Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Same Notes Over and Over

Playful graphic interpretations of vocalizations in
“Messa di Voce” by Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman
with Jaap Blonk and Joan La Barbara.

First, I was driving in my car the other day. I don't often drive, let alone by myself, so this was one of the times I actually had some time to turn up the radio and listen to whatever I felt like listening to. A song came on that got me practically dancing in my seat - a mix of rap and metal and pop. It was fantastic!

Then, I was playing Guitar Hero with my husband, and a question occurred to me as I pressed the same four keys over and over again: what makes it possible for only a few notes to be turned into something amazing?

The song in the car was very repetitious - the same phrase played to the same rhythm, completely predictable, yet so catchy I wanted to listen to it a hundred times over. Guitar Hero lets you play the bass or guitar lines to a variety of songs using only four or five keys. Writing is the same way. We have only 26 letters to work with, and if you ask me, only so many stories to tell over and over. I've always believed that there's only a set amount of plots, and they've all been told before no matter how you structure or tell a story - at its roots is the same ideas retold time and time again.

Yet, somehow, in the hands of a good writer, the same story can be turned into something incredibly unique, something that gets me dancing in my seat.

I'm currently working on a novella that feels to me, cliched and overdone, but I'm telling myself that this story has never had my voice to it, and because of that, it can be something lovely and different. I'm using some notes that people are familiar with, and readers may expect certain things from what I'm doing, but I'm having a lot of fun twisting it all up.

So, I guess my point here today is that we should never shy away from a story idea that feels like everyone else has already done it. I used to think we should. Reinventing the wheel seemed like the only option for a long time.

What stories have you read lately that use the same "notes", but manage to hide it so well the story seems like something new that's never been done before?

Also, don't miss my post over on Innocent Flower today for Master the Shorts week. Davin is guest posting for me, and it's something you don't want to miss!


  1. This is something that often freezes me up when I write. If you don't already know, I tend to be drawn to the more mundane parts of life. To me, it's a beautiful thing to see the emotion in the ordinary. But, I often fear that it's TOO ordinary. I'll still write it because it's what I want to write. But, I worry that no one will want to read it. I have to remind myself often that my unique point of view can bring new life to an ordinary story.

  2. Yes! It's all about execution. Check out the video linked on my blog here.

    Stephen King writes about the draw evil has for even fundamentally good people. He writes about it over and over. And I still love it.

    John Irving writes about young men surrounded by powerful women, but absent fathers. And I still love it.

    I'm just starting to realize that I might not have to write about something COMPLETELY different in my next novel...

    (And, my book prize arrived! My daughter said she didn't want to read it -- new things are scary -- until she saw the illustrated pickles. Aw yeah.)

  3. I think some of it has to do with timing. Combining familiar elements in a way that is very NOW--like putting together a few vintage pieces of clothing from past decades in a totally 2010 combination (sorry, been reading too much Glamour) feels fresh even though the PARTS are just a bunch of old stuff that's been done before.

    Same for music, same for literature. Also, fashion aside, I think sometimes a work of art resonates with a viewer/listener/reader because it strikes a harmony with how he/she is feeling or what he/she needs right then.

    And of course, execution, like CKHB said. And as Davin mentioned, a unique POV with marvelous execution can make the most mundane things extraordinary. Like in a haiku or something.

  4. As a semi professional musician and a "writer" I know exactly what you are talking about. For me when playing a song that I know is yet another four chord masterpiece I don't look at the song as a whole as new and invigorating. Usually it's just a piece a short phrasing, a bridge, or even going flat instead of sharp that keeps the song interesting to me.

    Same with writing, they say there are only three main stories to write which some have expanded into nine.

    Whenever I write one of those stories I don't look at the whole as a new voicing but some little trick buried inside. Something that tilts the mainline.

    Going flat instead of sharp.

  5. Consider the kaleidoscope. A few bits of colored glass, some mirrors and light. Ah, but the infinite beauty if it's kept in motion.

  6. Based on your theory, isn't every story we read the same "notes", just hidden "so well the story seems like something new that's never been done before"?

    It's all, at least in my opinion, in the execution of the story. If it's executed brilliantly, in a new fashion - bravo. If it's executed poorly, in too similar a fashion - boo, hiss!

    It's up to us, as writers, to put our unique spin on stories that have been told over and over again.

    Great post, and love the analogy with music.


  7. I wish I had an answer! I'm going to have to go pick up a few good books to read. =)

  8. I don't think about originality at all. I have strong doubts that it's important as a storyteller. Right now I'm reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and at about 100 pages in, I haven't seen anything "new" or "original" in the story, yet it's still really good. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is a retelling of the very old "Tristan and Isolde" myth that has inspired almost every tragic love story ever written. Anyway, original premises are never original and the idea of originality there is meaningless. What I think gives meaning to fiction is the angle from which a writer views the events of the tale, and the angles at which she shows the tale to the reader. Those angles belong to us individually as writers; what we see in the events we relate is what we give to our readers, not the events themselves.

    It's no secret that I am reimagining Shakespeare's "Hamlet." What's important and interesting about my novel is not any idea of "twisting" the story and making it "modern," but rather it's the things I have seen within the story that I am pulling forward and showing at new angles. It's the way I am using this old tale--that Shakespeare got from Kyd who got it from Bellefloret who got it from Saxo who got it from who knows where--to illustrate ideas of my own about human conduct.

    Everyone has done something difficult and succeeded or suffered and been changed by it. But it's how we choose to discuss those universal events that makes them into "The Odyssey" or "Ulysses" or "The Lord of the Rings" or "Lord of the Flies" or "Harry Potter" or "Dirty Harry" or "Little Women" or "Women in Love" or "The Three Musketeers" or "The Three Little Pigs" or whatever.

  9. Davin: I must say that you are one of the most amazing writers I've met that's able to turn the mundane into something extraordinary. In fact, I don't even think of your subjects as mundane at all. You're that good.

    Carrie: Oh, I'll have to go look at the video. Yes, King does do the same thing over and over, but it doesn't matter. It's always good! And it's because he does it different most of the time.

    See, you don't have to write completely different things for each novel. If it works, it works. Like Scott says so eloquently below, it's how you do it.

    Yay for your book! I'm so glad she's not screaming at it. :)

    Genie: Cool analogy with fashion! I like that. And you're right about the art form striking harmony with different readers. Some authors do amazing things, but I don't really care for their writing. We're all different.

    We should have a haiku day over here...

    Brandon: I love that you get this. I like how you talk about the bridge or a flat or a sharp note. Those tweaks are what make something unique.

    Chuck: A kaleidoscope, yes! And like one of us talked about yesterday, I think, in the comments, movement or motion can be everything.

    Scott M. Yes, I think every story is the same notes, just like ever painting has basic colors. Hehe, I'm still laughing at your boo, hiss. :)

    Carolyn: I don't think there really is a right answer, if that's what you mean, but it's fun to think about books that might be retelling the same things over and over.

    Scott B. I like how eloquently you put this. I think many new writers get sucked into the Big Idea approach and think that the idea is more important than the execution, that if they have some brilliant new world or character, that how they tell the story isn't as important.

  10. I don't have an answer to the question, but I like this entry because as I've had story ideas, recently, I have almost immediately told myself, "Ech. Been done."

    I've known forever there are no new ideas and it's all in the way you write it, but there's something about NOW now that's making me forget. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  11. Michelle: The longer I write, the more I realize that I saw everything backwards when I was just starting out. What I saw as insignificant then is now where I put most of my attention, and what I saw as vital is what I tend to care little about now. It's all been inverted.

  12. Scott, that's interesting. I think I'm getting to that point more and more. Upside down. I'm a possum.

  13. Inside: I'm really glad this could be a good reminder. I have to remind myself of this all the time!

  14. Same notes, and also same chord structure. Have you seen that video where a group sings many different songs over the same chord progressions? Hilarious.

    Even in Classical music, we often think of music written between the Baroque period till late 19th century as a pull away from and back to Home, Tonic. The dominant functions, in this scheme, as the establisher of Tonic, as well as a step away from it. Follow that with the V of V or Dominant of Dominant, and you get all manner of variations on this basic structure.

    Also, possums are cute.

  15. I had also thought I needed to come up with an original idea when I first started to write. I don't think my novel idea is very original anymore, but I think I've added a perspective that is unique in a culture nobody wants to think about.

    Thats the important key to good story writing I think.

    I've started reading the Sookie Stackhouse series, and its your basic vampire novel. But the author writes it so well, with enough modern terms places, that it is very captivating. I love how she uses some old traditions and makes them feel unique.

    Great post Michelle. I'll have to go check out Davin on your blog too.


  16. I think it is easy to forget that some stories have been told over and over and over because they are timeless. They have existed centuries before us and will exist centuries after us. They mean something to us as human beings. That is where we get our myths. Our legends. It is tempting to think that we might be that one person who breaks the mold and does something different but that would be defeating the purpose. Stories are told because they connect us to each other with the things we have in common. Execution can be important but there are so many differing opinions on what a 'well executed' story is. The important thing is taking a story based on what you've seen and heard and passing it on.

  17. There's a lot of freedom in accepting that everything's already been told. Then I don't have to worry about inventing a plot that's extraordinarily original. Only my voice has to be original.

  18. Yat-Yee: I haven't seen that video, but it sounds fantastic! Yes, possums are cute, especially upside down. ;)

    Donna: I don't think original ideas really matter all that much. I like mundane ideas told in a magical way.

    Taryn: I like your comment, thank you! The important thing is passing on what is important to us, yes, and I think if we execute it in the best way we know how, we've accomplished something great.

    MG: Yes, it's freeing, isn't it? I agree!

  19. I don't have much to add to the already great comments that have been posted, but this post was really well done. I really like the analogy of notes and you're right how the same notes can make up something wonderful, if done right. I like that!

  20. I read somewhere that all Russian fairy tales, of which there are many, are all composed of about seven parts. The person said most books come from those parts. So, in a way, we are all using the same parts to build different stories.

  21. Jennifer: Thank you for your comment!

    Dominique: Now that's interesting! I'm intrigued by the Russian fairy tales, and I should look into that... :)


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