How Do I Make My Familiar Premise Fresh?

There are no new stories in the world. I’m sorry, but there really aren’t. Every story ever told can be boiled down to archetypes. So where does that leave the story you’re writing right now? No, not in the trash can. Don’t worry! But, it does leave you with some work to do on that story if you want it to stand out.

In the last few months, I have had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Mary, I’ve written yet another boarding-school-for-wizards story. I know it’s probably not a great idea, but I can’t just not write this novel. It has gripped me. Yet the odds seem so high against a story that’s been done and done and done, maybe to death. What do I do?”

There are a lot of stories that would fit in this category of “overdone.” A lot of them happen to be “high concept” stories, instead of, say, contemporary realism. Examples: Birthdays that bequeath magical powers. Vampires. Dystopian worlds. Time travel. Apocalypses. Schools for those kids with magical powers. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that they were trendy at one point or another, and now the shelves are full of them. And for every one that’s published, there are probably a thousand more in manuscript form that didn’t make it past the agent or editor’s slush pile.

And yet there are still extremely well-meaning writers who want to toss their hats into these crowded arenas. And that’s okay. Now, some agents will flat out say, “No vampires. Don’t even try. I don’t want to see it.” And that’s okay, too. But I’m here to say that all hope is not lost just because you want to write in a familiar category.

So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter, and standing out? Well, the devil is in the details in your case. Truly. Let’s take everyone’s favorite dead horse: vampire books. (Though it has been so long since the Twilight days that you may be able to sneak one in at this point.) The biggest mistake that people make when writing in a familiar category is that they don’t innovate. They take for granted that everyone knows the basic deal about vampires, and they don’t even think to build on that or turn it on its head.

Since you’re smarter than that, dear reader, I really want you to think about what could make your vampires, or the world they operate in, unique. And instead of being more general about it, be specific. Design all of their powers from scratch. Maybe these vampires can only recharge on the blood of those with a certain virus that makes them vulnerable. Some poor people have this virus naturally. Other unfortunates catch it. Criminals are injected with it and pawned off as vampire fodder to keep the beasts away from the more desirable members of the population. Now you have a slight dystopian tinge to your vampire story. And your protagonist, lo and behold, comes from a family tasked with keeping the vampire menace at bay. Then he’s in a terrible hovercar accident (another specific detail of the world-building) and ends up…catching the virus that makes his a prime vampire target. Now his family turns their backs on him because they cannot be seen as vulnerable, etc. etc. etc.

This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a world and a spin on the familiar vampire story. What I’ve tried to do here is come up with specific details about the world, a new twist on how vampires function, and something interesting and high stakes that will provide plenty of plot fodder for the story.

If you find yourself working on a familiar-sounding premise and worrying that it looks like everything else that has come before it, this is the thinking you must be doing. What is unique about your idea? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what world-building details will make it stand out? Don’t just have them go to the same boring classes and do the same boring training exercises. What else can be part of the curriculum? What can you bring to your chosen genre that will turn it on its head?

Don’t be lazy. Treat your vampire or wizard or love triangle or sorcery summer camp like nobody has ever heard of such a thing before. Forget everything you’ve ever known about mermaids and unleash your imagination, populating your water-based world with creatures and details and magical rules that set new boundaries. Free yourself from the conventions of the genre and take some risks.

Yes, you may have a harder row to hoe, and you may get bounced by your dream agent because they have five other similar projects already. So a certain level of psychological preparedness should happen on your end. And yes, you’ll have to take some care when pitching the project. But you don’t have to abandon ship.

4 Replies to “How Do I Make My Familiar Premise Fresh?”

  1. Your excellent vampire example illustrates how separate setting is from story. “Vampires in the future” is not a story. Neither is “preteens at a boarding school for wizards” or “wise-cracking thieves on a dirigible.” These are just settings. The actual story is about the internal and external conflicts the protagonists face.

    Your hypothetical virus-eating vampires don’t need to be vampires at all. They could be run-of-the-mill zombies. They could be aliens who abduct infected people for malevolent (or in their minds, benevolent) purposes. They could be anything, because the story isn’t about “vampires.” The story is a Bildungsroman about a privileged young man who loses everything and is forced to grow up quickly in a dangerous world.

    For a concrete example, the story of The Hunger Games isn’t “a teenage girl in a dystopian world.” The story is “a teenage girl, torn from the safety of her home and family, faces life-threatening and heart-wrenching trials under intense social scrutiny.” Collins could have put the same basic characters and conflicts in any time, any place, and it would have been just as interesting to read.

    If a writer has a story with a tired premise that she must write, she might make it more marketable by transposing it into a setting that isn’t so ubiquitous. Maybe she’s emotionally attached to the idea of a cozy British boarding school, but her wizards would suffer no ill effects if they were housed elsewhere instead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *