Crafting Story Ideas

A friend of mine is working on a novel. It is about a young lady who becomes victim to an evil experiment that gives her super powers. She has to use her super powers to protect her loved ones from villains while evading evil scientists who want to dissect her and find out what they did right. Hate to break it to her, but that is the same plot as everything from Spiderman to Deadpool, the only difference being that the protagonist is female. I don’t want to rain on other people’s works. I am sure they love the world they have created. The plot of Harry Potter existed before Harry came along, and J. K. Rowling was not entirely original either. It is how much of yourself, the author, that is projected in the work that counts.

That said, if you still have not started on your story idea, or are looking for an idea for your second novel, I implore you to think twice before starting another teen-vampire-love-story, an evil-experiment-victim-with-superpowers story, a mutant-humans-hunted-by-the-government story, or a child-secretly-heir-to-a-kingdom story. There are other story ideas out there.

Which brings me to an interesting trend I have been seeing lately. Hollywood movies are increasingly incorporating elements from Japanese manga. This is not a new development at this point. James Cameron is on record saying that he borrowed heavily from Parasyte, a Japanese manga comic first published in 1988 under the title “Kiseiju“, when he produced Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). The Wachowski brothers, admitted manga fans, borrowed heavily from the works of Shirow Masamune, particularly his best selling series Appleseed, when they produced The Matrix (1999). More recently, they are not only borrowing story elements and design elements from Japanese manga, they are adapting whole stories. Edge of Tomorrow (2014), starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, was adapted from a Japanese manga that was based on a Japanese YA novel. Ghost in the Shell, scheduled to be released in 2017 starring Scarlett Johansson, was of course a manga by Shirow Masamune again.

Interesting to think that Hollywood, whose market has extended all over the globe, has shifted to action movies like The Transformers and The Avengers because they tend to translate better for foreign audiences, but still needs to adopt new ideas from Japanese manga.

Japanese manga tend to break the mold of the Western traditions. Take Death Note for example. A highly intelligent sociopath teenager comes into possession of a magical notebook that will instantly kill anyone whose name is written on it. He uses the notebook to kill criminals and villains whom he deems worthy of death. This is certainly a new twist on the rogue vigilante genre. There is also a lot of clever wordplay involved in the work. The sociopath main character has an unusual name: “Light” which is written with the ideogram character for “moon”. As a criminal, takes on the nom de guerre “Kira”, which is based on the Japanese pronunciation for “killer” but also a short for “kirakira”, which means “sparkle” as in the sparkling of the stars.

Other stories like Attack on Titan, D. Gray-man, Project ARMS, and Fullmetal Alchemist all put a new twist on the Sci-Fi/fantasy/horror/adventure genre.

Why do Japanese stories seem more original? Because, as is evident in the wordplay in Death Note, they merge two cultures. Japanese people are just as familiar with the story of Cinderella as they are with Kobu Tori Jiisan. Even if they are not Christian, they are familiar with the Nativity story, the star of Bethlehem, and the three wise men who came to visit. Even when they have never been educated in the classics, they have a vague notion of what The Tale of Genji is all about. And of course if they are writers, they can go to the library and read about both. And they live their daily lives, and relate to their immediate families, guided by Buddhist, Confucian, and Bushido philosophies.

The mix of cultures work. Even a sports story like Slam Dunk, a tale of teenage delinquents enlisted to revive a high school basketball team, is rife with culture crash themes: A coach wields a bamboo shinai sword as he yells to his team, a team mate cannot continue his passion after high school because he pledged that he will work in his father’s fish shop after graduation. It makes the story more interesting and strangely more vivid.

Even if you are from a mono-cultural background you can read about elements of other cultures (which is an ironic thing to say when you consider how much more multi-ethnic other countries are compared to Japan). Books of ethnic folklore like Women Who Run with the Wolves and Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales can help you add new perspectives to your story making, as will Three Kingdoms and the ghost stories of Lafcardio Hearn.

You should also try to proactively mix story settings. Attack on Titan, D.Grey-man, and Fullmetal Alchemist all mix steam-punk retro-future with the horror/fantasy genre. Attack on Titan actually introduces a sort of zombie apocalypse in a steam-punk retro-future and adds an element of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. The geology and culture could also be liberally mixed. The depiction of 19th century England in these stories could look oddly like 20th century Eastern Europe, and samurai era Japan can look like an Aliens vs Predators dystopia.

There is so much instructions in print and on the internet on how to write, including story structure, plot development, and even marketing, but very little on what to write. This is in stark contrast to, say, forty years ago when all you could find on writing was either grammar or how to develop ideas. Nobody had ever heard of “brain storming” back then, and ideas either came from the books you consumed or from your subconscious. Ideas were actively developed by looking deeply into both. Or so they said.

Maybe we should pay as much attention to the ideas we develop as much as to the shape we give to the plot and structure of a generic story re-told. Truly new story ideas are rare these days. Everyone is writing a Lord of the Rings knock off. I think it is time we started adopting some unconventional elements in our stories.


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