On connecting to stories

Cassandra Clare posted something to her blog a little while ago, answering a fan question about which of her upcoming books she was more nervous about. At the end she made a comment that I thought was really interesting: "Mostly people react to the execution of something rather than the idea."

She’s speaking about books, of course, although it’s really true about anything. You could say you have this idea for an amazing new personal transportation device, but unless your jet packs are functional and efficient and easy to wear and look smart, it’s hard for people to get super excited. Ditto on writing: you might have an idea about a boy who goes to wizard school, but the enthusiasm of your readers will be partly dependent on how you write it.

And I don’t mean just the nuts and bolts of words on a page, either. Connecting to a story is deeper than that. It’s about the way your characters speak and act, about the challenges they face and the decisions they make. It’s about pacing and scenery and the details that are shared.

Think about the books you’ve read recently that you’ve most loved. What was it that made you love them so much? It probably wasn’t the way the author constructed her sentences. But it probably also wasn’t the bare-bones central idea. Both are part of but not the whole reason or even the main reason.

Which is why you often see industry professionals reassuring new writers not to worry about sharing their story ideas. Ideas aren’t unique, and it’s possible someone else has already had yours – Jane Yolen wrote a book about a boy at wizard school long before JK Rowling did, though Rowling didn’t know about it. It’s the way you take your idea and run with it, the characters you create around it, that sets your story apart, and that dictates whether or not someone is going to love your book.


6 responses to “On connecting to stories

  1. Probably depends on the genre too. In sci-fi, people are pretty excited about the exploration of new ideas. Literary fiction, lots of exploring people-and-life concepts. The others in between, like your genre, for me come down largely to likeable, believable, and otherwise awesome characters.

    • Well, that’s true. I suppose I was thinking primarily of the YA category, then, but generally all the categories it contains. But also things like the Discworld books – someone else could try to write something similar, but it just wouldn’t be the same without Terry Pratchett behind the pen.

  2. Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall may not have been the best example because, if I recall, there was a big, drawn out lawsuit against J.K. over all that. Of course, I think I heard just a few months ago that Jane Yolen (or her publisher? I probably should look up the details on who actually sued Rowling) finally lost the suit. Years and years and years later.

    Wizard’s Hall was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, and there was a bit more than a passing resemblance to the first Harry Potter book (which I also loved). But now that I actually write, I completely see how J.K.’s book is truly her own, despite some basic plot/character similarities. If she hadn’t written Harry Potter, it wouldn’t have become the Harry Potter phenomenon we all know and love.

    • Was there actually a lawsuit? I do remember reading about Jane Yolen half-joking that if JK Rowling wanted to cut her a big cheque she wouldn’t turn it down, but nothing beyond that. I’ve never actually read Wizard’s Hall, only read about it, though I’ve read many others of Jane Yolen’s books.

      Sometimes when I’m reading current novels I get that deja-vu feeling because the stories feel so similar, even though they came out close enough together there’s no way one could be a copy of the other. But as you say, despite the similarities, each book is still truly the individual author’s.

  3. Battle Royale vs. the Hunger Games instead, maybe.

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