Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The same, but different


Everything’s been done. And “they” say Shakespeare wrote every plot. How do you keep your stories new and original? What do you bring to them that makes them fresh?

by Dietrich

Maybe we’re not recreating the wheel, but a good writer gives a story his or her own spin and unique expression. A powerful voice can travel over the familiar terrain of setting and plot structure and come out sounding original and brilliant. Take Don Winslow’s The Force. Set in New York, it’s about a corrupt cop; a setting and storyline that’s been visited many times before, yet Winslow makes it fresh due of his voice and ability to tell and move the story. If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean; if you haven’t you’ll want to get a copy.

New York’s been the setting of many other crime series and stories. Take a look at Ed McBain’s 83rd Precinct books, or Donald E. Westlake’s Cops and Robbers, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, and Chester Himes Harlem Cycle. Novels like Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 by John Godey. And there’s the hit series The Deuce, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos. And remember those great films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver, Klute, The Pope of Greenwich Village. Al Pacino’s practically made a career starring in crime stories filmed in New York: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Donny Brasco, Carlito’s Way, Cruising, and Sea of Love

All these stories are of cops and crooks, and all are set in New York, yet each is distinct. Of course it doesn’t have to be New York. It could be Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, or James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Carl Hiaasen’s Miami. Familiar settings and similar story lines — someone’s committing a crime and someone’s solving one.

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” — Jack Kerouac

When I’m deciding on the right setting, I consider the mood and overall color it will lend the story. Should it be present time or some point in history? Do I know this place, or am I in for a mountain of research to pull it off?

“A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.” — Somerset Maugham


Besides voice and setting, consider plot which can basically be boiled down to a protagonist wanting something and going after it. That’s probably true, but there’s so much more to be added to the broad strokes that makes each story distinct and special. There’s the writer’s own passion, style and life experience, along with the obstacles and themes, the humor and tragedy. Not to mention the twists and quests, subplots, setups and hooks, the cast of heroes, villains and underdogs, the depth of the characters, backstories and their dialog. Everything a writer can dream up and express in his or her own way, making the same thing different.

3 comments:

Brenda Chapman said...

All of what you say is so true. The trick truly is making the writing appear effortless, which we know is not the case.

Paul D. Marks said...

All very right on, Dieter. But I especially like the Kerouac quote!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Brenda and Paul.