Two blogs have recently offered some excellent and very interesting viewpoints on where stories come from. Today, I want to examine other people’s writing as a source of inspiration, and Monday, I’ll post an analysis of the inspirations of Pride & Prejudice, in response to A Pilgrim in Narnia’s examination of the stories within that book.
In “6 Unique Ways to Think Up Story Ideas,” Ryan Lanz examines manual ways of coming up with story ideas, covering such options as newspaper articles, history, and the magic “What If?” But one category he didn’t mention (and he understandably didn’t set out to create a comprehensive list) was reading. As he notes, “the best way to come up with ideas is to simply live your life,” but personally, I’ve found a lot of ideas come from other stories.
I don’t mean fan fiction, or ripping off other people’s stories to make your own—a little Tolkien here, a pinch of George R. R. Martin there, and just a dash of Anne McCaffrey. When that technique is used, it creates a patchwork piece of other people’s stories, and it often feels like a rehashed version of something someone else already did. (Of course, I’ve also encountered novels where the author is reusing their own plot and characters, with new names and a slightly different setting, and I don’t know that this works much better. Leftovers in fiction just don’t seem to reheat very well.)
Tolkien felt that “three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story” (On Fairy Stories). Diffusion is borrowing in space, while inheritance is borrowing in time, taking something from an older story and making it new. In both instances, we are taking something from one story and putting it into another, dipping our ladle into “the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, [which] has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.”
This soup spawns new story ideas, for as we gaze at it, we see new, unique combinations: Shakespeare and young adult romance, Jane Austen and murder mysteries. Ryan notes this combination effect, calling it “putting two elements together,” merging such things as Abraham Lincoln and vampires, but these elements can, and I think often do, come from fiction.
For the best writers are usually readers, and as we read, we come across characters we enjoy, flavors of story we like, and we naturally try to replicate them in our own stories. It may be as simple as importing a character’s sense of humor or as complex as exploring a different outcome on a love triangle. Either way, I think other people’s stories are a wonderful place to look for ideas, so long as you make the ideas your own before you put them back into writing.
Shakespeare is a great example of using other stories for inspiration (though, at times, he took this to an extreme). One example is in the creation of Hamlet, when he took the plot from a now-obscure story called “Amleth,” and turned it into his own creation. In the original, the main character kills everyone who wronged him by burning a drinking hall over their heads and assassinates his uncle afterwards with his sword. He has no intellectual or philosophical problem wrecking revenge on other people, and he immediately sets out on his task. And he doesn’t die in his revenge, but dies in battle, much, much later. (You can read the original tale at this link.)
Many of the plot elements remained unchanged, and nowadays, we would probably not want to copy as much as Shakespeare did (the feigned madness is there, along with the use of a young woman as a trap, the spy in his mother’s bedroom, and most of the other major plot points). But by making his Denmark a Christian nation, and his Hamlet a former student, a true renaissance man, Shakespeare added all kinds of nuances. He also overhauled the main characters, adding dimension and depth. The original Polonius lacks his well-known speeches, and the original Claudius never suggests repentance or mentions having a conflicted conscience.
Like Shakespeare, we can take elements from other stories, so long as we take smaller bites than he did and mix in other concepts. We all work with the same Story Soup, but we can come up with our own recipe based on what we pull out of the pot and how we use it. As Tolkien wrote, “We do not, or need not, despair of painting because all lines must be either straight or curved. The combinations may not be infinite (for we are not), but they are innumerable.”
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren Photo by gagilas, Creative Commons