Writing Week 5: All Change

Reading & Writing

It’s only been a short while that we’ve been woke to questions of gender and already the complaints have started from certain male critics. The BBC’s new version of ‘War of the Worlds’ has a pregnant female lead living sinfully in Woking as the Martians arrive. And why not? Wells was always a bit thin on the ground when it came to interesting characters (except perhaps for ‘The History of Mr Polly’), but critics are complaining about the effort of veracity that’s gone into a recreation of the Edwardian Thames Valley when a too-modern main character has been added.

When I rewrote the book for Paramount’s videogame version I set it in 1951 for very specific reasons – sandwiching it between two wars just as the original had been to benefit from the recent horrors of battle and pending fears of future invasion. The story is so familiar that it becomes a template upon which revisions can be made. It’s the kind of story you can have a little fun with. I kept genders the same because they were largely ciphers and there was no obvious need to change them.

In ‘& Juliet’ Anne Hathaway complains that her husband Will has been unfair to women in his plays, especially Juliet. ‘Why would she kill herself after only knowing Romeo for four days? He was her first boyfriend!’ So she writes Romeo out, demotes Shakespeare to a walk-on role as a coach-driver and continues Juliet’s story, adding a gay best friend. If we reimagine a creative work it doesn’t damage the original but exists beside it, not on the same shelf perhaps, but in the same library.

If you believe Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, writing is largely the act of pouring new wine into old bottles. Critics will complain that an SF novel is derivative while cheerfully ignoring the fact that boy-meets-girl is the most derivative story of all.

Yet there are stories that fit no template. I could add a list here that include Borges, Sebald etc (although not the pretentious Italo Calvino) and I can’t think of any other novel like, say, ‘Boxer/Beetle’ or ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ or ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ or ‘In Transit’ but these columns are aimed at creating talking points, not being inclusive, and besides, I’m allocated an hour a morning on the blog before each day’s work starts.

A good writing exercise would be to take a worn-out plot template and radically change it – I’ve done this numerous times, even rewriting ‘Cinderella’ as ‘The Ash-Boy’ for an anthology of revisionist fairy tales (I’ll run it here if there’s any interest).

Originality of outlook is always the writer’s key weapon. But if you adapt your writing with the times you can stay a little fresher. The alternative is becoming someone like, say, Frederick Forsyth, doomed to tell the same stories over and over.

10 comments on “Writing Week 5: All Change”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    We’ve gone grey again! Liked the black…. Boxer/Beetle is brilliant.

  2. admin says:

    Sorry – forgot. Did blog too early this morning!

  3. Ken Mann says:

    Fleshing out characters is fair enough (I’m not a fan of where Peter Harness went with this but I don’t dispute the principle), but altering the dramatic structure to make space for it seems an odd choice. Revealing character as the story developed would have been the obvious thing to do, rather than spending the first two acts stopping the story stone dead. In Wells the martians arrive by about page 2. Possibly a budgetary constraint with a desperate producer asking for fewer martians in part one?

  4. SimonB says:

    Consider this as demand for The Ash Boy to appear here!

    Changing stories from one media to another as well as adjusting their timeframe is always going to be difficult and unlikely to please the most die-hard fans/scholars of the original. But I love the way the outcomes can be so different from the source.

    Oh, and to drag the comments firmly off topic and back a week or so – not a full/tight spiral but I knew I had seen a curved escalator somewhere, Westfield Centre in San Francisco. Clicking my name should take you to a picture if I’ve got this right!

  5. admin says:

    I looked at the curved escalator. I’m wondering why so many people on it are in their underwear.

  6. SimonB says:

    By chance it happened to be pride weekend when we were in town, there were lots of people wearing (or not) all sorts of things. A few more pictures further along in the album will attest to that!

  7. Ken Mann says:

    Transport for London’s Acton Depot has the remains of the underground’s sole spiral escalator. It is unrecognisable as what it once was.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    The people on the curved escalator were in their underwear, so ir was easy to see during tests, how many crapped themselves out of sheer terror. Simple as that.

  9. JP says:

    The first essipode of many an adaptation or original screenplay nowadays takes it on trust that we, the poor benighted viewers, will give in to ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ and bare with it until the cliffhanger at the end. If only they dared to trust us and just get on with the story. If it’s survived the passage of time, I’d argue that ~ tweaks necessary for televisual visualisation aside ~ messing about with on-message meddling is not warranted.

  10. Bruce Rockwood says:

    I looked up Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots on Amazon and it looks interesting. But his books denying the climate crisis suggest he has poor judgment or a desire to be contrarian for its own sake. See The Merchants of Doubt for an assessment of what motivates these deniers.

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