Making Old Stories New

Making Old Stories NewIf any of you writers out there plan on attending any Christmas parties or other gatherings of people this holiday season, prepare yourselves for a stream of well-meaning, but annoying comments:

“Ooh, I bet this is going to turn into one of your stories.”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea for a poem you should write!”

“If I send you some of my son’s writing, could you take a look at it?”

I promise I’m a nice guy and usually pretty tactful when it comes to my reply, but most of the time I find some way to challenge the person who’s requested my magic powers to write it themselves… …or to pay me a bunch of money to do it.

Of course, it being Christmas time, you’ll probably get a request to write something Christmasy or for a Christmas party. I used to avoid anything to do with the topic. But this year I finally gave in to writing a version of the Biblical story for a friend’s living nativity, and I loved it. It felt like the writer’s version of performing cover songs or repainting old masterpieces. I discovered the thrill of a story that usually achieves monstrous yawns and frequent time checks. I also realized that the lessons I learned can help me make any writing interesting—

1. If a tale has ever been popular, it contains at its core a vibrant plot that still resonates today.

Do a quick search on Google, and you’ll find numerous people claiming a limited number of available story types. Christopher Booker claims 7. Robert Reich says the number is 4. Georges Polti argues for as many as 36 different plot situations. Joseph Campbell says only 1 story dominates the world.

Apparently, they all believe that cultures around the world find beauty in similar stories. Whether it’s a hero’s quest, righting injustice for the oppressed, or discovering the simple warmth of home, stories tap into our longings for meaning and fulfillment in life. Find those stories within the topic or tale you’ve chosen to reinvigorate and understand what people love about them. I found romance, scandal, supernatural wonder, and a host of odd characters in the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth. Once I had truly felt the implications of all those themes, I had the ingredients to cook up something spicy.

2. Choose an opening that your audience wouldn’t expect.

Plunge them directly into the action. (Breeze tickled their cheeks as shapes of hills swarmed around them.) Focus on less commonly known or emphasized parts of the story. (Scandal swept through a tiny, Jewish town.) Choose a perspective outside the regular cast of characters. (Gabriel dreaded talking to men.) Move the story to a non-traditional setting. (Joseph turned off his alarm as California rays crept through the window.)

Whatever you do, don’t do what’s been done before. The brain is a constant detective, trying to make sense of all the information it processes. If it sees something that fits into a predictable pattern, it files it into the realm of “seen it before” and “do I agree.” If it finds new and unpredictable words, it activates the brain’s sense of enjoyment and delight before deciding where it fits in the larger scheme of the audience’s life.

3. Understand the original author’s world.

As stories age, people lose the ability to connect with the original language and cultural references made by the author. That’s why they stopped reading Moby Dick, Don Quixote, or the King James version of the Bible. It doesn’t make the original stories bad. It just makes it harder to access their power. You have to do some research and immerse yourself in the culture of the author to appreciate the subtle complexities that normal readers would miss. Only then can you bring something to your writer that’s more than their previous experience.

For example, talking about a virgin birth usually generates visions of piety, the miraculous, and a phrase that people don’t fully comprehend. So I did some digging on Jewish customs of betrothal and infidelity. I emphasized Mary and Joseph’s loss of reputation, Joseph’s need to satisfy his own feelings of betrayal and loss, and Mary’s innocence despite her obvious pregnancy. Then I hammered it home with the messy details of birth, cleaning out a trough, and their pain and weakness in the midst of it. After considering all those things, virgin birth becomes a phrase to consider, rather than something to easily dismiss.

In our quest to find new and never before discovered truths, it’s easy to overlook the adventures we already know. Every one of the most famous and influential writers of all time have simply told old stories using their own words and characters. It’s that balance of old and new, everyday and alien, that keeps us connected to each other and thrilled with excitement at what’s ahead in our journey. And as long as that includes fewer requests for me to carry the responsibility of someone else’s passionate party suggestion, I’ve got an endless supply of cool stuff to write.

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