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filing off the serial numbers

How to steal a story.  How to file off the serial numbers and make it your own. . . . it's easier when you read a story and think "He threw away that idea." or "Those minor characters are more interesting than the main plot"  or "That development was a stupid waste when she could have done this." or "That backstory would be a wonderful story on its own" -- but some of the same tricks may be needed as when you just want to steal the story.

There is nothing like practice.  I am glad that my many, many, many pieces of juvenilia were handwritten -- in my virtually illegible hand-writing no less -- but it was good practice all the same.

The first trick is to always change the names.  Besides the psychological effect of making them your characters, besides the legal effect of escaping copyright, names have baggage.  You may find that Catherine has dark hair, which will change the heroine's hair all on its own.  (You can't count on the reader picking up your baggage, but you can find it useful if you write it in.)

It can be like prying a gemstone out of a rock.  You may have to take several stabs at it -- put it down and come back a few days later, when you have more distance between you and the original story.  It may feel like it can't be done, because the original story all hangs together.  But it's a necessary step.

And then you start to look at what else you can change without changing what interested you in the first place.

It's easiest to start with the trivia, and that's where to start.  Change what subject he's good in at school.  Change what job she has -- even something as simple as changing from a database designer to a computer programmer.  Change anything!

Even with the names and trivia, it can be hard.  Part of that is lack of practice, part of it is that in a good story, all these trivial pieces are integral, and part of it is that even trivia has a ripple effect.  Drastic changes in name for instance -- from Jill to Euphrosyne -- imply changes in her parents and her culture.

And as you get better, stretch your changes.  See how much you can change, and see how the changes ripple.  Poor or rich?  It will make a big difference.  On this planet, or on another, on a spacestation, in a fantasy land.  With a different kind of magic.

Take, oh, let us suppose that you want to write a story about an orphaned boy with a magical legacy raised by his aunt and uncle and mistreated by them, who one day has to learn about his legacy.

You could consider whether it was needed.  Whether you could be happy with writing about a boy raised by his parents and doing well enough.  It would, on one hand, save some specialness you could expend later, without turning him to a Mary Sue then.  On the other hand, you want to make your character special somehow; Joe Nobody is as dull as Mary Sue.  And the situation has plot potential.  And you never want to just file off the serial numbers.  You want to engrave your own on the story.

You can also brainstorm with each of the ideas.  If we break it down:


Why else could a boy not be raised by his parents?  Perhaps they vanished.  Perhaps they have jobs that need a lot of travel.  Perhaps they -- are in jail.  (And then the questions arise:  were they framed?  Was it real but in a good cause (perhaps in an unjust foreign country?  Were they just crooks?  The first two have more straightforward plot potential, but the third has a great deal of drama.)

"boy" -- or girl?

"by his aunt and uncle"

Grandparents could also feature.  Or an much older sibling.  Or even a not much older sibling.

"and mistreated by them."

There's a lot of ways he could be mistreated.  Perhaps he could be suffocated.  Or perhaps he cold be just neglected and allowed to run wild.

And see what strikes the fancy:

Mortimer, who was born very late to his parents, who vanished when he was twelve.  His older brother had to return to the family estate because of the conditions on its inheritance (magical conditions?), and resented very much leaving the city.  He pays no more attention to Mortimer than he strictly must, and Mortimer is running wild in the woods.  And learning things that would surprise his brother very much.

Sally's parents were arrested in a foreign country when they stole back a vital magical artifact.  Her mother's parents took her in but were both thoroughly ashamed of their daughter and son-in-law and very afraid that Sally would emulate them.  They shelter her until they almost smother her.  They try to keep her from learning magic, but they haven't checked all the chests that were stored in the attic.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 15th, 2008 02:00 am (UTC)
An interesting post. I often use fairy tales as a starting point for stories, but because they are generally pretty bare bones to begin with (not to mention not under copyright) I've got plenty of leeway to do all sorts of strange things to them. But, I've never even thought of using another author's work the same way.

I liked the example paragraphs you gave. I'm not even sure I'd have made the connection to HP, without the introductory material.
Aug. 15th, 2008 03:38 am (UTC)
I started with other writers' works. Mostly Tolkien. But I never wrote fanfic because even in the earliest days I changed the names.

Fairy tales, and all the charms and delights of switching their genre while trying to keep every scrap I could of the original story, I felt inspired by later.

And glad you like my paragraphs. Though they don't go as far as they could. There are times when if you play enough with an idea, you find that even you can't find anything left of the original idea, it's all been changed.
Aug. 16th, 2008 03:37 am (UTC)
I found your journal via this post, and I'm so glad I did! I hope you don't mind that I friend you.
Aug. 16th, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC)
Glad to have you. Hope you enjoy the posts!
Aug. 18th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
Very interesting and useful - I haven't though much about directly taking and changing elements of a story before, but your post demonstrates how this can be a good way to jump-start an idea.
Aug. 19th, 2008 12:47 am (UTC)
Many people, evidently, are inspired by other people's writing.

That's how we get fanfic.

But even in my very earliest works, I changed the names. It helped me get into original writing.
Aug. 18th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
Biography is good, too.

Some guy named McClean, lived near Ft. Sumpter. The civil war started in his front yard. He moved to a more peaceful place, Appomattox. The surrender was signed in his house.

Of course, Lee hadn't intended to surrender. He thought Grant was McClean's butler, and handed him his sword, as any gentleman would.
Jun. 30th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
Very nice! You hit a lot of the points we find, too...changing names and family relations seem to be the first step.
Jul. 1st, 2011 01:38 am (UTC)
glad you like it!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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