On Story Development, by Andy Briggs
As a writer you should be reading and watching as much as possible. Not just teen books, but every kind of book – fiction, non-fiction – and genres outside your target audience. This is research, one of the most overlooked aspects of writing the humble book. Movies and TV shows should fall under this banner too.
Now, I’m not talking here about researching your subject – I will do that in another article. (For my Tarzan books I travelled to Africa and talked to zookeepers, conservationists and just about anybody I could to further both my knowledge and experience of the subject matter.) I’m talking about story research.
When I wrote my Hero.com and Villain.net books, which are superhero stories, I made an effort of reading comics, other superhero books and every superhero based movie I could. I was looking for specific things to improve my own stories. What reoccurring tropes were used? How could I avoid using them. If every superpower came from radioactive insect bites or discarded biohazard waste, how could I do things differently? In my case I had my Supers download their powers from a website.
By absorbing other people’s worlds I was able to create something that felt reasonably fresh. I also managed to avoid the horrible trap of accidentally duplicating other people’s stories – it happens.
It also happens with characters. I often hear people wax lyrical about a fresh new character, and the author goes on to sell a bazillion books – whereas a portion of the audience is open-mouthed thinking “but that is just this other character with a hat on!” or “that bestselling book is just this cult Japanese movie with a different name!”
The trick in this situation is the ‘hat’ – or the way you present your character to the world. That slight change is often enough to create something similar – but, crucially – not identical to the idea you’re attempting to capture. The only safe way you can do that is by exploring the work of others.
The last thing you want is a reader picking up your book then putting it back on the shelf because the opening chapter (or character) is exactly the same as a TV episode they had watched.
Duplication happens more than you realize. Ideas are viral. Whatever stunningly original concept you have now – somebody else came up with it last week. Or they’re about to. Your idea is in a race to make it out into the world. You discover this after a couple of days pitching stories around Hollywood. Executives will stop you mid-pitch and tell you they’ve “heard it all before”. The novice will panic and know they are being ripped off, especially when they see their story on the silver screen a couple of years later. The more jaded amongst us simply acknowledge that we’re in a story-race.
Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk
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