know you want to write about, but are afraid to because it's too much like Harry Potter/Twilight/Wheel of Time/Da Vinci Code, take a step back and think outside the book.

Start by doing a little research to see what's already been done in that premise. Make a list of the plot points. Then start looking for things that aren't on that list.
  • Is there a character who can be involved in this premise that's totally different from what's come before?
  • Can the setting make it different? Shift it into the future or the past? (This has worked for many modern retellings of fairy tales)
  • Can you change it culturally?
  • Can you play with the narrator's perspective? (Gregory Maguire did this successfully with Wicked)
  • Is there an aspect of it that hasn't been explored?
  • Could you add something from another genre to it? (Diana Gabaldon added time travel to her historic romances)
  • Could you do it in a totally different genre than expected?
You can also look at the common tropes of that type of book. Are there any you could turn upside down? Are there any "never do..." you could do? Or "always do..." you could ignore? If you didn't do anything on that trope list, what could you come up with?

Finding a fresh take on a well-loved idea is challenging, but people do it all the time, and often we slap our heads and say, "Why didn't I think of that!"

With a little (okay maybe a lot) of effort, you can think of it.

Do you have any common premise ideas in your novel files? Or an old trunk novel you'd like to put a fresh spin on? Have you put a fresh spin on an old idea successfully? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm currently trying to do this with the fantasy 'Dark Lord' thing, which I usually hate with a vengeance. (He's evil just because? Uh, if you say so.)

    I've been meaning to have a look at Skin Hunger, almost solely because of the cover. The fact that it's 'Harry Potter with a twist', if I may be allowed to use that expression, just makes it even more interesting.

  2. I just finished book two (Sacred Scars) and now i can't wait for the third. It's a fabulous series.

    For what it's worth, I've had great luck with evil villains who had a solid reason for what they did, even if it's misguided. If you can come up with something where even the readers say "yeah, okay, if I were in his shoes I'd do that too" it works quite well. And it's fun to plot from the evil side!

  3. These are great tips, Janice. I've read that you can start training yourself to look for different plots--looking for ways to twist.

  4. I'm actually going to have the 'real' villain of the piece be the one who would usually be the hero in a fantasy novel - ie the 'special' child plucked from obscurity because he's prophesized to save the world. I always wondered, what would somebody raised that way actually be like in real life? They'd probably have an ego the size of Jupiter, for one thing, as well as plenty of insecurities about their 'lowly' past.

    (Incidentally, I just started reading Brandon Sanderon's Mistborn, and the backstory revolves around a failed 'Destiny Hero' type. And I thought I was being so original :/)

    Oh, and I can confirm that The Pain Merchants is indeed on sale in Ireland, for the sum of €12.45 (in Eason). It wasn't in the 'New Releases' section, which was a bit odd, but it was placed prominently face-out on the YA shelves. The store I was in was pretty tiny though, so hopefully it's getting a better inaugeration elsewhere.

  5. I don't have a villain in my book. Well, it depends. If you think he's a villain, then sure. He just does what he does for a very, very good reason.

  6. Thanks Varelsee! I know exactly how you feel. Two days after I signed with my agent, my husband read an article where Tom Cruise was talking about a new movie he was looking at where he plays a guy who transfers pain. I about died! Haven't heard anything more about it, so no clue if it even went anywhere. I like your twist though :)

    Glen, those are the best bad guys :) I love that gray area where bad is just a matter of perspective.

  7. Janice, well said. I have been thinking about this lately, too. We live in an era saturated with stories. It's kind of daunting.

    Books/movies/games/TV/graphic novels/online worlds...! The national buyer at Borders told me she gets 3,000 picture books a month to consider and chooses a handful. I was afraid to ask about novels.

    It's a difficult time to find an unusual--nevermind completely original--premise. So we can only try. I envy yours and am eager to read it--because the summary assures me you built a great story upon the great premise.

    Like clothing designers, we all have to satisfy the same basic human needs. An unusual premise is a lovely thing to discover and refine, but the work of storymaking remains to be done, with all its spins and twists. Emotional resonance seems to matter far more to most readers than anything else.

  8. Thanks so much, Kathleen! (and welcome to the blog). I love that...satisfy the same basic human need. You're so right. Great books touch us in the same basic way, no matter what the story is.

  9. I love this post!

    It feels like I am forever trying to put a new spin on a very common cliche. So far I have a nice little system, but a lot of questions you presented I hadn't considered.

    I really love going to and looking up a particular plot. They have a very extensive list of all the ways that particular plot has been done, so it gives me a good idea of what's been done before. From there, I branch out and figure out how I want my idea to be different.

    This post will fit perfectly into my brainstorming phase. You're awesome!

  10. These are great tips Janice. I'm really going to try to use them more.

    I'll have to check out TVTroupes too.

  11. That comparison between Harry Potter and Skin Hunger is oh so appropriate. I love it! (I say this as someone who appreciates both, but I prefer Skin Hunger…though I really wish book 3 would come out already. I have my suspicions about how it'll all pan out, but I'm sure there are details I don't have yet that'll change things from what I expect.)

    1. I'm dying for book three. The only good thing about the wait is that I know I'll get to read 1 and 2 again to get the full experience and remind myself about what happened (grin).