Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, February 18, 2014 11 comments
You hear it all the time in publishing: "we want fresh takes on what's familiar." What does that mean exactly? Readers want to be delightedly surprised, not left scratching their heads. In traditional publishing at least, there seems to be a pretty good formula for accomplishing this--take a standard plot and add a twist.

Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces gave us the monomyth--the hero's journey structure found in pretty much every adventure story from The Odyssey to Star Wars to Harry Potter. And yet as structurally similar as those stories might be, the milieus in which they are set differ radically.

Now there are plenty of other classic structures beside the hero's journey (take a gander at Story Structure Architect sometime to learn about eleven structures and 50+ classic scenarios). That idea aside, consider what I just said about creating variations. It's about setting that story in a new milieu.

Milieu goes beyond setting. It also includes the larger context of social relationships within a setting--what this particular time and place values and considers taboo, how hierarchy works and bonds are strengthened or weakened. I speak more in depth about some elements of milieu in my analysis of a novel excerpt HERE.

Just how refreshing can a change of milieu be? Check out this ragtime adaptation of a recent hit song:



(You might also enjoy their Bluegrass version of "Blurred Lines"--it doesn't make skin crawl like the original does. The group is Postmodern Jukebox. You're welcome.)

This kind of historical adaptation can be a game changer for just about any existing plot. Think about it. Star Wars is a futuristic adaptation of events in ancient Rome. What if you took a Shakespeare play like As You Like It and set it in 1920s Paris? Or ancient China? You'd have a completely different story.

If you ever take this approach, I'd suggest that you start by selecting a milieu you know well or are passionate about so that it won't be boring or agony-inducing to recreate it. From there, pick a classic story that could open up in amazing new ways in this milieu--Huckleberry Finn in space, Gone with the Wind in the Yugoslavian Civil War. You could go anywhere with this.

What are some of your favorite story retellings/resettings/adaptations? 

11 comments:

  1. I suspect I'm going to be thinking about this post for some time. I agree with you that there really aren't any "new" stories, just new contexts. And those contexts can radically alter the story line. When I read and write, I like to think about how a particular story could only work in that context/milieu. For example, I just finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha. In many ways, it's a traditional boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love story, but, of course, given the historical context the story is completely different. A re-inventing of the story--a fresh take on the old familiar.

    Great post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And there are so many milieus that have yet to be explored. Just watching the Olympics makes we want to read stories set in places like Latvia or Slovenia or Andorra. You could take the exact same basic plot and it would be quite different in the Pyrenees than in the Baltic states, just because of climate alone, not to mention how different languages shape perception.

      Delete
  2. Love this! And love love love the ragtime version of Thrift Shop! Milieu is totally a game changer. And now you've got me thinking. Hmmm . . . :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The song means something quite different in another historical context, doesn't it? And sung by a woman?

      Glad this stirred your imagination. Go forth and create!

      Delete
  3. I always like to hear a new version of an old song. Afterwards, I feel way more hip than I actually am.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think liking the alternate versions over the top-10 radio versions likely labels you a hipster. LOL. :-)

      Delete
  4. AWESOME! I'd so like to do this for my next novel, and actually have been thinking about this. Re-creating something old, re-envisioning it. Love the creativity that would be involved. So fun!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Have fun with it. There are loads of classics waiting to be retold in new settings. The historic change alone brings me lots of ideas.

      Delete
  5. Love your ideas!!! Thank you! You just gave me some great story starts! I've read The Writer's Journey - a writing book based on Campbell's hero work, but I've never read that second book. And I like the song version. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome. My hubby had been playing a bunch of these YouTube videos back to back, which got my writer mind thinking of how adaptation/ change of milieu could be such a powerful idea generator.

      Delete
  6. It took me a couple secs - Star Wars is resetting of Ancient Rome? Okay, yes, and wow!!!! I love it when I get to see something familiar in a new light. I think that's why I am utterly addicted to retellings. I recent read a take on Titanic - set in space. Whoa. I need to keep brainstorming for my perfect story retelling in a new setting!

    ReplyDelete