Own Your Influences
When I grew up social networking involved passing notes, pirating movies was done on VHS, and the only wearable technology was Nintendo’s Power Glove. Young Adult fiction was stuck in the choose-your-own-adventure era, cable dramas had yet to hit their stride, and streaming video was still in its infancy.
We didn’t have the options of today’s generation. Most of us watched network television. Those of us who grew up to write stories, shared a lot of the same influences.
We watched Twin Peaks and decided to start small towns of our own. We watched The X-Files and decided to start our own paranormal procedurals. We watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and decided to start our own click of monster hunters. We thought our stories were original, but so did a lot of people. Our influences were never as obscure as we thought they were.
As another generation of writers comes of age they put identical things on the page.
Ever notice how two remarkably similar stories always come out around the same time? One theory is that publishing houses, film producers, and network executives are copying off each other’s release schedules. It seems that way with movies.
“They’re putting out a volcano movie. We need a volcano movie too.”
“They’re putting out a comet movie. We need a comet movie too.”
“They’re putting out a friends with benefits romantic comedy. We need a friends with benefits romantic comedy too.”
Maybe YA publishers are just as cynical, contracting authors to copy each others stories, or maybe the similarities are the result of parallel thinking. It’s possible that two authors from the same generation, combined their influences, and came to the same conclusions. This can be a problem for an author trying to stand out from their peers.
What You Can Add to Your Influences
While some stories start as fan fiction only to evolve into their own thing, most start as fresh ideas and our influences creep in. It occurs to us halfway through telling our tale, we’re treading on someone else’s territory.
“Come to think of it my story is a lot like that episode of The Twilight Zone.”
“Wait, didn’t I see this on Star Trek?”
“Hold on a second. This is the exact same plot as the second Sex in the City movie. How do I keep ripping that off?”
This is okay. No idea is truly original. There are only so many goals for characters to have, only so many journeys a hero can take, and only so many plot lines The Simpsons haven’t used yet.
So, if your influences are bound to show up in your work, how do you make your work stand out? You make a conscious effort to realize what you’re borrowing, figure out how to wear that influence on your sleeve, and how to set your work apart.
Wear Your Influences
An awareness of your influences can be the difference between creating a ripoff or an homage. When an idea comes too easily, take a moment to examine it. You might find it was a sequence from something buried in your subconscious. Before you delete that passage, think about some ways you can alter it.
- Can you subvert audience expectations by altering a serious setup to play for laughs instead?
- Can you wink at the audience by having a character acknowledge how similar their situation is to your influence?
- Can you upgrade this sequence by bringing it into modern times?
In Screenwriting class, we were taught the time period our story takes place is as essential as the setting. Even if that time is now. Many of the stories we grew up with existed before the internet. The information age has changed the way we communicate, the way we remember things, and the way we see ourselves. Our work should embrace that.
Horror writers, like myself, struggle to pry our characters’ cellphones out of their hands. It’s easier to call for help when the police can triangulate your location. That’s why most cabin in the woods stories start with a character complaining about poor reception. Horror writers are always coming up with new ways to write cellphones out of our stories, but maybe we should be writing them in. It’s not like 9-1-1 makes our characters invincible, especially if the local sheriff’s department has a slow response time.
The way we depict smartphone users needn’t be a thinly veiled commentary on spoiled millennials. Let’s get past our acronym anger, our hashtag hate, and our emoji envy. Let’s think about how this new technology can help give our stories their own identities.
Early thrillers built around the net used it to poor effect. The camera panned along wires, zoomed out from monitors, and focused on 3D operating systems that never existed. Recently, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series has shown the information age can be just as terrifying as the Victorian era. Modern audiences no longer need the net explained to them. Brooker has the freedom to take our constant connections to terrifying conclusions.
The information age is a rich frontier for horror. I’ve written stories about what would happen if a killer had access to your social media profile, if someone’s internet implants glitched on them, and if a pair of trolls Doxed each other to death. These stories had their roots in slashers, classic Science Fiction, and revenge thrillers. I made them my own by bringing them into the present.
Set Yourself Apart
You can get away with stealing a setup, if you go somewhere else with it, but you can’t get away with stealing an entire premise.
If your goal is to write a monster story in the spirit of your influences, don’t just come up with a cool creature design and go through all the same old motions. Don’t waste a fresh freak on a hackneyed story. Send them somewhere far from the log cabins, make-out points, and the military outposts they usually frequent. Isn’t it about time a demon went to Disneyland?
I listen to a lot of geek-centric podcasts. I’m surprised by how many fan boys remember props more than plots. They praise surface features, failing to realize that characteristics are not characters. When they pitch what they want to see in the next comic book movie their ideas have nothing to do with the story. They want to see every superhero they’ve ever heard of in the same room, never mind the reason.
If you realize that the visual aesthetic isn’t the story, you’re a step ahead of them.
I grew up watching the Hellraiser movies. I loved Pinhead and his creepy cenobite companions. I see facsimiles of them everywhere: creatures with torn flesh, held open with hooks and leather. It isn’t enough to put a monster in S and M gear to get a cheap scare. What made Pinhead so disturbing wasn’t what he was wearing, it was his reason for being. Why was there a grid of nails hammered into his skin? Because he was an explorer “in the further regions of experience.”
Cool looking characters are a dime a dozen. Fancy duds aren’t what make them interesting. It’s their actions. If you give a classic archetype a fresh motivation, you can make your influences your own.
Find Influences in Other Places
We all take different things from our influences. The problem arises when audiences see uniformity in what we’re borrowing.
Find inspiration in other things. This doesn’t mean discover an obscure anime and mine it for material. It means start reading nonfiction. Look into history, true crime, and social psychology studies. Watch documentaries. Listen to the people around you. Research the human animal.
11 thoughts on “Own Your Influences”
This post is brilliant. It nails down a lot of thoughts I have about originality. No idea springs out of nowhere. Every idea is inspired by what came before. We just need a more diverse pool of influences, and understand these influence in order to make a good piece of work.
There are musicians who, despite not branching outside their genre still have a very diverse body of work. That’s because they show a deep understanding of their music, and can find new directions to take it to
You’re right, so much of this applies to musicians and other artists as well. I agree, we do need a more diverse pool of influences.
Thanks so much for your comment.
Fabulous post on the old Biblical axiom: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Again, another great post on the creative journey, Drew. Kudos.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
During a recent episode of the PBS series “Speakeasy,” novelist Michael Chabon spoke with Geddy Lee from Rush about, among many other topics, the role inspiration plays in a young artist’s development; here’s what Lee had to say: “What’s originality? Well, originality is when you have so many influences that you can’t tell which — you can’t tell them anymore; you can’t see them anymore — they’ve all melded. And as your confidence rises in your craft, your personality steps in front of those influences and that’s — that forms your voice.”
Hear, hear. (I expounded upon this notion on my own blog: http://www.seanpcarlin.com/geddy-lee/) And I echo Drew’s sentiment: Be curious. When the diversity of our interests meets the mastery of our craft, everything old becomes new again, and art is produced.
I’m eager to check out your blog post. I just followed you on twitter too.
That quote is spot on. I need to find that episode of Speakeasy. Does the show do a lot of author interviews? Thanks so much for commenting.
I think “Speakeasy” is a fairly new show; I’ve only ever watched the episode with Lee and Chabon. There’s more information on the official site: http://speak-easy.tv/
Whether you care for their brand of music or not (God knows my wife doesn’t!), Rush are a great example of a band that have incorporated all manner of musical, literary, and philosophical influences into their extensive repertoire; it’s the reason they’re still going (stronger than ever) over forty years after the release of their first album. It’s certainly the reason I continue to find renewed relevance in the material they produce.
When you think about the writers that ushered in the Modern Age of Comic Books — like Miller and Moore — those guys loved comics and knew the history of the characters backwards and forwards, but they also brought so many other influences to their work, like hard-boiled noir (Miller), occultism (Moore), and politics (both of them), for starters. They elevated and, more importantly, *advanced* the art form by nourishing it with all of those disparate influences. You look at all the different interests George Lucas cultivated that inspired the worlds of STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES, and yet how many fictional universes have been created in their wake (by others) that were *solely* inspired by SW and IJ? And you sense the shallowness when you watch them, because it’s purely regurgitation. Guys like Miller, Moore, and Lucas have VOICES; it’s the reason their work continues to inspire young artists. But, inspiration is alchemical; it’s not, as you said, about mining obscure IPs or recycling yesterday’s franchises. The good news about inspiration, though, is that it’s like solar power — renewable and free. All you have to do is be engaged in the world around you.
You have a compelling voice, Sean — well-spoken with a real sense of passion. Kudos.
That’s kind of you to say, Erik — many thanks. Drew seems to draw a lot of good, thoughtful readers to his site! I enjoy reading the conversations he provokes as much as the pieces he publishes.
I also was thinking “music” throughout my reading of this post. If you look across wide swatches of history, you might be tempted to say, “No, dub step is a far cry from chamber music! Originality definitely happened!” But if you were to look at each micro-step of that process, you would see that someone borrowed from his contemporaries and, as Sean put it, “stepped in front of that” with his own personality to create a hybrid: a quilt of the old influences with new squares of his own being sewn in. And so it goes with all art.
Drew, you had some great side suggestions — meant as illustration, but thought provoking nonetheless. For instance, there are lots of stories about demons, of course. And actually, I’ve read a fair share of horrors that have taken place in abandoned or closed theme parks. But the Disney World idea (legal ramifications aside) was an interesting one: taking the classic demon tale not into a random amusement park, but into a modern “safe haven.” I love that your mind came up with that.
This also tiptoes into the idea of collaborative art: two or more individuals with their own unique set of influences and frames of reference (some or many of which the others involved may not have had any exposure to at all) throwing ideas out and trying to meld the UNLIKE about them into something else. In the strictest sense, even collaboration then becomes a vicarious influence. But some very cool things are born into existence when people have the ability to listen, learn, grow and set ego aside for a bit. Your explanation of a thing based on your having been directly influences by X or Y then has to be INTERPRETED by me, who may not have had that direct influence. So in essence, I’m filtering your influences through my own; and where that creates friction or unfamiliarity, coolness can ensue.