Five Ways to put a Creative New Twist on an Old Story
March 20, 2018
So you’ve found an amazing time period and setting for your next project. But what if lots of other writers have found that topic just as engaging as you do? While writing about a popular time and place in history can ensure that you have a wide audience waiting for you, you can also run the risk of being repetitive or creating a story that sounds cliched. Here I’ve put together some tips for creating an original take on a well-covered era in history.
Read what everyone else is doing
My manuscript in progress is set mostly during the Battle of Britain–a very popular place to set WWII fiction. As I did my research, I considered familiarizing myself with what other writers have already produced on the Battle of Britain just as essential as knowing the specifications for the airplanes my characters would be flying. Getting to know what novels, films and tv adaptations have been already made about your setting are the only way to find out how your story can succeed in the midst of all that competition. Along the way, you can make note of what you think worked well, and what you wished you could see done differently.
Many of my ideas have come from what I saw as a ‘gap’ in the overall fictional portrayal of a time period or setting. By comparing fact to existing fiction on a particular topic, you can make a note of what you already see being written about, and what aspects nobody has yet touched on. You may find that others have covered a lot of the same ground, while leaving other approaches or angles unexplored.
Think about the tone and style of the story
While you may not be able to control how many other people have already written about your topic, you are completely in control of the way that story is told. Here are a few ways to vary the story:
- Voice: If you concentrate on telling the story with an original voice, you will never run the risk of retelling what someone else has already created. What details do you chose to focus on? What does your protagonist think of the events unfolding around him or her?
- Tone and Structure: The stories The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg and Jakob the Liar by Jurek Becker both concern the Jewish population in Lodz, Poland, during WWII. The Emperor of Lies involves a wide cast of characters which Sem-Sandberg uses to trace the story of the ghetto in Lodz from the beginning to the end of its existence, while Jakob the Liar sticks closely to the story of one man and his effect on those immediately connected to him. By varying the structure and approach to the subject, these two stories about the same topic are both unique.
- Length and pacing. Two stories that revolve around the same topic or historical event don’t have to cover the same amount of ground. Writing a shorter story, or one that takes place over only a few days will allow you to concentrate on details, while a broader epic that spans many characters and years of time can let you capture the big picture.
- Format: Writers have lots of tricks up their sleeves–make use of them! You can tell your story in the form of letters, introduce an unreliable narrator, frame the story within another sort of ‘document’ or give the narrator more or less distance from the past events.
Change up who’s talking
While taking a look at other people’s approaches to your topic, make note of which types of characters are featured the most often as protagonists or antagonists. Then consider changing that up. If you don’t want to make a complete reversal and tell the story from the perspective of the traditional villain, you can still make adjustments to feature a different sort of character in the spotlight. Check back again with your own research. What points of view, if any, do you see missing? Do you disagree with any of the ways the viewpoints have been represented? Sometimes you may dislike an existing portrayal, and may want to consider offering an alternative. With a little thought, you may be able to come up with a short list of potential characters who would each have a unique stake in the story, many of whom may not have yet had their voices heard. If you still feel like all the ground has been covered in terms of which roles appear in the story, you can still vary your main character in terms of age, gender, hobbies or profession, and general personality. Sometimes a gloomy or funny narrator can provide just as much of a change of insight as a narrator on the opposing army.
Blend it with a different type of story
Another approach is to shift the emphasis away from the well-worn topic, and focus instead on something else, which also happens to take place in your chosen setting. Romance and crime have become such popular choices that they have evolved into genres all their own. If you write a story about an assassin who lives in medieval Italy, is it a crime drama or a historical novel? It can be either. But the list of alternative focuses doesn’t stop there. You can make your story about sibling rivalry, roles in gender, issues between social classes, struggling with an illness or a loss–the list is endless.
Just remember that whatever subplot or angle you choose to focus on will reflect back upon your original topic. Readers will be curious why you chose to combine the particular themes that you did, so think this out ahead of time. By choosing carefully the subplots and character arcs you want to devote your novel’s time to, you have the chance to draw fascinating parallels between your large-scale topic and your small scale conflict.
Go back to the real thing
When all else fails, you can always go back to historical fact as your basis for historical fiction. Even with those pockets of history we’ve seen over and over again, there are always aspects and anecdotes that can trigger a whole new, original idea. Keep an open mind and lots of notes, and don’t be prepared to do a lot of reading. Anytime something strikes your interest, make note of why it did so. Chances are, you wouldn’t be the only one to be intrigued by this tidbit.
Once you’ve hit on a few concepts, you can try to link them together, and select which characters and scenes can best illustrate this idea. For instance, if you want to write about the Soviet Union in the 1950s, but chose to focus on music as a form of counter culture, try to build up scenes which reveal what the character stands to lose or gain. How can your side characters serve as contrasts or support for your protagonist? How will you convey the relationship between music as a form of resistance and the dominant culture?
Going back to your research can also be a great refresher even for other stages of your writing process, just try to find a balance that works well for you–between losing your focus and using research to procrastinate from the real work.
It can be daunting knowing that the topic you’re so interested in has already been thoroughly saturated into fiction, film, and TV. The good news is, there is always a new approach. By varying your tone, character selection, or by adding a new subplot or focus, you can create a new spin that is totally your own. There’s a reason why people keep on coming back to the same eras and settings in history, and your fresh perspective could be a great addition!
Why do you think some time periods in history are more popular than others? Do you know any books in a well-covered setting that stand out to you? Why? Don’t forget to come back next Monday for another post!