How to Transform the Work of Another Writer

Posted Tue, 5/02/2017 - 10:18am by  |  Category: , ,

This is the Hugo House “How-To” series, where Hugo House instructors share tips related to the writing life. This week’s post comes from writer Cara Diaconoff, whose six-session course, Fanfiction and Other Transformative Writing, explores the concept of “transformation” of other writers’ works to open up new paths in your own writing. 

There are lots of reasons why a writer might want to piggyback on another author’s story. Some would argue that it’s what we all do anyway, to the extent that as writers we’re influenced by everything we’ve read.

It’s well known that William Shakespeare took most of his plots from outside sources: Ovid, Boccaccio, and Holinshed’s historical chronicles, to name a few.

Today’s writers of fanfiction, literary spin-offs, and “real-person” fiction are working in the same tradition. Love, obsession, intellectual argument, the need to express a heretofore-erased political truth, the desire to update a story for a new era, the impulse to write the ending you wish the work had had: all these drives impel writers to reimagine, rewrite, and transform each other’s work.

Here are just a few approaches transformative fiction writers can take:

1. Use a minor character to test or outright argue with the source text.


This is Tom Stoppard’s game in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, his spin-off from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Stoppard’s titular characters are barely more than plot conveniences in Shakespeare’s play, but what would it feel like to be a mere device or pawn in a world that really is as meaningless as Hamlet worries that it is, and how would that pawn find meaning? Stoppard quotes, recasts, and reimagines scenes from Shakespeare in a transformative play that became a classic in its own right.

2. Give the voiceless one a voice.

When Jean Rhys, a Dominican-bred transplant to England, read Jane Eyre, she declared herself saddened by the depiction of Creole madwoman Bertha Mason—as well as “annoyed” at its one-sidedness. Whereas in Bronte’s novel, Bertha is nothing but a “snarling” animal, in Rhys’s gorgeous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, she becomes a full subject—beautiful, doomed, and sharply aware of her own plight but powerless to change it. Rhys, a great chronicler of the lives of wounded women, in this book also gives the mute victim of colonialism a voice.

3. Take the theme more seriously than the source text does.

My student Dawn, who was a newborn baby when the movie The Crow was first released, discovered it on Netflix twenty years later and wrote a story, “Tisiphone,” inspired by the movie’s preoccupation with the thirst for revenge. In “Tisiphone,” which follows its own storyline, the spunky young skateboarding girl of The Crow becomes transfigured into a cold-blooded killer, cursing the man who murdered her brother to live in an eternity of physical agony without the release of death. In the world of Dawn’s story, there are no purely good characters, as there are in The Crow; everyone is morally compromised, and the reader is invited to consider the spiritual consequences of total revenge.

4. Mash up two or more source texts for satirical instruction and delight.

Another student of mine, Jenna, wrote a novella-length parody of Game of Thrones set at high school, using a second source text, the movie Mean Girls, to inspire a storyline in which warring factions vie to be named homecoming royalty. The result, in addition to being hilariously funny, implicitly comments on what it is readers find so irresistible about contest narratives.

5. Work out your obsessions with a real person who lives or lived.

What do Jerzy Kosinski, Shirley Jackson, Mamah Borthwick, Blind Tom Wiggins, and Margaret Cavendish have in common? All are the protagonists of novels published in recent years that seek to explore the lives of these figures in ways that standard biographies cannot. Through fiction, writers explore their personal relationship to the legacy of a famous or otherwise influential figure—or to a figure who should have enjoyed a larger share of influence—and, in so doing, reveal new ways of understanding what is going on in our own culture.

The inspirations and effects of transformative fiction are as rich and varied as those we’d more conventionally consider original. Most readers and writers highly prize originality and authenticity. But what if the best way to discover the story you’re born to tell is through retelling someone else’s?

Cara Diaconoff is the author of Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories (Lewis-Clark Press) and a novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You (Outpost19 e-books). Currently, she is a visiting professor of creative writing at Southern Methodist University in Texas.