Make It the Same, Only Different

You’ve heard it before. You’ll hear it again. As far back as anyone can remember, there is an old story in the publishing and movie business about executives telling writers after a hit or a best seller has captured the imagination of the buying public: “Give me the same thing – only different.”

Sean Connery as James Bond

It raises eyebrows.

It plows furrows in wrinkles attached to foreheads.

For some, it glazes the eyes and fogs the mind.

Writers have been confused and discombobulated about that statement for years.

You want the same?

You only want it different?

What does it mean, and what in the world are you talking about?

According to an old friend of mine who was a successful writer, director, and producer in the television industry, the answer is really quite simple. Frank Q. Dobbs told me, “You present a story line that the executives are very familiar with, and then you give the story a sudden and unexpected twist.”

As a rule, they aren’t creative.

You have to be.

Same mystery.

Same romance.

Same suspense.

Same fantasy.

Same reason.

Agents, editors, publishers, and particularly your readers should have a real comfort zone with the basic premise of your novel. So hit them right between the eyes with a tried and true plot, then give the idea a chance to run off in a direction where they don’t anticipate it going and where it has never gone before.

CIA thrillers have developed a solid and faithful following for generations. And everyone knows that a CIA operative – whether he’s as seedy as George Clooney in Syriana or as sophisticated and worldly wise as Sean Connery as James Bond – is out to track down the bad guys and save the world.

So here’s the set up. Someone wants to assassinate the Pope. May not be able to get close enough with a gun. So the intelligence is that the Pope will be poisoned. That is familiar territory.

But here’s the twist. The CIA agent is sent undercover in a Tuscany Cooking School. Now secret agents spend a lot of time in bars, beer joints, and brothels, but never any time in a cooking school.

It’s a new idea, and it’s just unusual enough to attract someone’s attention.

Looking for an urban comedy?

So, here’s the set up. Everyone in the community knows that preachers preach against sin and prostitutes practice it. The battle rages when a new massage parlor divides the residents of a small town, particularly when the parlor is located just across the street from the church. That is familiar territory.

But here’s the twist.  In the heat of the verbal fights and street corner rallies and invasion of City Hall by the righteous, a hooker and the minister fall in love.

It’s not even a new idea. It worked really well in Pretty Woman. But a businessman and a hooker is one thing. A preacher and a hooker in the middle of a massage parlor dispute is quite another. It’s just off-beat enough to capture someone’s imagination.

The answer is to take an ages old plot and bend it, then twist it, and hammer into something brand new.  It’s the same, only different. The twist is all about irony, regardless of the genre, and the right touch of irony in fiction separates ideas, proposals, or books that sell from those that don’t.

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