Give me the same story, only different.

Present a story line that readers are very familiar with, and then you give the story a sudden and unexpected twist.

You’ve heard it before. You’ll hear it again. As far back as anyone can remember, there is an old story in the publishing and movie business about executives telling writers after a hit or a best seller has captured the imagination of the buying public: “Give me the same story – only different.”

It raises eyebrows.

It plows furrows in wrinkles attached to foreheads.

For some, it glazes the eyes and fogs the mind.

Writers have been confused and discombobulated about that statement for years.

You want the same?

You only want it different?

What does it mean, and what in the world are you talking about?

According to an old friend of mine who was a successful writer, director, and producer in the television industry, the answer is really quite simple. Frank Q. Dobbs told me, “You present a story line that the executives are very familiar with, and then you give the story a sudden and unexpected twist.”

The same holds true for readers.

As a rule, the executives aren’t creative.

Some readers may not be creative either.

You have to be.

Same mystery.

Same romance.

Same suspense.

Same fantasy.

Same reason.

Agents, editors, publishers, and particularly your readers should have a real comfort zone with the basic premise of your novel. So hit them right between the eyes with a tried and true plot, then give the idea a chance to run off in a direction where they don’t anticipate it going and where it has never gone before.

CIA thrillers have developed a solid and faithful following for generations. And everyone knows that a CIA operative – whether he’s as seedy as George Clooney in Syriana or as sophisticated and worldly wise as Sean Connery as James Bond – is out to track down the bad guys and save the world.

 

I love espionage thrillers. I’m fascinated with secret agents going where no one else dares to go. Most I’ve read are standard fare.

When I created the Ambrose Lincoln series, however, I wanted to develop a different twist. The one I chose is based on truth and hard, cold facts, kept secret for decades.

During the 1930s, our government was trying to establish techniques for mind control. Doctors used hallucinatory drugs and electric shock treatments to remap the human brain. Their subjects were from asylums, from prisons, and from the military.

In the series, Ambrose Lincoln was one of their subjects.

He was an agent or at least an operative  – long before the creation of the CIA and even the OSS – and he was the lone survivor of the experiments. The government erased his mind and all his memories.

Why?

Without a memory, he had no fear, and a man unafraid had no qualms about going places and carrying out assignments that others might not risk during a time of war.

A scene from Night Side of Dark explains it all.

The general walked to the window and watched the sun falling toward the top of a red bald mesa just beyond a stand of cottonwood trees. “Will the subject know his mission?”

“Lincoln never does.”

“Will he know the players?”

“He will recognize them when he sees them.”

“Will he know why?”

“No.” The doctor paused. He added in a soft voice, “But he may figure it out. He’s good at that.”

“Will it hurt his mission?”

“No.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Lincoln never knows on which side of reality he is living.” Dr. Wakefield shrugged and smiled a sad smile. “It used to bother him. It doesn’t anymore. He goes where he is asked. He does what he is asked to do. He returns, and we take it all away from him again.”

“Is he human or robot?” The general’s face had not changed expression.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to tell,” the doctor said.

“And you’re the mastermind who created him.”

“Sometimes, when I think about what we have done, and how often we have done it,” Wakefield said, “I think we destroyed a good man.”

It’s a new idea, and, I hope, the twist is just offbeat enough to capture someone’s imagination.

The answer is to take an ages old plot and bend it, then twist it, and hammer into something brand new. It’s the same, only different.

The twist is all about irony, regardless of the genre, and the right touch of irony in fiction separates ideas, proposals, or books that sell from those that don’t.

Please click HERE to purchase Night Side of Dark from Amazon.

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  • I think most writers are driven by trying to find the story they want to read, because they’ve either read everything their favorite author has to offer (every Travis McGee novel), or they find the books they’ve read unsatisfactory – and need to change the endings.

    I’m an optimist. Forced, because I think I tend toward pessimism (I call it realism) and it’s not healthy or helpful. I don’t like the books which leave me with a down ending – I’ve spent the whole book expecting that somehow the plot will turn around and the characters survive. Yes, there is plenty of tragedy in life and in stories. But that’s not what I want to dwell on. Because there is only so much space in my head, and real life has been tragic enough.

    I think that’s the real divide in books: is there hope at the end or not? But I want it to be a real question. I want the optimism earned.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I’ve often asked the questions: Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? I think books reflect the good and bad of our existence. I think endings of novels should express hope. But then, there is no triumph unless you first experience a sense of tragedy.

      • Oh, no question! Hope/triumph have to be earned.

        I think it’s because books are a way of living vicarious lives, and learning without having the tragedy part happen to you. But the range of possibilities – good and bad – for humans is enormous, and few people get through life with only sunshine.

        We writers push reality, sometimes VERY far, but there aren’t many well-received books which have only aliens and alien ideas in them – we’re not interested. Reading stories leads to Phew! I dodged THAT bullet.

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