THE TWIST (new spins on old stories)

James R. Tuck
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Hey hey everybody, nice to see you, glad you could come out. Drinks are in the back,be sure to tip your waitress, she works hard for the money.

I’m James R. Tuck, author of the Deacon Chalk series from Kensington, and I’m the new guy.

I’ve been here before. Faith has been ever so kind to me and allowed me to guest post here when my series launched. I’ve lurked the comments and the posts also because this place rocks. But now, NOW, they’ve given me a key and let me hang my hat.

Muwah ha ha.

Today I’m going to talk to you about story ideas. Not where you get them, if you’re a writer then you have ideas falling out of your pockets when you sit down, but where you get good ideas. You know the ideas, the ones that make you smack yourself for not thinking of it first. An idea so terrific that it seems obvious when you hear it and has no chance to do anything but be awesome.

An idea like setting an urban fantasy in the time of the American Revolution (Thieftaker by David B. Co . . . excuse me, D. B. Jackson), giving your shapeshifter main character’s animal form its own own motivations and desires (the Jane Yellowrock series by Faith Hunter), or giving a redneck a big ole’ gun and letting him hunt monsters (the Bubba The Monster Hunter series by John Hartness).

All these examples have the TWIST.

The Twist is the thing that gives the story idea a hum, an electricity. It takes the basic idea that has been done to death and makes it sing. You get it by looking at things in a new way. Let’s go through my examples above and I’ll show you three ways of looking at your story idea to give them a zing.

Setting: How many occult detectives are in urban fantasy? A lot. Heck, I write one of sorts. Some stand out, a lot of them don’t. By taking the concept of the occult detective and putting it in a new, different setting, one you haven’t found an occult detective in before, David B. Co . . . excuse me, D. B. Jackson has breathed new life into the concept. And the setting informed many of his decisions in the character, the plot, and the style of his writing which makes Thieftaker shine.

Take your idea and give it a new setting, put it somewhere you haven’t seen it go. Want to write vampires but they’ve been done to death? What if you took your vampires and put them in space? How would they cope with an environment that never has a sunset on a planet with two suns? (Wait, I might just use that.) How would they cope and hunt in the wreckage of a deep sea station since they do not need to breath and there is no sunlight to stop them? How would they fare against mutated shark people? See the wheels are turning. Okay, on to:

Character: Shapeshifter stories have bee DONE. We have had people turning into animals in our stories since we used fires to heat our caves. What Faith Hunter did in her Jane Yellowrock series was make the animal form of Jane its own sentient character, a fully formed character that has her own history, desires, and motivations. Beast acts on her own and sometimes that causes conflict with Jane that we can’t get enough of.

When we write characters we usually fall to archetypes. The lone gunman, the outsider, the knight in shining armor, the bad boy, the hooker with a heart of gold, etc…. these exist for a reason in storytelling but if you can make your character something more, give them a depth that goes beyond the same old same old of the archetype, then you have struck writing gold. Examine your characters motivations and their goals, then find something inside them to conflict with that. Faith did it by personifying Jane’s animal side into Beast but you can do it by identifying what your character is and then incorporating the opposite. Writing a knight in shining armor, make his good deeds be an act of penance for a horrible sin in the past. What if your fay girl had to take a job in a junkyard to stay alive? What if your angel of poetry had to kill someone? Why would they do that, how would they do that, and how would that affect them? Next up:

Situation: Now this isn’t plot, that’s the topic for another post. This is the situation, or the conceit, of your story. It’s the hook that sinks in a readers mind and keeps them thinking about your story until they HAVE to read it. John Hartness did this in his Bubba series. Monster hunters are really a dime a dozen in urban fantasy. I write one, you write one, heck everybody writes one. John chose to make his monster hunter a redneck and used that conceit to inform his story telling choices. The set up allows him to explore a fresh perspective on the concept of monster hunting and even the monsters themselves. It also give John the ability to use his humor, a tool that he swings with a high skill level.

So what if your school teacher character decided to teach monster children to read, to enlighten them so that they would love humanity and then not hunt them down? What if your police officer fought crimes against monsters, defending them from hunters? What if your dragon character really needed to find a virgin in this day and age?

If you take the core pieces of your story (setting, character, and situation) and make them go places they don’t normally go you will find yourself discovering a new, fresh idea. This new way of thinking also will lead you to a plot you never saw coming.

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16 comments to THE TWIST (new spins on old stories)

  • Hey James, welcome! Glad to see they brought you onboard, too! And thanks for the praise for Bubba. He’s just a redneck trying to get along in the world. With a BIG pistol. And a BIG shotgun. :).

    But I totally agree with you on the TWIST. It’s essential to breath life into old stories nowadays, and let’s face it, a lot of our stories are old. Everybody here on MW has some type of awesome twist in their stories, including Deacon Chalk, who’s mostly a run-of-the-mill tortured monster hunter, until you see the kindness with which he interacts with the people around him. That’s when we start to care what happens to the big lug. When I’m talk to people about their stories, and I do the same thing when I talk to people about character development in theatre, I always start by telling them to figure out everything about the character, then spin one piece of it a few degrees out of whack. All the best characters have something about them that we haven’t seen before, and that’s what keeps readers wanting to dig into the stories. Everyone wants to see if Bubba will shoot his way out of this one, or if he’ll use his charm (hint, his charm doesn’t see a lot of use). Everybody wants to know if Jane will give in and let Beast free on whoever is annoying her this time. Everyone wants to know to what lengths Deacon will go to protect the people he cares about. And a lot of the fun for me is playing in those twists.

    Great post, brother. See you soon!

  • Great to see you here, James. Please don’t make extra copies of the key, and when you’re done, remember to turn off the lights — don’t want them on all weekend long . . .

    Thanks very much for the kind words about THIEFTAKER — D.B. and I appreciate it. I love the idea of looking for the twist in the basic narrative elements (character, setting, situation). It’s elegant in its simplicity, and totally on the mark. I’ve actually just started reading MERCY BLADE (I know, I know, I’m a bit behind in the series) and even in the first hundred pages it was brought home to me again how the uniqueness of Jane’s character and history really makes this series work. So what would you say is the twist that makes the Deacon Chalk series click?

    Again, great to have you here; can’t wait to read more of your posts.

  • Nice to meet you, James! As for the Twist, I sometimes think of it as ordering one from Column A and one from Column B, then stirring everything together. Most of the time, you end up with glop, but sometimes, there’s a chemical reaction and a stunning new compound emerges. Now, how to make sure that I end up with more compounds than glop… :-) Welcome to Magical Words! I look forward to more of your posts!

  • sagablessed

    Welcome to the family, James!! Hope to meet you someday.
    The ‘Twist’. I think of it as using the two most powerful words in a writer’s repetiore. “What if”. Anthony Piers did a good take on this in his series with Time, Gaia, and so on. What if the gods were humans who took on those roles for a limited time?
    As to old stories: Campbell said it best (here I paraphrase and modify). There are X number of real story-lines, the catches are the differences in how they are told.

  • John- Thanks for the kind words. You’re right, just the one thing turned sideways makes the rest of the story have to adjust around it, giving you freshness.

    David- Glad to be here. It’s GREAT company!

    Mindy- Nice to meet you too! Writing is a lot like cooking. A pinch of this here, a dollop of that there and viola! you have a tasty dish. It’s good to see you here I STILL love those covers (like the one on FRIGHT COURT)

    Sagablessed- “What if” are the two most powerful words in a writers toolbox. The key to all the potential in the world.

  • Jaaaaaaaames! I am totally happy to have you here! I think the lineup of talent at MW takes us to new levels and gives us all sorts of power. We rock! LOL

    As to *twist* yes! When I was coming up with Jane, I knew I wanted a character who was different. It took a while to get Beast’s voice right, and it still continues to evolve, but when it worked, it was indeed twisty! I always like mixing cooking ideas with writing ideas. In this case, it gave me braided bread with a dash of hot pepper. And fangs. (rolls eyes)

    Anyway, so very happy to have you here with us. WHOOT!

  • Welcome, James. Good to have you with us.

    Now… leave my modern day dragon alone. Done (and published) that one already! :-)

    I love the way you describe the Twist (although I was kinda hoping for a little hip action – hush, Misty!). Taking that one element and turning it on its head is what we all hope for when we pick up a book, and when we sit down to write one. And yes, that one different thing so often can change the whole course of the story.

  • Razziecat

    Hi James! Great post! This could be just the thing I need to get some of those simmering ideas off the back burner…yesssss…. ;)

  • James – Thanks for the kind words about the FRIGHT COURT cover! The artist is wonderful — especially important to me because I can’t draw stick figures!

  • Hi James! Love this post, and it really got me thinking . . .

  • HI James! Welcome to the madhouse. Very nice post. Makes me think a bit about what I’m working on.

  • Sorry I was away most of the evening and am just now getting to respond.

    WOW! Thanks for all the comments. I’m glad this post helped.

    and two things:

    David- I missed your question earlier so here’s the answer: Deacon’s twist is his absolute faith in Catholicism married to his death wish motivation. I don’t hold back on either so you may have him praying the rosary in one chapter and shooting someone in the face in the next.

    Sagablessed- I’m doing a ton of conventions this year (hopefully Con Carolinas again!) so hopefully we can meet!

    To everyone else, thank you and have a great weekend!

  • wrybread

    Welcome James, if this post’s anything to go by yours will be a voice I’ll want to listen to in the weeks and months to come! Also another autograph I need to add to my copy of the MW book.

  • This is indeed my voice. Plus y’all get the benefit of the fact that I’m currently making a conscious effort to up my game and my wordsmithing.

    Glad to be here, see you in a month.

  • Hi, I know I’m late. i love a great twist in the story. Claudia Grey has a nice twist in character in the novel Evernight, where none of the characters are what they seem. Patricia Briggs does it well in her Mercy Thompson books with Mercy and the plot lines in all the books so far.

    And I am definitely a fa of yours now from your very first post on here and haven’t looked back since. Welcome.