Every writer will have the same disparaging experience at some point in their career. (Especially if they think their ideas are super original.) It’s an experience best summed up by an episode of South Park.
In this episode Butters, an adorable social misfit, schemes to wreak havoc on the world that shunned him. He dresses all in tinfoil, takes on the alter ego of Professor Chaos, and glares down on the quiet mountain town. General Disarray, Chaos’s faithful companion, arrives with a wagon full of sticks. Chaos flips his easel and unveils his plan to build a giant shade to blot out the sun.
Chaos points to his blueprint. “South Park will forever be cast in a great shadow. Soon, all the people will have to live like moles!”
General Disarray perks up. This is a great idea, especially since he seen Mr. Burns do it on The Simpsons. Dejected Professor Chaos decides to move on to his next plan. He doesn’t want to live in the shadow of another show. Chaos crafts schemes throughout the episode and every time he thinks he’s finally found his master plan General Disarray shouts, “Simpson’s did it!” and the plan is abandoned.
Every writer who pitches their stories will hear some variation of, “The Simpson’s did it!”
When this happens you can move on, forfeit all the time and energy you spent working on your manuscript. You can choose to study the competition, warp your idea to conceal the resemblance, or you can take the third option.
Last week I wrote about why writers should press on when they discover that has written a story that drew inspiration from the same source. This week I want to talk about what you should do when you realize your story is fated to be compared to something else.
“Oh, It’s Like…” A Scary Phrase for Any Writer
Over the last year I’ve been working on a novel that I know in my heart is original, but every time I pitch it I get the same bit of feedback.
Here’s what happens. Someone asks what I’m working. I kick out my chair, spread my hands, and paint the scene.
“Noel Blackwood is a ghostwriter who’s been hired to write a scary story. Her contract requires her to stay in Oralia, the very hotel where her benefactor, Barkley Carver, claims he had run in with a demon. Now Noel isn’t superstitious. As a horror writer she knows all about the psychology that makes things go bump in the night, but when the same demon visits her in her sleep her certainty is shattered—“
It’s at this point when my listener makes the timeout gesture. “Wait. This sounds a lot like that movie with John Cusack. You know the one where the haunted hotel room tries to kill him.”
“Yeah yeah. I think it might be based on a Stephen King story.”
This happens a lot. Just imagine an animated General Disarray jumping up and down on my shoulder shouting, “Stephen King did it! Stephen King did it!” and you’ll get a sense of what it feels like.
This is where the conversation used to break down. I would veer off from my narrative, comparing and contrasting how the rules for my supernatural hotel differed from those set by Stephen King, and my listener’s eyes would be drawn back to their phone.
These days when someone makes the comparison I say, “Funny you should mention 1408. A character in my story says the exact same thing.”
Here’s an example of how 1408 comes up in my story. In this scene Noel is arguing with her mother on why she’s chosen to remain in the hotel.
Mom struggled to keep the pace. “Noelle, come on. You’re a beautiful woman. There’s no shame in letting someone take care of you until you can get your own thing going. What ever happened to the web-developer with the nice hair?”
“Ian? He cheated on me. Then he tried to open up the relationship so we could, as he said, claim a victory over jealousy.”
Mom shrugged at the floor. “Does he have any friends?”
I crushed the air in my palms. “I can make my own money, alright.”
Mom scoffed. “With a story about a haunted hotel room?” She spun around soaking the Oralia in. “Come on honey, haven’t you ever seen 1408?”
“The Stephen King movie? The one where the hotel room tries to get John Cusack to kill himself? Nope, never heard of it.”
Mom threw her hands up. “This is the exact same scenario.”
Why would I risk drawing attention to a similar story? For a few reasons. The reference is a kind of citation, a nod to Stephen King’s influence, and a promise to readers familiar with 1408 that this story will go someplace different.
This is a form of “lampshade hanging,” a technique writers use to deal with their audience’s suspension of disbelief. Writers use “lampshades” to let readers know they’re aware of their own plot holes. Sometimes writers use lampshades to assure the audience better explanations for inconsistences are coming. Sometimes writers use them to show how the characters are awared to the ridiculousness of their predicament, and sometimes lampshades are a cheap way to deflect criticism.
That said lampshades should be used responsibly. A lampshade is a device to maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief. If your story is littered with lampshades you run the risk of disengaging the audience.
There are a few lampshades horror writers should have at the ready, especially when they’re telling a story with familiar monsters.
If a character has a run in with a pale figure with blood-drenched fangs, they either a) have to have heard of vampires before or b) grown up in a bunker.
You don’t have to read any Bram Stoker to know what vampires are. Vampires are so prevalent in pop culture that characters who encounter them ought to have some clue as to what they’re dealing with. Any character that can’t identify vampires, werewolves, or zombies just defies belief.
That’s why my least favorite line in any zombie film is: “What the fuck are those things?”
Seriously, you can’t figure that out? Have you ever watched TV, played a videogame, or gone out on Halloween?
State the Obvious
The X-Files did this all time. Whenever the monster-of-the-week resembled something off the silver screen the show used a lampshade to call itself out. Even Stephen King used a one in the episode he wrote, like in this exchange between Mulder and Scully:
SCULLY: (on phone) Mulder, are there any references in occult literature to objects that have the power to direct human behavior?
MULDER: (on phone) What types of objects?
SCULLY: (on phone) Um, like a doll, for instance.
MULDER: (on phone) You mean like Chuckie?
King gets it out of the way right away. He wants to tell a scary story about a talking doll. He knows the audience has seen that before, so he throws a wink toward the obvious and establishes that what he’s doing is different.
This is why I’m not discouraged when people compare my story to something King wrote. I have the perfect tactic for handling the comparison and I stole it from him.