Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Telling It Twice - Incompatible Versions of a Story


As I mentioned in yesterday's post, this series of posts (well, two posts so far) is partly inspired by a bit of off-hand advice Dean Wesley Smith gave to a commenter on his blog a while ago.  The commenter said something about having to choose between two ideas for her book, and he said "write them both."  And he didn't mean "write them both and then choose the best one."  He meant "Write them both and publish them both."

And I'll talk about the obvious version of this advice on Friday when I talk about the stories Hitchcock told twice -- his remakes.  Movie makers do outright remakes all the time, and one of the reasons is because movies are just a kind of play.  Just recast it and you've got a new production.

This is less common for books, but writers still do revisit the same themes and plot lines. Heck some whole series are the same story told over and over and over again.  And that's interesting, and I really do want to talk more about it one day.

But today I'm not interested in the situations where doing this is easy, obvious and normal. What I really want to talk about is the rarer situation where this advice really seems impossible.  Because that's where it gets really interesting.

The thing that can make this advice impossible to follow is not really a story problem (you can always come up with a way to change a story to write it twice), but a writer problem: whether you can write it twice depends on your motivation for writing the story in the first place.

If your whole interest in writing the story is invested in the specifics of the story -- that is, you want to write about that character, and that world, and that set of circumstances, and changing them something which is merely similar won't do it for you -- that can present a real problem for just blithely writing a story twice.

I'm going to give you two examples.  One is common in series writing.  The other is an actual problem I have with a decision about a story, and may be less common.

Series Fiction

When you have a series, and you're invested in it, and your audience is invested in it, you have limitations on what you can do, or at least how you can do it.  You can't make Columbo an ax-murderer or have Miss Marple run off with a hot young stud and form a nudist lacrosse club.

But the limitations aren't just about what the audience will accept.  Heck, authors have made big changes in their series and sold it to audiences before.  Sometimes it just means that the old audience goes a way and a new audience jumps in.

But you also have a limitation in your own head: you love your characters and are driven to write about them.  And you may not be driven to write about characters who are like them.

For instance, I like writing about Mick and Casey McKee, my two young newlywed gunslingers in Have Gun, Will Play.  I'm not at all interested in writing stories about any other young gunslingers in love.  So if I have an idea which would change their lives completely and irreversably, I have to give up other ideas where their lives have not changed.

So, if I ever got an idea for a story where Casey gets pregnant, I have a choice to make. That story will change their lives, even if she miscarries.  I can't have it both ways.  As a result I have no plans for Casey to ever get pregnant.  If I come up with a good idea for such a story, I'll stick it on the shelf just in case I get bored with the way things are now for them.

More serious yet: what if I came up with a really good idea for a story where one of them gets killed and the other has to deal with it?

Now, you might say, "If it's a great idea, develop it for some other characters!"  Except that I am not interested in writing a story about Dick and Stacy McGonigal, Frontier Chiropractors.  The thing that would interest me are the specifics of Mick and Casey's relationship, their history, as told in the stories I've written about them.  The idea doesn't work for me -- isn't interesting to me -- if it's not specifically for Mick and Casey.

However, thinking about that idea -- considering it -- that is actually useful.

I get to know more about the characters when I think beyond such boundaries.  My other stories are richer for having thought about it.  Considering their profession, I imagine that they, privately, imagine such a future for themselves.  So when I consider a story like that, it gives me insight into what's going on in their heads, unspoken.

And sometimes it even gives me a different story to write twice.  I when I have considered what would happen to these characters if they lost the other, it drew me to think of Mick's devastation if Casey ever left him.  And though I haven't developed that story, and I don't know if I'll ever get to it, it's one I know I could have fun with.  And it doesn't make me choose.

In that sense, "writing it twice" is what series fiction is all about -- it's about exploring variations.  Letting your mind explore beyond your boundaries keeps it fresh and gives you options.

Writing the Unique Story Twice

I have another story where writing two versions seems even more impossible... and yet, if I think outside the box a little, it also could be a solution to a conundrum.

Slayer of Clocks is a play I wrote that was produced at the Discovering New Mysteries Festival.  It's a noir story, often humorous but generally on the dark and tragic side.  I also have a version of the story in my head that is a cozy mystery.  The characters change from bad to good and good to bad and swap around who is on whose side.

It would seem to be ideal for the "write two versions" strategy.  Hey, if your characters change from good to bad and vice versa, then there is no problem just changing their names and making them different characters.  You aren't just filing off the serial numbers: They ARE different characters. And obviously the plot is different, and the situation is different.

The problem is that there are certain central details which are very specific and kind of weird. Way to unique and specific to pretend they are separate things.  These two versions of the story are linked.  They're almost like alternate realities....

Which might be the key to my solution.  What if I wrote these as conjoined novellas?  One book, two linked stories.

It might work, it might not.  The noir version is a play. The cozy version, if I were to stay true to my thoughts on that, is longer and wanders more from the original premise. Furthermore I feel like it would set up a series.  Should I go ahead and do that? Or should I write it more as a reflection of the play?

No matter what I do with it, it's way down my priority list right now.  I've got too much else to do. (Heck, I've thought often about just writing an adaptation of the noir play, to force myself to abandon thoughts of another series.)

But still, I do feel a spark at the thought of the twin novellas. And a part of that thrill is doing something that seems, at first glance, an impossible problem.

See you in the funny papers.


Ryan King said...

So are you thinking of actually writing some of these stories twice and releasing them both?

The Daring Novelist said...

Just the one - which would be a paired telling of two versions of the story.

MOST of the time, writing a different version of a story would result in a different book. No problem. It's just two books on the same theme, and that's something we all do all the time.

And for things like Mick and Casey, I would never ever violate the reality of the timeline by shifting it into an alternate version. But as I was trying to say above, by playing with ideas from outside the reality of the series, I might come up with some interesting things to use within the series.

And, of course, as I said in yesterdays post, I do look forward to writing some of the overlapping events of Misplaced Hero from another point of view.