Random Thoughts on Getting Started with Story: Princess Story Ideas Number 3

princess_diariesDo you love a good Cinderella story? Do you stop to read magazines at the check-out if they feature Prince Harry on the cover? Have you followed Kate Middleton’s path from college student to mother of the future king of England? Most people are intrigued by stories of girls becoming princesses. Perhaps it’s the idea of   transformation — the butterfly syndrome — or perhaps it’s purely the allure of a sparkly tiara but a good ‘becoming a princess’ story always has appeal.MV5BMTEwNTQ3MzUxOTNeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU3MDk1MTI1MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_ Think Meg Cabot’s series of novels ‘The Princess Diaries’ and the movies of the same name starring Anne Hathaway. Think Julia Stiles in the movie ‘The Prince and Me’ or fairytales such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. The plot line usually concerns either a princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess or an ordinary girl who becomes a princess. Either way, the story will involve a lot of inner and sometimes outer change, obstacles in the form of antagonists who don’t want them to become royal and sometimes a fairy godmother like figure who helps them find themselves e.g.. the Julie Andrews character in ‘The Princess Diaries’. maleficent-poster-aurora-elle-fanningIf you’re looking for a new princess story idea, the ‘becoming a princess’ story archetype could be the one for you.

THEN if you want your heroine to be more than a Hollywood Princess (that is, do more than marry Prince Charming or be a princess by an accident of birth) invent a story where she has to prove herself. Perhaps she is proclaimed princess for saving her country from invasion, or killing a dragon or ridding her city of an evil wizard. The possibilities are endless.

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Universal Plots: Dystopian World

A lone citizen seeks to escape or overturn a totalitarian society that has arisen after a global disaster.

Often called dystopian fiction, the protagonist of this universal plot is usually an insider rather than an outsider in the society. Although they may question the society they generally accept the harsh rules and strict social order until an event occurs which forces them to take action. Think Katniss’s sister being chosen in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Katniss deciding to take her place or Cassia being mistakenly matched to two people in Matched by Ally Condie, until one of them, Ky, is banished to the dangerous Outer Provinces.

In some dystopian novels, the protagonist decides to fight to change their society. In the classic British novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, the protagonist Winston is enlisted into the Brotherhood, a secret organisation dedicated to overturning the ruling Party and Big Brother, only to find that he has been set up.

In other stories the hero or heroine simply wants to escape their fate or society. In Margaret Atwood’s Canadian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, the heroine Offred risks breaking her society’s rules simply to survive, for if she doesn’t get pregnant she will be eradicated, whereas The Hunger Games Katniss must kill to survive.

Dystopian novels rarely end happily. Even if the hero triumphs, the society itself rarely changes, at least by the end of the novel. (Maybe it will given enough books in a series!)  The ending of a dystopian novel is more likely to be open ended or even depict the protagonist dying or being imprisoned.

So why do we like these stories about such grim worlds with bleak futures? Perhaps it’s because we identify with the hero’s struggle to change the world and the fate that has been dealt them. Don’t we all want to do that?

Some dystopian novels you might like to read:

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale

Bertagna, Julie, Exodus

Bradbury, Ray, Farenheit 451

Collins, Suzanne, The Hunger Games

Condie, Ally, Matched

Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World

Malley, Gemma, The Declaration

Moore, Alan, V for Vendetta (series of comic books)

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Rosoff, Meg, How I Live Now

Westerfield, Scott, Uglies

Wyndham, John, The Chrysalids also titled Re-Birth

Young Moira, Blood Red Road

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Random Thoughts on Getting Started with Story: Princess Story Ideas Number Two

Real royals can be more exciting than fictional ones! If you want to write a story about a princess or a queen and are stuck for ideas, why not look to history for a true-to-life story? You can dramatise these real events in a fictional narrative or use them to get ideas for your own story plot.

In my book ‘It’s True! Women Were Warriors’ I wrote short biographies of many scheming empresses and warrior queens. For example:

In tenth-century Britain, Aethelflaed was daughter to the king of one province and wife to the king of another. After her husband’s death she ruled the province of Mercia alone, fighting the Viking invaders. According to one story, she defeated the Vikings by boiling ale and water in cauldrons and pouring it over the walls to scald the attackers. When the Vikings dressed in protective animal hides, she loosed all the bees of the kingdom and drove the invaders from town.

Nearly 2000 years ago, the Trung sisters, daughters of a powerful lord in what is now Vietnam, drove their Chinese overlords out of the country by leading an army of 80 000 warriors led by 36 female generals. One of the sisters, Trung Trac, single-handedly hunted and killed a rogue tiger that had been killing villagers.

Seventeenth-century African Queen Nzinga of Angola, wasn’t going to let the European invaders take over her country. When she visited the Portuguese governor to discover he had taken the only chair in the room, forcing everyone else to stand, she simply ordered a servant to kneel and sat on him! For the next 18 years she continued to fight the Portuguese with an army of women, attempting to stop them forcing her people into slavery.

These are just a few of the brave and adventurous queens and princesses from the pages of history. My book is a starting point for ideas but you will find many more in the library, encyclopedias and on the internet.

Some more queens, empresses and princesses to research:

Boudicca of Britain

Tamara of Georgia

Cleopatra of Egypt

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Zenobia of Palmyra

Margaret of Denmark

Amina of Nigeria

Caterina Sforza of Milan

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Random Thoughts on Getting Started with Story: Princess Story Ideas

People searching for ‘princess story ideas’ often wind up at my blog, where of course there are no ‘princess story ideas’ — yet. I guess the search engine picks up on ‘notahollywoodprincess’ and the category ‘story ideas’ and sends them my way! So here goes. Both my suggestions today will revolve around twisting a common princess theme.

Princess Story Idea Number One

Take a traditional princess story and transpose it to a modern day story.

For example, you could move Sleeping Beauty into the 21st century. Instead of being cursed by the fairies then pricking her finger on a spindle and falling asleep in the castle for a hundred years, she could be trapped by the fairies in a virtual computer game until the prince finds her there and they fight their way to freedom.

Instead of feeling a pea under her mattress thus proving her royal sensitivity, the princess could have her sleep disturbed by her missing hand phone that the queen has hidden there. This story has quite a lot of potential for humour. For example: the phone could have been set to silent mode but the queen forgets to turn ‘vibrate’ off.

Get ideas by reviewing as many traditional princess stories as you can find and brainstorming ideas for bringing them into the 21st century. Disney animations are a great starting point if you aren’t sure of sources.

Princess Story Idea Number Two

Place a modern princess into a teen drama. Let’s call her Princess Debbie.

Princess Debbie’s parents lose their fortune in the sharemarket and she has to go to public school where she faces the usual dramas and tensions of fitting in at high school. Princess Debbie Meets the Queen Bee!

Princess Debbie needs a partner for the annual Royal Ball. Her parents want her to go with a suitable lordling but Debbie wants to choose her own partner. How can a princess ask the gardener’s son to go to the ball? And how can she change her royal style enough to put him at ease. Princess Debbie Gets a Very Un-royal Makeover!

I’m sure you can think of many modern teen novel/movie scenarios that Princess Debbie could find herself in.

Well, I hope you find these suggestions helpful if you end up on my blog searching for ‘princess story ideas’. If I think of some more in future I will add them here.

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Universal Plots: Rags to Riches

The hero fallen on hard times rises to fame or fortune through luck or determination.

Why do we like reality television so much? Maybe it’s the lure of the rags to riches story — someone rising from obscurity to fame and/or fortune. Whether it’s for singing, cooking, designing, modeling or just being a loud-mouthed pain in the butt, audiences can’t seem to get enough of these stories of ordinary people making it big through sheer talent and tenacity.

Pretty Woman

Of course, the popularity of the rags-to-riches story is nothing new. In ancient times the true story of Diocletian who rose to be emperor though his father was born a slave amazed the Romans. The tales of Cinderella and Aladdin have entertained children for centuries. Nineteenth-century literature is full of rags-to-riches plots. Charles Dickens was so fond of it that he used it in several novels, for example, ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Little Dorrit’. As I wrote in an earlier post, Emily Bronte included it as a sub-plot in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’ (on which the musical ‘My Fair Lady is based) is a rags-to-riches story in the Cinderella mode. More contemporary rags-to-riches plots include the movies ‘Pretty Woman’ (another Cinderella story), ‘Mr Deeds’, ‘Trading Places’, ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (based upon the book ‘Q & A’ by Vikam Swarup) and ‘The Blind Side’. I’m sure you can think of others.

Why is this plot so popular? Perhaps it’s because it gives us hope. It shows us that it is possible to escape poverty, obscurity and just plain ordinariness. It gives us a reason to strive and helps us pick ourselves up when life deals us a blow.

The rags-to-riches plot has many variations. Often the hero’s riches come to him through luck as in the anonymous bequest Pip receives in ‘Great Expectations’ or Mr Deed’s unexpected inheritance. This luck sometimes takes the form of a fairy godmother figure as in ‘Cinderella’ or Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’. In other stories the hero gains his riches through his or her own hard work, talent or determination such as Emperor Diocletian, or Jamal in ‘Slumdog Millionaire/Q&A’ who must use the knowledge gained through his life of hard knocks in the slums of India to answer the quiz questions which will win him the riches. The Blind Side’s hero wins his way to fame and fortune aided by a fairy godmother figure played by Sandra Bullock and through hard work and determination on and off the football field.

There must be setbacks along the way which may come in the form of a betrayal (Mr Deeds, Pygmalion/My Fair Lady), self doubt (The Blind Side),  persecution or prejudice (Slumdog Millionaire/Q&A, Wuthering Heights, Pretty Woman). In the end the hero will find happiness and self-knowledge though they may not remain rich or famous. And in some cases the author will provide a moral lesson along the lines that love, loyalty and good conscience are more important than wealth and fame.

Slumdog Millionaire

Rags to riches is universal plot that you could easily borrow and make your own in a short story. It is easily adapted to a contemporary story for young adults. In a sense, many teen movies and stories have elements of rags to riches when they have the geeky/loner hero or heroine joining the popular clique (fame and fortune) before realising that true friendship isn’t about being popular or successful.

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Universal Plots: I hate you/I love you

I’m a sucker for the hate you/love you plot. You know the story. Girl meets boy. Girl hates boy. Girl catches boy. Girl throws boy back then gets teary when she realises that girl really really loves boy. Or vice versa.

Why has this plot proved so enduringly popular? We all know how it ends — girl and boy live happily ever after. I think it’s because we do know how it ends that we like it so much. It’s a comforting plot, the kind of story we sob over when our hearts are broken or laugh over when things are going well in our world.

The plot is pretty simple. Girl and boy meet but immediately dislike each other, perhaps because of a personality clash as in William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew  or its more contemporary clone 10 Things I Hate about You. Or perhaps they clash due to some social prejudice as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and its clones like Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Against their wills they begin to like each other until one of them (often the boy) declares his love. A spanner is then thrown in the works (eg. Mr Darcy’s overbearing prejudice and Elizabeth Bennett’s pride, a jealous rival concocting lies, a previous misdemeanour/lover coming to light etc.) until finally they redeem themselves, kiss and make up.

There are few surprises. We all know how it ends. However, the journey has to have its own quirky little ins and outs to keep us interested and the story will only work if the characters are likable. They can be annoying at times and a little bit sneaky but the reader has to like them and want to know what happens next on their journey or we won’t be bothered reading or watching the story. This is definitely not    a plot for an anti-hero.

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Universal Plots: A further thought on star-crossed lovers

If you are interested in the star-crossed lovers plot you might go back to the Bronte sisters who mastered this plot in the mid-19th century. Both Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre and Emily’s story Wuthering Heights are masterful examples of the star-crossed lovers plot. If you don’t feel ready to attempt a 19th-century novel start with the 2011 movie version of Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska in the title role and an interesting 2011 version of Wuthering Heights.

Poor governess Jane falls for her rich and brooding employer Mr Rochester. Separated by social class their love is also doomed by a mysterious mad woman in the attic. As well as the star-crossed lovers plot, Jane Eyre is also the tale of a young woman’s journey towards inner strength and self knowledge.

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is adopted into a wealthy landowning family as a child but is never treated as an equal. Although he and his foster sister Cathy love each other, their love is doomed by this inequality. (The 2011 movie chose to cast a black actor as Heathcliff which makes the story about race as well as class.) Wuthering Heights also has a rags-to-riches sub-plot. (More of that in a future post!)

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The Never-ending Narrative Syndrome: Write a single scene

I wrote recently that sometimes the problem of not being able to end your narrative can be more a problem of not knowing how and where to begin. One suggestion I have for writing your story in a short narrative is to encapsulate your idea in a single scene. Instead of trying to include all the events that lead up to the main event and all the events that follow, try writing about one single event. You can then suggest what might happen after or what might have occurred before and leave it to your reader to ponder upon it.

For example:

  • Your main character is excited/disappointed/exalted about a crucial sporting match (eg: grand final). Rather than writing the whole story of preparing for the match, playing the match, winning or losing the match and the aftermath, why not write a single scene encapsulating the character’s thoughts and feelings leading up to the match or during a single play or after the match. You can then suggest how the character and his or her team mates were feeling before or after by using brief flashbacks or premonitions. Imagine it as a scene in slow motion and capture the moment in detail, the setting, the actions of other characters, the thoughts and feelings of the main character etc. You could set the scene on the bus on the way to the match with all its nervous energy and anticipation. Or you could set your scene at the moment of the winning play.

Victory in 'Bend it Like Beckham'

It may seem that you need to write a lot more to tell your story but sometimes a single moment can encapsulate a very big idea.

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The Never-ending Narrative Syndrome One: Start in the Middle

Sometimes the most difficult part of writing a story is knowing where to begin. You may know what your story is going to be about, who the characters are, what the main idea is and how the story needs to end but you’re not sure where to start. Because you’re not sure where to start you may well do one of the following:

  • Describe the main character
  • Describe the setting
  • Describe how the character’s day begins (really bad idea!)
  • Start with a conversation between two of the main characters.

Any of these could get you into big trouble and is likely to lead you into what I call ‘the never-ending narrative syndrome’. The never-ending narrative syndrome strikes at short stories and turns them into long-winded narratives that don’t know how to end.

When you are writing narrative for school (whether it is fiction or non-fiction) it usually needs to be short, that is around 500 to 1000 words, certainly no more than 2000. Even if you are writing for your own enjoyment most young writers aren’t going to tackle a novel until they have a bit of experience under their belt.

Often the cause of the never-ending narrative syndrome isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. The writer doesn’t know where and when to begin their story. Today I’m going to make a suggestion that may sound crazy but if you give it a try next time you are writing a short narrative it may surprise you.

Start in the middle of the story.

That’s right! Forget about introducing the characters, the setting, or the events that led to the major event of the story. Start with the big thing that happens in your story. You can then introduce your readers to your characters by how they respond to this event. You can fill your readers in on background information or previous events by using backstory (where the character thinks back or the narrator kindly fills the reader in on needed information/events) as the story progresses. You may find that you need less backstory than you think. You may be able to convey all you need through describing how your characters deal with this main event.

For example:

Your story is about a shy girl who secretly likes the most popular boy in her school but thinks that he doesn’t know she exists. Her best friend convinces her to write him a note and slip it into his maths book unaware that he has borrowed that book from another boy who she has no interest in whatsoever. Instead of starting your story with your main character dreaming about her love interest or talking to her friend about her love interest who then makes her suggestion, begin the story with:

  • The wrong boy opening the maths book and finding her letter or
  • The wrong boy approaching her in the school cafeteria while she is watching her love interest (in a comedy she might be stalking him) who is flirting with someone else.

Don’t be put off by my romance/drama above (I like romances) the same technique can work for any kind of narrative. Your story could be an action story, a family drama, a dystopian fiction, even a biography. Give it a go and see if it works for you.

In future weeks I will try to suggest some other ideas for dealing with the never-ending narrative syndrome such as; just writing a single scene or structuring your story into one, three or five acts like a play. However remember, if you are writing a long narrative such as a novel these techniques may be less applicable but still useful.

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Universal Plots: the star-crossed lovers

Last week I talked about how most stories are new versions of old stories. Revisiting one of these universal plots is a good way of getting an idea for a new story. Today I’d like to talk about one of the most well-loved romance plots, the star-crossed lovers.

Two lovers from different worlds must overcome fierce obstacles in order to be together.

For example:

The play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is probably the most famous star-crossed lovers plot. Romeo and Juliet’s feuding families mean the lovers marry in secret then — in order to escape an arranged marriage — Juliet fakes her own death and Romeo not realising she still lives kills himself. When Juliet wakes to find him dead she joins him the only way she can, by also killing herself. While Romeo and Juliet  is a tragedy other star-crossed lovers stories have happier endings.

The Twilight saga by Stephanie Meyer is a star-crossed lovers story that has a happier conclusion to Romeo and Juliet’s. Across the story arc of the series, the human Bella and the vampire Edward must overcome the obstacles of their very different backgrounds, the jealous love of Edward’s werewolf rival, Jacob, and the evil vampires who are out to get them in order to be together. (Currently they are together but who knows what will happen as the series continues.)

You have probably read many other star-crossed lovers stories. If you enjoy that genre of story, why not borrow the star-crossed lovers plot when you are looking for story ideas. You don’t have to write an entire play or novel, you could write a single scene from a play or a short story.

For those of you who have the dreaded ‘never-ending narrative syndrome’ perhaps next time I could look at some ideas on how to write shorter pieces. I don’t think your teachers are expecting a multi-book saga, just 500 words!

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