Being a Better Writer: “The Simpsons Did It”

Hello readers! Before we get rolling with today’s Being a Better Writer post, there’s two bits of news you should know about!

First, there’s a preview of Axtara – Banking and Finance here on the site! Those of you who don’t frequent the place during the weekends will have missed this, so here’s the quick recap: My next book, a YA Fantasy titled Axtara – Banking and Finance is now slated to release before Christmas. It’s been ready to go for a while, but the cover is at long last in development and on its way! And with the release so close, it’s time to let everyone get an early look at it so they know what they’re looking forward to.

Basically, here’s a link to this weekend’s post that’s an excerpt from the first chapter. Go meet Axtara!

Now, item two on the list: A reminder of my Books page and Christmas. It’s been a rough year for a lot of us, I know. And with Christmas approaching, a lot of you are likely thinking about gifts and looking at a terrifyingly tight budget. Why not give the gift of a book? Send your friends on a trip to Pisces or Indrim!

Basically, as you shop for Christmas this year, I’d like to point out that yes, you can gift my books, they’re an absolute bargain, and doing so is a Christmas gift to me as well. Sands, you can buy one or two for yourself while you’re at it. If you’re one of those folks that’s been reading Being a Better Writer for years but never gone any further, well, Christmas is the perfect season to give a little back. Plus, it isn’t as though you’re risking much: You’re talking about books below ten dollars that are, in most cases, almost or over a thousand pages long, with over a hundred reviews over the last couple of years leaving them at a 5-Star average.

So yeah, as you think about Christmas this year, I’m going to shamelessly plug my own work and point out that it’s ridiculously well-priced for what you get. Got a reader of Sci-Fi or Fantasy in your friend circle? Give them the gift of one of the best books they’re read this year. Or get yourself a new adventure you won’t forget.

The books page is here! So go take a look!

Now that you’ve checked both of those out, let’s talk about today’s Being a Better Writer topic, shall we? Today’s topic, to many of you long-time readers, may sound like a repeat. Well, in a way it is. Multiple times before on this site we’ve talked about the concept of “retreading” someone else’s ground, whether it’s on a discussion of the cliché (and not that useful, at least with writing) saying “nothing new under the sun” or discussing whether something is plagurization or just a story that has similar beats.

But of all the topics that comes up again and again, this one amusingly is near to the top. Which isn’t bad. After all, a lot of new writers worry about it, and sometimes it’s valuable to retread old ground and find a new approach to a topic. A new angle of looking at things. Which, in a way, is kind of the whole point of our concept today.

“The Simpsons did it.” If you’ve not heard of this trope, well then let me explain. The Simpsons is a highly successful TV show that has been around for about three decades now, chronicling the day to day humorous satire of a family of people living in “Springfield, USA” (which borders five states on different sides of the US and features all sorts of TV-level incongruity that’s played straight as part of its charm). Though the series’ golden era is definitely behind it, the show has continued on and been a staple part of Fox’s somewhat shaky lineup for three decades.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot of time in three decades for a TV show to cover a lot of ground, especially one as wild as The Simpsons, and you’d be correct to think that such a show may have come close to “doing it all.” Well, The Simpsons kind of has … at least when it comes to a lot of story beats, and even more direct concepts and ideas. Which led to a general idea that if a story was to be done on television, one could point out that it wasn’t fresh because ‘The Simpsons did it first.’ In fact, a whole episode of another animated TV show, South Park, was based around this premise, the joke being that no matter how much the show’s cast tried to jump the rails to do something new, another character would point out that The Simpsons had already done it.

Point being, “The Simpsons did it” is the trope that comes to mind anytime someone is describing a beat of their story and someone else says “Hey, that sounds like this!” And a lot of young writers fear this kind of criticism … and with some good, if flawed reasoning. Imagine: you’ve just spent weeks, maybe months slaving away over a short story, you finally offer it to someone to take a look at, and maybe about halfway through they utter the words “Hey, this is kind of like ______.”

This can be crushing for a new writer to hear, even when it’s not at all meant as a bad thing. To the reader, what they might have meant is “Oh, this reminds me of the thing I like.” But to the new writer? All they’re hearing is “Wait, you’re telling me I wrote what’s basically ______, which is already super successful and well-loved? Why wouldn’t people just go read that?”

And in fairness, some people do mean that, which only makes it worse. There are some people out there that will just up-front look at someone and say “Well, this is similar to ____ thing I already like, so I’ll just read that instead.” Which is crushing … even if it’s not true.

Or maybe it is, even if that doesn’t matter, because the truth is that there are a lot of similar things out there that can still wind up being very different.

Okay yes, if you write a story about a young orphaned boy whose parents were killed by a dark wizard and he was raised by his aunt and uncle who barely tolerate him but he finds out on his birthday that he’s a wizard and gets to go to a wizard school where he makes two friends and learns to fly a broom and fights a troll and faces the return of that dark wizard … Well … yeah you seem to have rewritten Harry Potter.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t write a story about a character going to “magic school” because you’re just “ripping off” Harry Potter. There are plenty of stories out there that have a similar structure of “child goes to magic school and has adventures” while being completely unique stories in their own way. It doesn’t mean that they won’t have comparisons made to something like Harry Potter … but it also doesn’t mean that those comparisons will be negative. In fact, they might be quite positive.

See, the issue with a saying like “The Simpsons did it” is that there’s no room for subtlety in the statement. It seems to connotate that it’s not worth trying to do something that someone else has done before in close shape. But the fault there that many don’t realize is that The Simpsons itself built its back (and indeed, much of its golden era) by doing what other shows and series had done before it and putting its own spin on it. Indeed, one of the most lauded and well-remembered episodes the show ever produced, Marge VS the Monorail, is largely a parody of characters and plotlines from other material, such as The Music Man. But where The Simpsons made it special was in taking what was a clear influence and putting a hilarious spin on it, as well as making the characters and concepts their own by making them similar, but not identical. They didn’t just steal the character of “Harold Hill.” Instead they took the concept behind the character and created their own character, Lyle Lanely, who is very similar … but also their own thing.

And now? More people would likely recognize Lyle Lanely (and his VA) than they would the similar character they creating a parody of.

Now, I’m not trying to say that you should set out to produce parody. Especially not of something like Harry Potter (it’s been done to death at the moment). No, what I’m getting at is that even if your story has similar beats to something else, it can still be its own beast, wholly independent.

Take, for example, the latest release from author Naomi Novik, which my sister described to me as “like Harry Potter” but also “not.” In fact, even the reviews featured on the book’s page note this as well, calling out the similarities to the now classic fantasy series, but also noting that it’s completely Novik’s own and that the similarities are just that: Similarities. There’s a magic school. There’s a prophecy. There are teachers. Etc.

But none of those things is an exclusive property of Harry Potter. Otherwise, the estate would have cause to go after a lot of other fantasy … right up until stories predating it with the same elements came for it.

What I’m getting at is that while yes, it may be true that what you create may inspire cries of “The Simpsons did it,” it shouldn’t immediately inspire panic. For one, so did other shows before The Simpsons. Second, you can follow similar beats but still make them your own. Marge VS the Monorail has a character like Harold Hill, but he sells the town on a monorail project rather than musical instruments for a band, and the story wends its own way from there. You can have a story with an orphan, a dark lord, magic, and a school, but go vastly different directions from where Harry Potter took it. Even from where that series started.

And if someone picks that work up and says to you as they’re starting out “Hey, this is like Harry Potter,” well still don’t panic. A lot of people loved that series, and what sounds like a criticism to the panicked young writer may be in fact a compliment of “I loved that thing, and this thing reminds me of that thing.” They may just be expressing how much they enjoy the thing you created by comparing it to something else that they love.

Ultimately, if there’s a single final “point” to be made with this post, I’d say that it’s this one: Don’t be afraid to tread on ground that’s been trod before as long as you’re willing to walk it in a new way that’s you, and not that last feet to cross it. If you want to write a story about a magic school, then you can! But do it your way, with you characters and your vision. Don’t make it about “Barry Potter” and the “Sorceress’ stone” and a dark wizard “This guy doesn’t get a name.” Make it your story.

Walk your own steps, even if it’s on ground many others have walked.

Good luck. Now get writing, and have a Merry Christmas or other December holiday!

Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:

Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, and 22ndTemplar!

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