Variations On A Theme - Debbie Bennett

Writing teachers in classes and books often claim that there are only five/seven/nine/pick-a-number of unique plots and that everything else is just a variation on a theme. Take West Side Story as a rather famous example of the re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. Dissect these and we have a classic romance in boy meets girl, they fall in love, overcome obstacles and live happily ever after. Except they don’t, of course, which makes the latter one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. But the “happy ending” in both cases is the hope for the future – that the warring Montagues/Capulets and Jets/Sharks will overcome their differences.

Retelling old stories is nothing new. Ever since the Bible, we’ve been reinventing different ways of saying the same thing. Even before the written word, we were sitting around campfires listening to stories that had been handed down through generations. Stories that told us who we were, where we’d come from and how to survive. The Brothers Grimm brought us “fairy tales” that were really quite gruesome in their original incarnation and most definitely not suitable for children and these were supposedly from German and French folk tales. Everything has been done before, in one shape or form – the trick is keeping it fresh with a new twist for a modern audience.

I’ve been writing since I was at primary school, and as I’ve said in an earlier blog, my subject matter tended to reflect whatever I was reading at the time. But I’ve noticed over the years that there are a couple of themes that run through almost everything I write, whether it be fantasy or crime; when it comes down to it, crime and fantasy are the same thing anyway, in my opinion – good versus evil – just played out against a different background. But what happens when good isn’t always that good? Or when evil understands you better? This is something that has always fascinated me. I have a YA fantasy (that almost got picked up by a traditional publisher some years back) titled Edge of Dreams that I’ll be putting up on kindle soon, which has a tagline: What do you do when you realise that the bad guys might care more about you than the good ones? It sums up the novel for me. Our lives are defined by the choices we make, but who determines which are the right choices? In my kindle thriller Hamelin’s Child, the line between good and evil becomes blurred and it becomes hard to see which side is which. Or put it another way in my writing, nothing is ever quite what it seems on the surface.

The other less philosophical theme running through many of my novels and short stories is far more straightforward: people who go missing. Whether that’s due to kidnap, sidestepping into other worlds or realities, into dreams or life-after-death, it’s all about the repercussions of being somewhere or something else, which isn’t necessarily where the character wanted or hoped to be. It’s surprising how often I see this – I’ll write a short story that on the surface is about something else entirely, but when I read it back, I’ll see that theme pop up again in some guise or other.

I’m not sure what any of this says about me as a person! If I ever see a psychiatrist, he’ll have a field day, but I guess that’s true for all writers. Our day job and/or hobby is essentially telling lies and making the reader believe them. If it helps, I had a wonderful normal childhood with two parents and a brother. I went to school and university and got a job in the Civil Service. I’m also a room sponsor at Centrepoint – a London charity that gives homeless young people the stability they need to make a life for themselves. Given the darker side of some of my writing, it seemed the right thing to do.


Interesting what you say about the content of your writing, Debbie. I've written a few nasty horror stories in my time - even managed to win the Grotesque Readers' Award a few years back! - but lately have felt a need to deal with more spiritually uplifting themes.

My new children's series (which won't be available in e-format for a while, since it is coming out in hardcover first) is a Grail quest. I am hoping it will be good for my soul...
Dan Holloway said…
This is a good time to point out that Words With Jam has extended the deadline for its "new plot" competition to tomorrow - basically, come up with something not covered by those 7 all-encompassing plots.

"What happens when the bad guys understand us better?" is a great way of expressing a really important theme - so often artists and cultural and political commentators alike put the simplistic "they don't really understand you, they just pretend to for their nefarious ends" gloss on things, and when we oversimplify something so complex, we lose the battle - and the people - before we start. We only have to look at the portrayal of gang culture to see this in action. If we start from the "they don't understand you - we do! - they're just wheedlingb their way in" supposition, we've lost the battle before we start. Which is why we need artists who dare to go beyond that (because our politicians won't) - they're 20 and 15 years old respectively but has anyone surpassed John Singleton's Boyz N The Hood and Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine on this front? Where's the truly great piece of art tackling the issue in the UK - I guess we have James Kelman's Booker longlisted Pigeon English - I bet it's shortlisted today because of its topicality.

On a less topical note, it's precisely this theme that fascinates people about the Hannibal Lecter books.
Debbie Bennett said…
Hannibal Lecter? I'd never made that connection, but you are right. The suave & sophisticated villain has become such a cliche in fiction and films over the years, but what if the bad guys really are nicer than the good guys?
Susan Price said…
Define your terms! Define 'good' and 'evil'. Define 'nice people.'
Fred West claimed to love his children. Define 'love'. Define 'love' as used by Fred West.
But interesting post!
Dan Holloway said…
Yes, exactly, Deb - that was my pount about gang culture - portrayed as being unequivocally "bad" yet offering an ear, a sense of community, and often very practical and very real help to people turned away by all the so-called "good guys". And even Lecter - in the end he and Clarice end up together, of course - I don't think "nice" is relevant but he certainly provides a home for her when the whole world has rejected her.

Sue, I think that's the point Deb's making - that those words are oversimplifications and one of our duties as writers is to tackle the surface meanings and give them nuance through real and imagined lives
Pauline Fisk said…
I'm interested in the idea of going missing too, Debbie. Many of my books take up this theme, especially Mad Dog Moonlight, The Red Judge and Sabrina Fludde, where children get caught up in myths and legends - and the passage of three rivers - to retrace their past and discover who and what they left behind.

Interested in the 'evil' that cares more than the 'good' does, too. Long John Silver immediately comes to mind.

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