September 12, 2011

stealing from stories we love

I think that for every writer, as much as we devour stories, we come across that one story, the one that speaks to us, the one we wish we had written.

A lot of writers will respond: Oh, I wish I would have written Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games because then, I’d be rich right now. Not me. Of all my favorite books, there isn’t really one that I wish I would have thought of. I love Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, but I know for a fact, that even with that spectacular idea, I never could have executed the story as masterfully as she did. The same goes with the Harry Potter series. I love the books, but I couldn’t have written them better than J.K. Rowling. Even if I took those ideas—a cursed girl stumbles upon a moving castle owned by a wizard; ordinary boy discovers he is a wizard and that he is the only person to have survived the killing curse that killed his parents—and made them as much my own as possible, my stories would still be second-rate compared to the original, if not considered plagiarism.

The only thing that comes close is the storyline for Kingdom Hearts. Something about Sora’s journey to find Kairi, and struggle against his best friend Riku in the process, just moves me. It’s not the most complex story, but at its very core, it is about friendship and the lengths one will go to save their friends. And that’s why I love the game so much.

So, even though I wouldn’t necessarily rewrite Kingdom Hearts or Harry Potter or Howl’s Moving Castle, I would take certain elements from those stories, those bare-bones story elements that are prevalent through most of fiction. And the beautiful thing about story elements is that they are entirely at our disposal.

For instance, in Kingdom Hearts, I am especially fond of the journey that Sora takes in order to find Kairi, defeating all sorts of monsters and evil things, just to know his friend is safe. Taking out the details, as I said before, Kingdom Hearts about friendship, and the lengths one will go to save their friends. Now, look at that again. Harry Potter is about friendship, and the lengths one will go to save their friends. As is Lord of the Rings, and many other stories. It is a element that can easily be worked into almost any story.

I’ve made a list of all the different story elements that I like, ones that could apply to any number of stories (mostly fantasy), and most importantly, they can apply to my stories. In no particular order:

  1. Overcoming oneself to become something greater
  2. Ordinary, unlikely, or unexpected heroes
  3. Quests
  4. Magical disguises and shapeshifters
  5. Characters who are more than what they seem, good or bad
  6. Curses
  7. Rivalry and jealousy between brothers or friends
  8. Nature magic
  9. Wizards and witches
  10. Forbidden love as a result of status or family
  11. Unrequited or forced relationships that turn into love
  12. Tragic heroes who go about things the wrong way while still having good intentions
  13. Pacts with demons, deities, or other supernatural beings

If you take a minute to think, you can probably fit two or three elements to one story, or two or three stories to one element. For instance, Beauty and the Beast employs 5, 6, and 11. Aladdin uses 2, 4, 5, and 10, maybe 13 if you count Genie. The Lord of the Rings, epic that it is, uses 1, 2, 3, 4 (the Ring), 5, 9, and 12 (probably more, but these are the ones I know for sure).

I’ll likely never write a story with all of these elements in it, but the list will probably continue to grow and change over the course of my writing and reading more books. These are the story elements I like best for now, and in a few years, this list might be three times longer, or even a few points shorter, or more detailed.

As for you, what story do you wish you had written? What story elements do you enjoy, regardless of which story they’re in?


  1. I'm with you: I know I could never have written my favorite book nearly as well as the author did. For the record, my favorite is Sabriel by Garth Nix. What I love about it so much is the suspense Nix weaves into almost the entire story. The first time I read it I was literally on the edge of my seat and actually believed the MC was going to die a horrible death on several occasions. Also, Nix did a wonderful job of working in the coming-of-age motif and even a little romance (as much romance as you can fit in when the characters are running for their lives and battling evil magic and a villainous revenant).

    One of my favorite story elements is redemption: someone deciding to take charge of his/her life and make amends for past actions. This is closely related to #1 on your list.

  2. I think what you're talking about Brooke is a very natural part of how we learn to tell stories. Most of us are told stories from the time we are kids. We remember the parts that we like best, then we see these reflected in movies and novels as we get older. So, when we start writing, it's only natural that we'll include elements of works that have become a part of us in our own. Storytellers have been doing this as long as there has been story to tell.

  3. I love mysteries, betrayals, secrets unknown quests...things like that. And I think it's great when we are inspired by books and movies we love!

  4. I steal a lot. I should be thrown in jail. The first novel I'm working is kind of reminiscent of American Gods. Another novel came from me watching my brother play Onimusha Dawn of Dreams and changing the setting/characters from feudal Japan to vaguely medieval Europe (like a lot of fantasy).

    No artist lives in a bubble. Writers steal whether it be consciously or unconsciously. We take the parts of stories that we like, and we try to repeat them in our own way. Plus, basically every story has been told already, so writers have to find new ways of telling old stories.

  5. I wish I had written The Time Traveler's Wife or The Namesake.

    Man, I wish I could write like Jhumpa Lahiri.