One of the most consistently baffling discussions I heard while in Journalism school in college was the complaint that there were no new stories, that movies and books essentially were just rehashing the same story over and over again. These people bemoaned the lack of creativity and of innovation in the realm of storytelling and used this ‘fact’ as a reason to discount any narrative that resembled another book or movies. I never quite understood the merit of this argument.
On the one hand, I can agree with their assertion that there are very few truly new narratives that are created. However, I don’t see that as indicative of some great decline of modern day storytelling, not by itself. As an adherent of Joseph Campbell’s view that myths are recurrent and universal (see The Hero with a Thousand Faces or The Power of Myth), I often see common threads in the movies I watch or the books I read. Innately, we are all drawn to similar stories, things that challenge our perspectives or reinforce our beliefs. In general, we love to see the hero win, the dark enemy fail, the lovers consummate their romance, and the end result fall into the balance of good over evil. Occasionally, we like to be challenged, for tragedy to tinge the outcome or for failure to be a form of winning in and of itself. We always love these stories, even when they are repeated, for they reinforce an instinctual longing in us. I can listen to any number of orchestras or choral groups perform Orff’s Carmina Burana and it is usually just as invigorating as any other. The re-interpretation does not disturb me.
Now, I do have favorites and that’s where the evaluation of craft comes into play. There is nothing wrong with re-telling a story. The true test is whether the craft used to create it is good. As an example, let’s consider the Star Wars trilogies. Both tell essentially the same story: a young boy (Luke / Anakin) meets a wizened tutor (Obi-Wan / Qui-Gon) and is inducted in a new world. They overcomes trials and make allies after suffering a horrible tragedy (death). In the end, they defeat their adversary and are transmuted in the process (Luke becomes a Jedi, Anakin becomes Darth Vader). I doubt anyone would argue that the original trilogy -ostensibly the story of Luke Skywalker- was the better trilogy of movies. That was purely a result of superior craft. The true tragedy of the Star Wars trilogies is that the Prequels could have potentially been the more innovative and compelling story. While Star Wars is a very close match for the mythic journey described by Joseph Campbell -very traditional, yet very enjoyable- i think that the Prequels could have made a more interesting interpretation of Campbell’s proposed ‘hero’s journey’.
The tale of Anakin could have –should have!– been far better, even taking into consideration that the audience already knew what was going to happen. I have my own ideas about what the prequel trilogy failed to do and how I would have made it a different tale, but that’s not the point of my words today. Many critics say that the Prequels could never have succeeded because we all knew that Anakin would become Vader, that knowing the end result sullied the journey. I think this is incredibly short-sighted. Predestination can be a powerful narrative tool. Some of the most incredible pathos can be attained through struggling against one’s destiny, of the decisions one makes, even if they prove futile. becoming a hero is never easy, but when your fate is unknown, as with Luke, it is simply a matter of making the best and most moral choices. However, maintaining your heroism in the face of inevitable dissolution, as with Anakin, is far more interesting. Few people on this Earth are purely and totally ‘good’. We all have dark sides (no pun intended) and seeing someone struggle against their darker nature and squeeze something good out of something evil is uplifting in its own right. Now, what we got was far short of that, but the idea still stands on its own.
As I write my novel, I’ve been considering both of these things: innovation and the nature of heroism. I’ve chosen to write a novel in the Steampunk genre. The mix of hedge technology and classicism is intriguing to me. However, there have been a ton of Steampunk novels published in the last decade or so. My task is to create something new and innovative. To tell my story in such a way that all of those familiar components of the genre seem new and fresh. In the spirit of disclosure, this has been one of my biggest demons in the last two decades of suppressing my calling. Is my voice good enough? Is my vision something new, something that needs to be told, needs to be heard? Or am I rehashing a tired story? It’s no secret that I hold no love nor respect for Stephanie Meyer or her abominable vampire novels, but what’s worse to me is that her tapping into the young adult market not only spawned the Twilight series, but an endless parade of clones. However, is that bad? Sure, Twilight might be the one of the worst affronts to the empowerment of young women in existence, but that’s not to say that the door it opened didn’t also allow a few truly good novelists and their creations to see the light of day. Twilight was a horrible story in my opinion, but if people retell it in a way that improves upon it, that tells a better story, then we ultimately have a net win, yes?
So, forward I go with my Steampunk novel, hoping to avoid it becoming a Twilight. I’m treading in the footsteps of a number of very successful authors with some exceptional voices. I feel my vision is significantly different than theirs, that the story I am telling will appeal to a slightly different audience, but we shall see. For now, I’m focusing on the story and how I am telling it. I just hope I can live up to my won expectations.