Writing Q&A 23: Using themes found in other works; showing pauses in dialogue
Published: May 22, 2007
|Can I use the same theme from another writer's book as long as I change the characters and the situations?|
It's not uncommon for writers to be inspired by ideas they come across in other books. When Gabriel García Márquez read Franz Kafka's The Metamorphsis, which begins with a character waking up to find he has transformed into a cockroach, his ideas about writing were revolutionized. "I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that," García Márquez said. "If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago." Those familiar with García Márquez's work know his fiction is littered with moments of magic, such as angels fallen from the sky. García Márquez certainly hasn't infringed on Kafka's work in doing this. Instead, he's used it as a jumping off point to develop his own way of inhabiting a world that tests the boundaries of fiction.
Themes and ideas have a high level of generality, and while they are certainly important in a work of fiction, it is the specificity of character and situation that really bring those abstract notions to life. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby both share common threads: doomed love, the return of the underdog, and the woman in the middle. Yet, they are completely different novels. The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s, and Gatsby is brooding and patient in winning Daisy back, moving close to her home and throwing elaborate parties with the hope that she will show up. Wuthering Heights opens in the early 1800s, and Heathcliff is more assertive, returning home with the goal of exacting revenge on those who kept him from his love, Catherine.
Indeed, there are a slew of books that follow the hero going on a journey to save something (or someone) of value, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. It's not uncommon for writers to hit on similar ideas, even if they haven't been exposed to those ideas in the past. This is why ideas themselves can't be copyrighted.
So, if you find a theme or idea in another book that inspires you, by all means embrace that. It's no different than being inspired by a snippet of dialogue you overhear at the museum, or your overly friendly boss, or the couple in the booth next to you at the diner who fought through their whole breakfast. The key, of course, comes in developing individual characters and actions that make the story uniquely yours. At some point, you're going to find the specifics of your original inspiration fade into the darkness, while the vibrancy of your creation takes the spotlight.
|Are ellipses the best way to show a pause in dialogue? |
Those three spaced periods (...) can indicate a pause or a hesitation, so using them in dialogue will certainly make your intentions clear:
"She had to try ... don't you think?"
However, I find that ellipses don't always create the sensation of a pause as effectively as other techniques can. Also, ellipses don't give the reader any information about what's happening within that pause. And that can be crucial information. Often adding action can simulate the brief passage of time and indicate the nature of the pause:
"She had to try." He sat on the couch and put his hand to his head. "Don't you think?"
The action gives the question--"Don't you think?"--a sense of resignation. If I made his stance and actions more aggressive, he may seem like he's trying to bully the listener, or perhaps convince himself.
So, before resorting to those ellipses, consider whether bringing action to the pause will enhance understanding, create emotion, or bolster tone. Even these minute moments have an impact on the way the reader understands the story.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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