Recently, Italian author Elena Ferrante wrote an opinion piece entitled ‘I don’t have much faith in those who say, “Here is a truly new book”’. ‘There are no works that make a clean break with the past,’ she argues, no ‘truly watershed works’. ‘What is truly new in literature is only our uniquely individual way of using the storehouse of the world’s literature. We are immersed in what has preceded us.’
This article struck a chord with me, because recently I have been thinking about a new novel I intend to write. That means shaping in my mind new characters and a new story; but, I am aware, it also means shaping characters and a story that will sit alongside those of my previous novels. It means writing something new, and yet also reassuringly familiar for my readers and in keeping with the conventions of the romance genre.
Of course, every author wants to be original – to write a story that absorbs and entertains and inspires and surprises the reader. Yet we are all storytellers who are drawing upon a rich legacy of storytelling.
In his influential 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker argued that there are only seven core stories in existence; the bare bones upon which all novels are based. They are:
1. ‘Overcoming the Monster’ – defeating the outward or inner enemy. Example: Dracula.
2. ‘Rags to Riches’ – acquiring fortune, losing it, and regaining it as a better person. Example: Jane Eyre.
3. ‘The Quest’ – journeying through obstacles toward a goal. Example: The Odyssey.
4: ‘Voyage and Return’ – going to a strange land and coming home wiser. Example: Alice in Wonderland.
5. ‘Comedy’ – triumphing over (often comical) adversity and achieving a happy ending. Example: Bridget Jones’s Diary.
6. ‘Tragedy’ – suffering personal tragedy due to a mistake made or character flaw (from which the reader learns). Example: Anna Karenina.
7. ‘Rebirth’ – undergoing a transformation for the better. Example: A Christmas Carol.
Overarching all the stories is the idea of journey, whether physical, emotional or mental, and usually by the end of a book the main character has developed.
Elena Ferrante reminds us that: ‘Not even Homer was ever “new”.’ Great writers whose works have stood the test of time like the Ancient Greek writer Homer were inspired and influenced by others. ‘The individual author takes shape every time,’ writes Ferrante, ‘thanks to the effort of deconstructing the literary tradition and putting it back together in startling forms.’
So, I need not sit and ponder how to write a book that is (impossibly) unique. What I need to do is to read the works of other writers. To be inspired and influenced by their craft. To dream my own dreams. And then… to put pen to paper.