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Friday, October 9

You Look Familiar: Four Tips on Adding a New Twist to an Old Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at ways to turn a well-used idea into something fresh and original. Enjoy!

There are more contradictions in publishing than words, and one of the more frustrating ones a trying-to-get-published writer faces is the old, "I want something fresh, but the same as what's selling" conundrum. But how do you know what's fresh and what's the same old, same old? And harder still, how do you put that fresh face on your "been-there-written-that" story?

Any plot can be made fresh with a new twist. It's our jobs as writers to put the brain cells to work and think up those twists. It also helps to remember that many well-loved genres or story types, are fun because the reader can see the end coming a mile away. My love of underdog sports movies is a classic example. I know the underdogs are going to win, but I'm on the edge of my seat anyway, and I cheer when they do win. The journey with new characters I can root for is what makes this type of story fun for me.

Four Tips on Finding the Fresh

1. Try a New Perspective

A different character can add a new dimension to a well-known story. Gregory McGuire took the world by storm by writing The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's perspective in Wicked. Jackson Pierce's Sisters Red is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with a twist. Look at your story, but also look at your genre.
  • What's typical in that genre? 
  • Is there a character or character type that hasn't been heard from? 
  • Is there a different take on what everyone assumes? 
  • Can a sidekick or minor character take center stage for a new view on things?

(Here's more on finding something new in a done idea)

2. Try a New Location

A different setting can also add depth and dimension. Forbidden Planet is just Shakespeare's The Tempest on another planet. Meg Cabot moved Camelot to high school for her Avalon High series.
  • Can you explore a fresh angle if you moved your story to new location? 
  • A different city or even a different world? 
  • What if you expanded it to epic scale? 
  • How about narrowing it to a small area like a small town, or even a single house?

(Here are more ways to update an old idea)

3. Try a New Time

Clueless is just Jane Austen for the modern day, but giving it a teen setting made a classic story fresh again. Agatha Christie's, The Mousetrap rifts off Hamlet. Perhaps your story could benefit from a shift in time. Modernize if it's a classic, or even go classic if it's modern.
  • Could it be set during a particular historical period that would work thematically with your conflict? 
  • Would adding or eliminating a common piece of technology or knowledge shake things up?

(Here's more on adding a twist)

4. Try Doing the Opposite

Villains By Necessity by Eve L. Forward takes the classic fantasy quest novel and flips it by showing what happens after the Good Guys win, where the villains now have to save the day. Spielberg asked a genius question with "What if Peter Pan grew up?" and gave us Hook.
  • If everyone expects your story type to go one way, what happens if it goes the opposite way? 
  • What if you do what everyone knows you won't do? 
  • What would happen if the hero lost instead of won? 

(Here's more on finding story ideas)

Finding the fresh in your work is vital, but you have a million ways to do that. Don't fret if your idea is tried and true, as long as you try it in a way that's uniquely true to you.

What common-stories-with-a-twist do you like? Do you have a common story you're trying to find a fresh twist on?

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. This is brilliant!!! I love how simple you have made it.

    My current MS is a little twisty. What if Prince Charming turned out to be an evil sadistic murderer? Fun stuff :)

  2. @Angela - interesting!

    On Once Upon a Time, the prince is the most boring guy on there.

  3. I'm glad I read this post today! What an absolutely informative and resourceful post. What is the old black and white movie that To Sir With Love is based on? Goodbye Mr. (someone, can't remember).

    Over at April Poem Challenge by Rena Traxel, we're challenged to put a new twist on a fable. We can use free verse or any other writing style. Why don't you stop by and give it a try:

  4. Ooh, this is lovely. I have a `Twelve Dancing Princesses' I'm still hashing details out on. My story is; what if the wounded soldier was an enemy soldier? Then the princess would have a pretty good reason to give him sleeping potion -despite falling in love with him.

  5. Love this advice! I did write a twist to a classic, and had such fun with it.

  6. Great post!

    @ Pam - Goodbye Mr Chips

    I guess since there's no such thing as an original story, every plot is, in fact, a twist on a classic.

  7. Wonderful post as always. But one thing I warn about moving to a new genre is that you can't just take a story and replace the furniture to make it a sci-fi. You have to also incorporate some themes appropriate to that genre.

  8. Great post. It makes me want to start writing a new story. Oh the possibilities!

  9. In my critique group, I'm known as the masters of the twists in my storylines. I enjoy keeping people riveted and then yanking the rug out from under their feet, so to speak.

  10. My story got started as sort of a spin on x-men type super power stories. The normal people are always really racist-hostile in those stories up to, like, scientific experimentation and genocide levels. That's good for long running drama, but I wanted a different take. So my supers die tragically young, as a byproduct of their powers, and people on the whole feel more sorry for them than anything else. Being an Alter is sort of like being a wizard with cancer.

  11. Great post Janice. Will link it on my Marti Ink site tomorrow.

  12. Angela, that does sound cool.

    Chicory, I was just reading something on the dancing princesses story. Wish I could remember where! But that sounds cool.

    Michael, absolutely, good advice.

    Sally, that's the best part, isn't it?

    Traci, ooo fun. A fellow plot girl!

    Kathie, I like that. Great example of a fresh twist.

    Marti, thanks!

  13. This is excellent! I think this is really important in today's oh-so-tired market. The only way to get a ms that shines through the slush pile is to write something fresh like you described, mixing genres and plots and characters. Fun stuff! That's how steampunk originated, too, I believe. :)

  14. ENTWINED by Heather Dixon is the retelling/re-envisioning of The 12 Dancing Princesses, btw!

  15. Carol, thanks! And you're right. All new sub-genres had to come from somewhere. Someone tried something new and someone else loved it.

  16. Another great post. This gave me some new ideas for my current WIP. Thanks.