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.