By David Flin
Building a world is, apparently, easy enough for most AH writers. It’s something that I have difficulty with, but from what I gather, many AH writers can get very wrapped up in the details of world-building, and there is little I can give in the way of worthwhile advice.
In previous articles, I’ve looked at how to improve characterisation. In this article, I’ll be looking at ways to improve plots. If you’re stuck for ideas, there is an easy solution. Cheat. Lots of great tales have gone down this route.
What is the solution? Adaptation. It happens all the time.
The musical West Side Story is just Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet rewritten. The film She’s The Man is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and the rather unpleasant plot of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a variation of the Roman tale Rape of the Sabine Women.
Stealing plot ideas and adapting them is a long-established literary past-time. It doesn’t have to be the full plot, even. There was an episode of the TV series Colditz in which a prisoner decides to try and get himself repatriated by pretending to be insane. At some point, the pretence turns into reality. It’s simply a reworking of Hamlet’s descent into insanity. As for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I’ve lost track of the number of variations I’ve come across on that plot.
As we can see, Shakespeare provides a ripe harvest of potential ideas, but there are plenty of other options.
The easiest way to explain how to do something like this is through a worked example. Let’s assume I want to write a political tale set in an independent Confederate States of America, and I’m struggling to come up with an interesting plot. I flick through the well-worn copy of the complete works of Shakespeare looking for inspiration. Macbeth is a possibility; a supernatural prophecy from inhabitants of the Louisiana bayou encourages an ambitious hero to expand slavery into the Caribbean, and in doing so, eliminates potential rivals to profiting from the trade. Once he has established himself, the English come to throw him out. This is the point when the prophecy that fed his ambition betrays him; maybe something about only Hercules could cause him to fall, and he learns that the approaching RN ship is HMS Hercules.
It can work, but it’s not what I’m looking for. Maybe I should look at Othello. This could be a case of breaking social taboos. Othello, a black man, marries Desdemona, a white woman. Adapt that slightly to make it viable for the setting, and have Othello as a Confederate general of mixed race, probably a white mother and black father, with the parentage not being known, and everyone believing her husband was the true father. Iago, Othello’s Chief of Staff, is jealous, and we can imply of another taboo, that Iago loves Othello. He sets out to prove that Desdemona is unfaithful, and it all starts to fall apart.
It can work, but it’s not what I’m looking for. What about the disguise-swapping of As You Like It? I don’t think I’ve seen many comedies set during the American Civil War, and it would certainly be something different. Maybe later.
Then I considered Coriolanus. A very successful general who leads an army to victory, which leads him to become a political figure. The very strengths that made him a successful general are a weakness as a politician, and he goes from being popular with the public to being unpopular. Political enemies use his unpopularity to have him driven from office, and he becomes a bitter recluse. The foe he was successful against prepares for another war, and in bitterness at the treatment he’s had, he offers his help to the enemy. With his help, the enemy does well, and is on the verge of a victory in battle. The one person from his homeland who had stood by him comes and pleads for him not to destroy the homeland. He gives in to the request, and leads the enemy away. The enemy learn that he’s betrayed them, and they kill him. Meanwhile, the people of the city he has saved continue to vilify him as a betrayer, not realising the danger that he had saved them from.
All of these could work, and while my personal preference is to develop my own plots and themes, it can at the very least provide a nudge when inspiration is flagging.
Don’t over-egg the mixture with unnecessary complications. Any story that has strong characters and an interesting plot will automatically develop its own complications and hidden depths.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow