Monday, February 27, 2012

Footloose and Not So Fancy Free: Four Ways to Update an Old (And Familiar) Stories

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When the hubby and I watched the new Footloose movie we had mixed feelings about it. Part if it was easily because the original 1984 version was a big part of our teen years, but part of it was due to the almost too faithful remake. Nothing felt fresh, even though it was new movie. It took what was already out there and just re-made it. It's a great example of why a book might not grab an agent's or editor's eye.

There's nothing fresh about the story.

For those who haven't seen the movie (shame on you) here's a quick summary: Ren moves to the small town of Belmont, where a tragic accident in the past forced the leaders to enact a no dancing, no drinking, no partying law. Ren challenges that law to hold a senior prom for his classmates. The plot device is a bit cheesy, but it's a story about growing up, challenging authority, and standing up for what you believe in.

A classic plot.

We all know there's nothing that hasn't been done before, and how important it is to put a fresh spin on a common story. But how do you know what to update and what to keep the same tried and true?

1. Personal Backstories 

One nice thing about the new Footloose was that they updated why Ren and his mother were in Belmont. Original: Dad left and they moved. New: Dad was long gone, Mom died, and Ren had to go live with his aunt and uncle. The new backstory changed his reasons for wanting to challenge the no-dancing law and have a senior prom.

If you're have a not-so-fresh (NSF) story idea, try looking at the backstory of your protagonist to see if there's a way to have their past bring a new element to the story. Are they coming at it from a new perspective? Maybe the opposite of what's traditionally been done?

2. Stakes 

One thing that fell flat in the new movie for me was the love interest Ariel, and her self-destructive streak. In the original, she was a promiscuous risk taker who straddled the doors of two moving cars while a semi barreled toward them. In the remake, she sat on the window as a race car did a slow victory lap. In the original, she had very good reasons for her death wish, but those were abandoned in the remake and because of that, the stakes were lower.

If the stakes don't raise the consequences any higher, the story doesn't ascend to a new and more interesting level. What about your NSF tale might be made bigger or more dangerous that no one's ever tried before? Are there any new ramifications?

3. Setting 

There's a great scene in the original movie where the kids are listening to forbidden music and dancing a bit, and the preacher show up and every shuts down in a panic. Same scene in the remake, but the dancing is much more structured somehow, like this is something the kids do all the time, so the forbidden isn't really holding them back from doing what they want. If they dance any time they want at this drive-in restaurant, what's the big deal of the law?

If a NSF story is set in the same place, and doing the same basic things as all the others like it, it'll likely feel stale. Is there a way to move the story to a new location that adds an entirely new level? And not just geographically, but historically or even genre or gender?

4. A Change in Perspective 

Ren in 1984 wasn't much different from Ren in 2011. Neither was Ariel, and in fact, she seemed to go more conservative, not less. The attitudes of the characters didn't feel modern to me, which made the movie feel a bit static and old hat. The one change I did love was the uncle. In the original, he represented the stuffy opinions of the town. In the remake, he had a more modern attitude, standing up for Ren instead of being against him.

Challenging assumptions and changing perspectives (in an opinion sense not a POV sense) is a great way to freshen up a NSF story. What's typical in that type of tale? What do readers take for granted? Maybe there's a way to shake things up by coming at the story from a new direction.

Original ideas can do more to get your foot in the publishing door than making sure you don't have any adverbs. The fresher your story, the better the chance it'll have at selling.

Do you have any not-so-fresh ideas you're struggling to liven up? Have you ever been rejected because a story wasn't original enough? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Ooo! Thank you for breaking this down using one of my favorite movies from my teens! :D Examples like this one, that strike such a note of familiarity from the past, really help put the lessons you spoke of into focus :) Excellent post.

  2. I love story remakes. That's what much of my writing portfolio is made up of. I like your advice and tried to think of some examples.

    One of my favorite "princess in a tower" remakes is Shannon Hale's "Book of a Thousand Days". It had a lot of the familiar tropes. But it didn't go exactly where you thought it was going. The prince didn't break them (princess and maid)out of the tower. And even the princess wasn't the main character. It was told from the maid's perspective. The tower wasn't the only obstacle. There was a sinister villain, hunger, rats, a rival "princess", and illness/injury all to battle. A good remake that certainly upped the stakes and yet kept it very personal so that it wasn't over the top.

  3. I think this was my problem with the Watchmen movie. Aside from the pacing, there was nothing there that wasn't already done perfectly well in the comic.

    When I start a new book, one of the first things I do to get into the right mindset for it is define it by taking familiar stories and deciding that it'll be some variation on those. Like one idea I've just had is "It's like V for Vendetta, if V was a teenage Superman being mentored by Batman."

    There are so many stories already out there, it's impossible to be completely original. So it's vital for an author to find ways to make those old stories feel fresh and exciting again.

  4. Thank you for this good advice.

  5. Thanks for this article. There are only so many parts to any story, but it's in the author's imagination to spark something new in the mix.

    It brings to mind "Romeo and Juliet" vice "Westside Story" and "Star Wars" vice a traditional western.

    Comparisons spark watching the classic version to see what changed and stayed the same over the years.

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  7. First time the reply looked weird, so I did it again.

    As much as I was an addict for old movies (Which in the context of this post predates my birth) this one slipped my radar.

    Well, classic versus remake debates aside, I'm glad you touched on this topic.

    Anyway, Janice, to answer the question you ask at the end-

    "Do you have any not-so-fresh ideas you're struggling to liven up?"


    As you know, my last MG novel had this problem because people were confused by/couldn't get behind my take on things.

    I felt, and still believe, that much of my feedback (NOT counting yours, which was actually helpful, despite not being easy for me to execute)was in the vein of, "Stop copying X author who does the same type of book"

    Or the more common, "You need to read X to see why he's/she's doing it better than you are" which just brings anger and shame that doesn't help the problem at all, no matter how true it might be.

    As I often get "scolded", "You can discuss the negative, without being negative" so it's something we need to be careful of when providing feedback in general.

    I feel like as much as people loathe tired devices and cliches, they still can get uppity if certain genre trappings aren't there.

    I need to blog about this soon myself. Thanks for putting it on my priority list.


  8. Thanks a ton for this. I'm thinking of rewriting some fairy tales, but really wasn't sure how to respin them. This list will definitely come in handy. :)

  9. AH--a big part of my teenage years. LOVED this movie that's why I didn't see the remake, I wasn't convinced anything new could be added.

  10. Like you, this movie was a big part of my teen years. Loved it! I haven't seen the new version yet.

  11. Amelia, Hale writers some great stuff. I loved her Truth Teller books. That one sounds like a perfect example of a new twist. (and one I'll have to read now)

    Paul, movies from books are hard due to that. You know the story so there's nothing to surprise you. Superman mentored by Batman, huh? Very cool, though very scary, LOL.

    Sarah, most welcome :)

    Mary, exactly. Classic stories are classic for a reason, and you can do so many really inventive things with them.

    Taurean, readers can get unhappy f the tropes of that genre aren't there. It all falls into reader expectations. They expect a fantasy to have certain things, or a thriller, or a mystery. Those are usually what makes them like that genre in the first place. It's a thin line to walk sometimes.

    Michelle, Jackson Pierce does a lot of fairy tale re-tellings, so you might consider reading some of hers if you haven't already. See how she handled them. (and to see what she's done so you can do others)

    Traci, the one thing that made the original so awesome for me as the music. The music in the remake didn't feel as vibrant or fit the movie. But if I were 16, I might feel differently :)

    Julie, it's interested as a compare and contrast.

  12. I usually find myself entertained more by how a movie or book employs the tropes I'm expecting, rather than by being surprised.

    It's true, you know. TV Tropes will ruin your life. Read enough of it, and you know all the signs to watch for to guess what should come next!

  13. I know! I think it's the bane of us poor writers. We spend so much time plotting we see the clues a mile away. It does make watching TV harder :) At this point it's more about the characters on the shows than the plots.

  14. This is just what I needed! I've got a Cinderella remake that I'm stuck on, and I just realized that there are no real stakes for any of the characters. I gave them new back stories, a new setting, and a somewhat different perspective, but there's no risk associated with failure.

    Thanks for helping with this!

  15. Sharon, most welcome, and best of luck with your retelling! Hope you get it worked out.

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  17. Janice, given what you replied above-
    "readers can get unhappy f the tropes of that genre aren't there. It all falls into reader expectations. They expect a fantasy to have certain things, or a thriller, or a mystery. Those are usually what makes them like that genre in the first place. It's a thin line to walk sometimes."

    This just makes me wonder, what's the bigger pet peeve for readers?

    A story that slavishly follows genre tropes without sounding contrived (Easier said than done. Period!.

    Or a story that steps out of conventions and puts a different (If not groundbreaking new) angle to it?

    Not all science fiction is aliens and time travel.

    Not all fantasy is knights and dragons. So why does it feel like some of my beta-readers are "Reading me the riot act" when I break tradition? I did with intention, but it's what the STORY wanted, and this is why critiques frustrate me sometimes.

    Despite how this might sound, this isn't a "Trying to please everyone" problem.



    That's as nice as I can put it.

    This is really a "Trying to be open to helpful feedback without emotionally caving in" issue.

    This is why I always ask-

    "How can you be fresh yet familiar at the same time?"

    Are there times when even sound advice just sounds like esoteric riddles? Given your own stance on this, I doubt you've had this problem, at least not anymore, but I hope I'm not just speaking nonsense into the ozone here.

    It's something I have to battle against, though other writers I know don't or rarely have this problem, and frankly their strengths in this process are my weaknesses (i.e writing short stories, queries, do market study without going off the deep end, etc).

    Can I at least hear "I'm not the only one" because I really feel that some days when all but two of my beta readers seems to think I'm imagining all the frustration I feel.

    But I'm not an actor. I can't "Be Insane" on command. Sheesh!

    Still, thanks for hearing me out, Janice.

  18. The first time I posted this it looked weird on my end so I deleted and started again.

    I'm a control freak that way. A few years of being misquoted will make you anal about being clear and concise. Whether it's a blog post or a press release, not that I dare attempt those yet, but you get the idea...right?

  19. Taurean, it depends on the reader. Personally, I get bored with most series after book three or four, because many turn into the same book over and over. But some fans LOVE reading the same basic book again because they get different things out of it than I do. They want to live in that world with those characters and see them do the same thing they enjoy.

    Other readers expect certain things and are upset if they don't pan out (or change drastically). A good example here is the book "I'm Not a Serial Killer." It starts off like a tyoical YA novel about a kid with a problem, but halfway through it suddenly becomes a fantasy/horror novel. Really throws you because it's not what you expected, and a friend of mine couldn't finish it because of that. It wasn't the book she thought she was reading.

    Some plots are stories are so overdone that as soon as you see it you know every twist and turn and plot that's going to come. Romantic comedies fit this bill. They all go exactly the same. But the fresh part is by putting in characters that folks can like, and maybe even doing something a little different with them, since the plot is so familiar.

    If you tell your idea to someone, and they can immediately think of several movies or books with the same plot or characters, odds are you're not being fresh enough. If it's more, "Oh it's like X but with Y" then you might be fine.

    It's a very fine line, and not easily defined. Certain genres meet certain expectations. If you read a romance, you expect the couple to end up together. A fantasy with have some type of fantastical element to it. Science fiction will have science.

    If you write a contemporary feeling novel, and then throw in a science fiction element out of the blue, readers will likely be mad. Same as if you start out as a fantasy and then have a logical non-magical reason for things and there are no actual fantasy elements.

    There's also what you set up the book to be. If everything about the first chapter reads as a knights and dragons fantasy, and you switch after that, then readers might be expecting something different and be mad. Or if a reader only likes X type of stories, nothing you do that's different will appease them. That's not your fault. You just need different beta readers.

    It's not easy, which is why it's important to read in your genre. Once you know what's out there and being published right now, you can tell what's overdone and too familiar vs what's new.

    Janice (posting anon because she's not at her desk)