Saturday, September 15, 2007

Part One- Coming Up With An Idea

You know how they always used to say writers should write about something they know? Well, that's silly. What writers should write about is something they feel.

Think about your favorite stories. They can be books or movies or TV series or songs, just as long as they have a narrative. Concentrate on the ones you love the most, the movies you watch over and over or the book you reread every summer or the TV series that ran three years longer than it should have but you watch it in reruns anyway.

Then melt those favorites down to their bare essence. What we're looking for is the themes you are most responsive to.

Take me, for example. I love Consequences. I realized that when I was in high school and saw The Desperate Hours on TV and immediately wondered what happened to the family as a result of all they'd gone through. I also love Families, which is why I'll see any version of Long Day's Journey Into Night that shows up. (and how I wish that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward had once played James and Mary Tyrone). I also love How Things Get Started, which is why I prefer the early parts of biographies to the middles and ends.

Put Consequences and Family and How Things Get Started together, and you end up with a lot of my YA fiction, including Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone.

But this isn't about my favorites. It's about yours. Say you love The Wizard Of Oz. Well, that's about Quest and Friendship. Jane Eyre is Love And Acceptance. Or Gone With The Wind, which I never read but I did see the movie. That's about What You Can't Have (at least that's what the movie was about). Macbeth is about What You Can't Have also, although I like it for the witches and the murder.

Everyone has certain themes that resonate strongly within them. The writing that's the most fun (and there's not much point writing unless it's fun) is the writing that allows you to explore those themes.

Let's look at What You Can't Have. Scarlett wants Ashley, and one traditional version of WYCH is a romantic triangle. You want your best friend's boyfriend, for example. But Romeo And Juliet is also WYCH (I guess Shakespeare liked that theme, understandably since it has conflict built in). An Armenian girl in love with a Turkish boy would work. So would Scarlett in love with Ashley only Ashley's in love with Rhett. Or maybe you're a nice American girl and you've fallen in love with Gorgo from the Planet Zantac and the problem is Gorgo is a plant, like a dandelion puff, and he's programed in three months time to be blown into a thousand different spores which will sprout into a thousand new Gorgos.

It's very frustrating to have a meaningful love affair with a plant.

But the great thing about WYCH (about all themes) is that it doesn't have to be limited to love (Macbeth proves that). It can be about a kid whose father left the family when the kid was young, and what he wants and needs more than anything is a relationship with his father. It can be about a girl with rheumatoid arthritis who yearns to be a cheerleader. It can be about a girl who lives in a community that doesn't approve of education for females and yet she wants to go to college. It can be about a boy with no talent whatsoever who wants to star in the class play. Or a kid who wants a kitten but his sister is allergic. Or an unpopular kid who wants to be class president (which is what Election is about).

The point (other than it's so much fun to come up with these things) is to ponder what your themes are, because now you know you have them. Then once you come up with the themes that have the most meaning for you, start asking yourself what interests you (kittens, plays, fathers, religion, romance, sci fi) and what kind of story best utilizes the themes you really love. And keep in mind, while you're doing this, that it's a very short trip from Tara to the Planet Zantac.

10 comments:

Librarina said...

Rest assured -- I'll be reading! I love your blog, but I don't often comment because it's hard to come up with a witty response to some of your posts and I'd rather be witty than constantly comment, "LOL!" (hahaha)

Marci said...

And they lived happily ever after and became better people for the journey. That is my theme. When I was a kid, it was how to have a school that wasn't so boring you wished you could sleep through it, or better yet, become invisible so you didn't have to stay in your seat (though why one didn't actually leave the school building is a mystery to me now.)

GWTW was about WYCH but refuse to accept the concept, and then when you get it, you don't want it anymore and lose what you had but didn't know you had it.

This is a really good blog, Sue!

Marci said...

I also love time warp, but realistic time warp, no stupid wandering around in the land of Dinosaurs crap. But it still has to have a happy ending. I just read a new one (to me) by Edward Ormondroyd and the main character is named Susan!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

I forgot to include Cinderella as a theme, and it's one that resonates with lots of people, and has many potential variants.

Thanks Marci for reminding me of it!

Lee said...

I have to agree with librarina - been reading your blog but couldn't come up with anything else witty to add (and that's why my wife still hasn't posted!) But I'll try now...

This post created a two hour discussion with my wife on the themes that resonate the most with us. For myself, I read more books about facts (like my treasured Beatle Abbey Road Sessions) and biographies. I guess the themes they mostly have are:

- Discovery
- Integrity
- Mystery
- History

In fact, not just books but this list applies to movies, music and daily life. Maybe I just like words that end in "y".

It's interesting to note that you like the beginning of biographies; that explains the quick introduction and series of events in the first chapter of LAWKI! :)

And the theme of WYCH was represented most importantly to me in LAWKI by technology. The lack of it forces Miranda and family to change the way they live, and the way they treat each other. It resonated with me strongly, because I feel that society today is scarily too dependent on technology to survive.

Anonymous said...

Hie sUSAN i HAVE JUST READ YOUR BOOK THE DEAD AND THE GONE AND IN A WEKK I HAVE TO PRESENT IT TO THE WHOLE CLASS IN ORDER TO GET A VERY IMPORTANT GRADE. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU COULD JUST HELP ME OUT. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK? WHY THE GRUESOME ENDING? WHY DO YOU LIKE WRITTING SUCH STORIES AND IS JULIE AND aLEX SAFE (JUST KIDDING)? PLEASE HELP ME

P.S THIS IS MY FIRT BOOK I HAVE READ WRITTEN BY YOU, IT WAS REALLY GOOD BUT SCARY. tHANK YOU.

Anonymous said...

By the way i am all the way in the UK.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Anonymous all the way in the UK-

I got the idea for The Dead And The Gone from writing Life As We Knew It. I had such a good time writing LAWKI that I wanted to explore the same situation and see how different characters would deal with it.

I guess gthe ending is kind of gruesome, but I just wanted something big and devastating.

I hope that helps!

Meaghan W. said...

Hello I'm a 13 year old in Washington and I just read This World We Live In. I think you do an excellent job of pulling LAWKI and TDATG together. I read This World We Live In, in 7 hours! It was great, it was sold out in a lot of places so it took me awhile to get it. I re-read all of those books A LOT. They're great! I hope someday you'll make more, but then again it would be weird to add it after that series, but still. I just love your books!

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan!

I've read LAWKT and loved it. But I want to write my own book (not expecting it to be published) because i LOVE creative writing. So I just read this article and thought it was an awesome idea. But I'm awful at finding the themes in stories. Could you please help me out?
My favorite stories are:
-Buffy the vampire slayer
-LAWKT
-Alice in wonderland
-Through the looking glass
Could you help me out?
-Q
p.s. this is my first post so please reply! :)