Was chatting with a few other writers about writery stuff and we decided to do a writing exercise. Everyone would read the same passage and then rewrite it in their own style.
It made me think. So often, people worry whether or not their story idea is original. They think if they can just come up with something super unique and interesting then they'll have a guaranteed hit. But there are no original ideas. What helps make a story feel unique is how it's told. Two writers can take the same exact idea and end up with, what feels like, a wildly different story.
As this exercise will demonstrate.
The sample that was used was by Michael Crichton. I'm not sure which work of his this is from, as I didn't select it (I was rooting for Twilight). But I think it's PIRATE LATITUDES.
Alright, and here's my unedited attempt...
Hunter had hangnails older than the freckle-faced guard yanking him down the dim hall. And as far as he was concerned, the hangnails made for better company.
“Where are you taking me now? Hunter glanced to his cuffed wrists as they passed his cell.
Freckles snorted and tightened his hold. The elbow of his dingy guard uniform hooked round Hunter’s like the world’s ugliest bride. Hunter would have jilted the boy if not for an older guard waddling behind them with a rifle pointed squarely at his spine.
It’s your lucky day, prisoner.” Freckles curled his thin lips into a sneer.
Hunter sniffed the musty air. He doubted that. The three of them walked lockstep over cracked stone past shadowy cells, their barred doors tinged with rust. The old guard wheezed and coughed. His unsteady breathing amplified by the close quarters.
“You going to make it, Wally?” Hunter called over his shoulder.
“Wally? Why is he calling me Wally?”
Hunter pressed his lips together to stop himself from answering. He had to behave. Keep his cool. It’d do no good for his situation to explain to the man how he resembled a large aquatic mammal. His best chance for survival was to win one of these two nincompoops over to his side.
“Ignore him.” Freckles released his grip and pulled a set of keys from his belt. They jingled with the sound of freedom as the young guard swung open a cell door. “Another night in the finest accommodations Marshall sea has to offer.”
“This isn’t my cell.” Hunter peered into dark. He’d dug graves more generous. The tip of the rifle stabbed into his back.
“Get moving.” Wally coughed.
Whatever, if the guards didn’t care about what cell he ended up in, why should he. Hunter stepped inside and the door swung closed behind him.
“You know,” said Freckles as he removed Hunter’s manacles through the bars. “I’ve seen this act a hundred times. You’re type always ends up blubbering in the end, calling out for Mama.” He clicked his tongue against his yellow bucked teeth. “What would your mama say if she saw you now.”
“Oh, I know,” said the fat one, rifle over his shoulder. “Good Riddance.”
The pair chuckled as they strolled away down the dark hall.
“That’s no way to speak to your father,” Hunter called after them. “And by that, I mean you’re Ma’s a tart!” Hunter scooped up a handful of damp straw and hurled it at the barred door. “Come ‘er and say it to me again, I’ll shove this up yer bloody arse!” Hunter’s chest heaved. So much for staying cool.
The new cell smelt of piss. He wiped his hands on his trousers and kicked the straw around before finding a dry corner to lean in. As hours passed, and the darkness bloomed into black, he slid down into a squat. “Bloody freckled-face fartling thinking he knows me,” he grumbled to himself then closed his eyes allowing the rhythmic whistle of snoring inmates to lull him asleep.
“Hunter, is that you?”
That nasally voice could only belong to one man. “Whisper?” Hunter pressed his ear to the cool stone wall. “How long are you here?”
“A week. You been tried, mate?”
“And judged guilty?”
Hunter closed his eyes. “Aye.”
(Let's ignore that the original is a well polished piece from a critically acclaimed author and I wrote my version in 10 minutes while waiting for water to boil.)
The details are all, more or less, the same. But Crichton is direct to the point and my version is not. What he was able to say in one paragraph, I decided to make about sixteen. Partly, because I was having a little fun, but I suspect, our differing styles reflect the genre we choose to write.
Crichton wrote action. Action Sci-fi. Action Thrillers. Action Adventures. The man penned Jurassic Park. It doesn't get much more actiony than that. Action stories are all about building tension, creating excitement, and suspense. Crichton's efficient style of writing is brilliant for that.
I'm a big fan of Speculative Fiction, especially fantasy. My version might fit well in a fantasy story but not so well in an action thriller.
In the end, two authors writing the same idea (with the same characters achieving the same thing in the same setting) can end up creating something so different from one another that it ends up on two entirely different sections at a bookstore.
So there is no need to worry about coming up with the jellyfish-unicorn of all ideas.
Faulkner and Hemingway were two literary heavyweights of the 20th century. They were contemporaries, both American, both awarded the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer. And yet, their writing styles couldn't be more different.
Here's a pretty extreme example of them each describing a tired man.
Faulkner: "He did not feel weak, he was merely luxuriating in that supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which it its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body's pleasure instead of the body thrall to time's headlong course."
Hemingway: "Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited"
And because I love openings, here's a side by side comparison of opening lines from a few of their most famous works.
Faulkner, A Rose for Emily: "When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant--a combined gardener and cook--had seen in at least ten years."
Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."
"Hemingway, he has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb."
Faulkner, The Sound and The Fury: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass."
Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises: "Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym."
Faulkner, As I Lay Dying: "Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel's frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own. The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laid-by cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision."
Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls: "He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight."
“He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Faulkner, Light in August: "Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.’ Thinking although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old. She had never even been to Doane’s Mill until after her father and mother died, though six or eight times a year she went to town on Saturday, in the wagon, in a mail-order dress and her bare feet flat in the wagon bed and her shoes wrapped in a piece of paper beside her on the seat. "
Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms: "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."
Who Won? Who's Next?