There are no new stories: Taking a classic and making it my own
by Katie A. Nelson
I was sitting in the theater, watching an animated movie, when I had one of those mind-blowing experiences. It was the summer time and though I was a little older than most of the audience, I went to see The Lion King, excited for a couple of hours of mindless entertainment and a king sized box of Junior Mints.
About half way through the movie, around the time Rafiki found Simba and he had his vision of his father in the stars– it hit me. This was the story of Hamlet. Okay, so technically it was set in Africa and had some pretty catchy musical numbers as well, but the basic plot was the same: prince has to decide to avenge his father who was murdered by his uncle.
Once I’d made the connection, I began to see other parallels: seeing the ghost of the dead king, the childhood girlfriend (Ophelia/Nala), the former queen (Gertrude/Sarabi), the king’s advisor (Polonius/Zazu), even the hilarious Timon and Pumba had seeds in Hamlet, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. By the time the ending credits rolled and Elton John sung his last note, I was totally convinced of my brilliance and dying to share my theory with everyone around me.
We weren’t even out of the theater when I shared my theory with my boyfriend. His response: “Oh yeah. Cool.” Not exactly the reaction I had expected. Even then, I guess I was a little obsessed with stories.
What I later realized was that it didn’t matter if the story we were watching (or reading) had roots in another story. What mattered was the way it was told, and if the reader (or viewer in this case) had made a connection. And we had. We both loved it, and have since watched the movie dozens of times with our kids (Yep! I married him!) and we even attended the Broadway show.
So if there are no new stories, how does a writer take a familiar story and make it their own? Or at least make it feel new and different and compelling enough that a reader will want to experience that story, even when they know and love the original? This is a question I’ve been asked several times, as my debut YA novel is a retelling of The Great Gatsby, which most people either love or hate, thanks to decades of high school English teachers and the phenomenal team of Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio.
For writers, the first step is to analyze the classic you want to retell, and distill it down to its basic elements. What is the basic plot? Who are the characters? Where is it set? What point of view is it told from? What are the important themes?
The next step is to start asking questions. What would happen if the main character were a princess instead of a prince? What if it was set in space instead of medieval times? What if it was told from the point of view of the villain? What if? What if?
Once one element of the story is changed, others naturally follow. If a story is moved from Prohibition era New York to modern day Silicon Valley, CA, how will it be different? Will the American dream be more attainable? What would a Gatsby-scale party look like, especially if the characters are in high school? How will the female characters be different? And so the story begins to become something new, something different, something that’s yours.
And who knows? Maybe someday, someone will be sitting in a movie theater, watching your story on the screen. In DFX. And Dolby sound. Maybe that person will connect your story to the original that inspired you. Maybe that person will just eat their popcorn and enjoy the show. Either way, if you make a connection with your reader (or viewer), that’s all that matters.
Katie Nelson has always loved words and stories. Formerly a high school English and Debate teacher, she now lives in Northern California with her husband, four children, and hyperactive dog.
The Duke of Bannerman Prep
Words are weapons. Facts can be manipulated. And nothing is absolute—especially right and wrong.
Tanner McKay is at Bannerman Prep for one reason: to win. The elite school recruited him after he argued his public school’s debate team to victory last year, and now Bannerman wants that championship trophy. Debate is Tanner’s life—his ticket out of scrimping and saving and family drama, straight to a scholarship to Stanford and a new, better future. When he’s paired with the prep school playboy everyone calls the Duke, Tanner’s straightforward plans seem as if they’re going off the rails. The Duke is Bannerman royalty, beloved for his laissez-faire attitude, crazy parties, and the strings he so easily pulls. And a total no-show when it comes to putting in the work to win.
As Tanner gets sucked into the Duke’s flashy world, the thrill of the high life and the adrenaline of the edge become addictive. A small favor here and there seems like nothing in exchange for getting everything he ever dreamed of.
But the Duke’s castle is built on shady, shaky secrets, and the walls are about to topple.
A contemporary retelling of The Great Gatsby, Katie A. Nelson’s taut debut is perfect for anyone who’s struggled to survive the cut-throat world of competitive high school.
Thank you so much to Katie for writing this post. I know there are quite a few authors who are rejoicing and learning right now, reading your words and understanding your story. You’re all not alone, and your ideas have to come from somewhere! Just make sure to make it your own, and your story will find it’s place. =)
As always, a huge thanks to everyone who has participated in this feature. Your words never fall on unappreciated eyes, and we always look forward to the next piece of advice and story you’re willing to share.
We hope you have a wonderful rest of your week!