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The 29th of February: Anomaly & Inspiration

Happy 29th of February! Enjoy it while you can since it won’t be around for another 4 years. The actual day, that is. But leap year or February 29th could be in your book.

Leap Year is one of those weird true stories that is so ingrained into our culture that we accept it without really thinking about it. Yes, there are 365 days in a year except on leap year when there are 366. And millennial years are another exception (it gets confusing). Anyway, this sort of detail is exactly the type of worldbuilding that makes a world start to feel real.

Our world isn’t perfect, especially society-wise (understatement), so we associate reality with a flawed system. Little quirks like this add a sense of reality to the system, and they can be used in a variety of ways – beyond setting.

  • prophecy: the day could be added every 400 years. Prophecy’s love crap like that.
  • plot conflict: have you ever screwed up something because you forgot it was leap year? It happens, believe me.
  • characterization: people with birthdays on February 29th only have birthdays every 4 years. That means at the actual age of 96, you would turn 24 on your birthday. Your great-grandkids could be older than you (put that together with prophecy, and you have a lot of potential.).

Actually, if you combined those three in a unique world, you could have a whole story. I can see it now: the main character can’t go off to school because you have to have x number of birthdays first, the higher ups had dismissed her as fodder for the prophecy because she’s too old, and the combination leads to an adventure where she ends up saving the world. Oh, it’ll be beautiful.

Or you could write something else and have February 29th come up in a bit of banter on page 172. You know, whatever floats your boat.

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Plot Uniqueness: The Macro vs. Micro Problem

For all that people say that there are only 2-3 stories, no one wants to be the author who makes people grimace and say that he (or she) writes the same plot over and over again. At the same time, a plot that jumps around completely out of left field can leave the story feeling disconnected and jarring (or just plain bad). No one wants to be predictable, but to be readable, we can’t be completely unpredictable.

So what can we do? How do we make our stories new if there are only 3 plots (max)?

I’ve already touched on one method in “Thought-provoking Fan Art” and “Schrödinger’s Setting,” and that’s to add uniqueness through your worldbuilding. Changing the setting and the surrounding culture can make a plot seem new even if it’s the same plot that’s been told for hundreds of years. I’m sure you can think of plenty of stories that seem different because of the world(s) they’re set in.

The other method for making the story seem fresh is related, and that’s to put effort into making the details of the story interesting. Character quirks, dialogue, small moments in the plot, writing style, figurative language – all of those aspects (and more) work together to make stories seem different from each other.

So if you want to emphasize difference, focus on the micro scale.

It’s when we zoom out to the macro that we can see the similarities in plot. From a distance, all the nuances and levels of difference become indistinguishable, and only the overall shape remains. That’s what they’re talking about when they say there are only so many plots. Yes, when you look at the overall shape, there tends to be a lot of similarity. The rhythms of pacing – the crescendo of the rise and fall and rise and fall of the action – these are parts of telling a story in an entertaining way. So, yes, there’s going to be overlap in the shape.

What those people forget, however, is that when you’re reading a book, you’re not looking at the macro alone. In fact, if you get sucked in, you’re mostly looking at the micro scale. So as a writer, that’s the place to worry most about differences.

So what if all your books are hero journeys? Are they different hero journeys? Do the details of the journey change? Does each book have separate twists and turns? How many books have you read with a save-the-world hero plot? Do you consider them all the same story?

The fact of the matter is that saying there are only 2-3 stories is a simplification. Yes, it’s interesting on a theory level (it can be fun to ponder the idea and what it might reflect in regards to the human psyche), but on a writing level, it’s more likely to lead a writer astray than to help him/her improve. It sets up and unhealthily strengthens the need to be different for the sake of difference.

I promise you that if you’re writing a modern romance novel, the demographic for that genre is not going to be mad because your macro scale followed the usual plot: man and woman meet, go on an adventure, and fall in love. Just like no one’s going to protest if your horror book is scary, and horrible things happen to the characters. Or if your mystery has a crime that gets solved. The big plot arcs have become more or less the definition of the genre. They’re what the readers expect and generally enjoy.

That’s why uniqueness is less the story you’re telling and more how you tell it.

If every single one of your leading men looks the same and has the same job and mannerisms, it’s going to get old. When every book is set in the same area with similar twists and similar characters, all but the most loyal readers start to get bored. And I guarantee that if your characters solve the same mystery or are attacked the same way by the same supernatural creature in each book, you’ll lose the mystery and horror crowds.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a lot more important to be unique and creative on the micro scale than on the macro. If you can figure out a way to write a completely new plot that works well, that’s brilliant! (Congratulations on your genius and well-deserved fame!) If you can’t, that doesn’t mean you have to write the same story over and over again (At least, as long as you don’t zoom out too much…).

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Writing Prompt: Using Imagery for Inspiration

One way to get your brain working if you’re having trouble getting started, is to start by describing something. Find a picture that’s interesting, look out your window, or close your eyes and imagine a vivid memory. You can even imagine a place you’ve never been or that doesn’t really exist. You can pick something as simple as a girl holding out an apple or as complicated as a busy city scene. Whatever your brain needs to get moving.

Once you have your inspiration, use imagery to describe it. And I don’t mean, “she held out a red apple.” I’m talking more about, “The vivid red of the apple glowed in her hand like a warning sign.”

Use mood. Use symbolism. Let the imagery take you somewhere. By comparing the apple to a warning sign, it’s suddenly ominous. There is danger and conflict, and my brain is already wondering what that conflict is and who is in danger from it. I could just as easily compare it to something wonderful and hint at a love story. Whichever direction you choose, if you let the imagery pull you into a story, the characters, plot, and setting will sprout and start to grow.

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Schrödinger’s Setting

You’ve probably all heard of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment that has become a widespread internet meme. To summarize, the cat is simultaneously considered alive and dead until someone can be bothered to open the box.

Oh, the uncertainty. If only, I could somehow discern the truth!

Now, about Schrödinger’s setting. I’m sure you all know what the setting is.
ALL: [In a monotone chorus] Where and when the story takes place.

Technically, I guess the setting would be the box, so it’s not that great of an analogy; however, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat, the idea of two opposing states existing simultaneously, is very relevant to setting.

For example, if I take the plot and characters and put them in a different setting, is it the same characters? Is it the same plot?

Often, the answer to these questions is simultaneously “Yes” and “No.” Yes, I just said that I was using the same characters and plot. By definition, the characters and plot have to be the same, or I didn’t do what I said I was going to do. At the same time, they’re not the same at all. They’re in a different place, which changes the flavor of the story. It changes the feel of the characters. It changes our reactions to the characters and the plot.

If I took the original Star Wars trilogy and rewrote it in a steampunk Old West-style world, it would be a very different story – even if every plot point was the same. Even if I didn’t change any characters.

It would be very different. But it would also be the same.

The sameness (despite the obvious differences) is one reason people talk about the same story being used over and over again. The theory is that there are really only 2 stories (or 1, depending on whom you talk to) that authors write over and over and over again with different names for the characters and different settings (sometimes). Maybe, it’s true. Maybe, not.

Maybe, both.

True or not, you can exploit this concept (and Schrödinger’s setting) in so many ways:

1. Use it to brainstorm.

Seriously, take a story you like, and change the setting. Use the setting to re-envision the characters and the plot. Once you make enough setting-driven changes, you’ll have a hard time recognizing the story you started with.

2. Find ways to make your plot and characters setting-dependent.

Remember how I said that the yes/no answer was “Often” true? If you interweave your plot, setting, and characters closely enough, the answer will only be “No.” This goes into the nitty-gritty of characterization (would you be the same person if you grew up somewhere else? If you lived somewhere else?) and plot (how would the character’s choice change in a different location? How would the options change?).

3. Take advantage of the setting to make your story more unique.

If the theoreticians are right, and there are only 1-2 stories, then the biggest difference between them is the setting. Where you choose to put your story can help make it stand out, or it can make it blend in to the thousands of other westerns set in Dodge City. If you feel like your plot and characters are unique (Forget those theoreticians! That’s hogwash!), then, a common setting could emphasize that uniqueness. Find the balance that’s right for your story (and, we hope, the readers).

Plenty of people tend to be on one side or the other of this fence. Either the setting is vital and defines the story, or the setting is an afterthought – characters and plot define the story. Clearly, I tend to be more middle-of-the-road.

What do you think? Is the setting alive, dead, or both?