Why Re-Tell Old Stories?

writing quill

Today I want to talk a bit more about why I’m re-writing someone else’s story. The fact is, for centuries — millennia, even — this is the way storytellers learned their craft. They retold stories that had already been told many times. Why? Because the stories themselves were sound — they had survived the test of time — so the writer could concentrate on the telling of the story, not the plot. And, in doing so, he could draw out his own meaning from the events he recounted. This, after all, is what why people love stories — entertaining though they may be, ultimately they tell us something about life. At least, the better ones do.

It’s comforting to know that I’m learning novel-writing in much the same way that Homer and Vergil, Shakespeare and Milton did. But, unlike most of those literary beacons, however (Shakespeare excepted), I’m not retelling a story of hoary heritage or great literary value — I’m simply rewriting a cleverly-plotted, century-old murder mystery.

Why I wanted to try this

So, there is a solid literary precedent for re-telling stories that have already  been well-told. But the precedent is based, for the most part, on “great books,” stories that deserved to be immortalized. But what about re-telling a story that was never more than a popular entertainment to begin with? Doesn’t that show a lack of imagination?

I’ll admit, this last question gave me pause. I’ve been working on a couple of novels of my own for some time now. One, a science fiction novel, went through several drafts before I decided that the plot just wasn’t working. I put it away for a year or two and worked on other projects while my sci-fi novel “rested” and my unconscious mind went to work re-imagining it. My other novel project was very different, a contemporary story about a woman trying to re-imagine herself, after a series of unforeseen calamities derail her life. Since this story draws on my own experience to some extent, I didn’t want my protagonist to be a thinly fictionalized version of myself, nor the novel to be a  “therapeutic” story that allows me to work through my own life’s challenges. At any rate, working on these two projects has made me a little too anxious about getting the plot right, and as a result I had pretty much stalled out, creatively.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun editing other writers’ fiction — an excellent practice for any writer — and showing them how they can make their own scenes work more effectively, or how they can bring out added depths of their characters, has stirred up my own creative juices. So I found myself wishing I could just write a story without having to figure out all the plot elements ahead of time. But no one was going to hand me a plot and say, “Go to it! Turn this plot into a novel. Make these characters live on the page” — or were they?

I needed a collaborator, someone who could provide a workable storyline that I could work on and make my own — so I decided to borrow a plot and a cast of characters from a writer who wasn’t using them any more. I began scouring the lists of novels from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that are now in the public domain and out of the memory of today’s reading public. (I say a bit more about this in an earlier post.) Once I had found a story that seemed to suit my purposes, I got started and, at this writing, I’ve already written about 15,000 words of my first draft.

Writing for myself, for readers, and for other writers

My aim is two-fold: first, to practice writing fiction, using the narrative techniques popular in commercial fiction today: a narrative perspective close to that of the lead character(s), succinct dialogue that mimics natural speech, careful characterization, etc. These are things that readers today expect and enjoy, but these techniques were not often used in popular fiction a century or so ago. So, in one sense, I’m engaged in a technical exercise. But I hope my re-written story will be more than a very long practice piece — I want to write something that people today will read and enjoy. My plan is to publish the book myself (and perhaps a couple more like it later) and see if I can find readers who want to read more of my work.

Since I’ve actually begun working on my first “twice-told tale” (its working title is Mr. Tracey Investigates, in case you’re interested), I’ve begun to think of a third motive for this exercise — in addition to working through some of the technical challenges that every novelist faces, I want to talk about the techniques that writers need in their toolboxes and demonstrate specifically what I’m doing to cast an old story into a modern narrative idiom. That’s something that I hope will be of interest to other writers. As I’ve learned in my editing practice, many new novelists struggle so much with getting the plot right that they run out of energy and enthusiasm before they get around to perfecting key writing techniques, such as point-of-view (POV), showing-not-telling, dialogue, and other techniques that take a writer from apprentice-level to journeyman-level competence.

If you’re a writer and would like to see how this exercise pans out, you can subscribe to this blog and receive each new post by email (if you’re not a WordPress.com member) or in your WordPress Reader. I plan to discuss all the challenges I encounter as I try to turn another writer’s plot into a story of my own: finding depths in the characters, deepening POV, writing dialogue, tweaking the story, et cetera. (See my post on how renaming the characters helped me start to get a feel for them as “living,” albeit fictional, people.)

Leave a comment to tell me what you think about my little experiment so far. Readers, let me know what you think makes for a great story — is it the plot? The characters? The pace? Scenic description? Writers, which writing techniques do you find hardest to get a handle on? What do you do to improve your own  grasp of the craft of writing?



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