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.