A couple of days ago, a writing friend of mine watched a fashion design contest show. In the show, a contestant had come up with beautiful designs only to have them shot down by fashion experts who said the designs were too similar to past designs of other famous designers.
My friend made a connection to writing. She was anxious about her new novel—that it would be too similar to what’s gone before. I agreed that it was a legitimate concern. But I reminded her that there are no new stories, only new ways to tell old ones. And in fact, the same is true in design—I remember platforms and bell-bottoms from when I was a little kid.
As I thought about the similarities between fashion design and writing, the “Little Black Dress” came to mind. Coco Chanel’s designs back in the 20s were the beginnings of the LBD. And yet, for almost 100 years, it’s endured and endured. It’s never gone out of style. In fact, I think I may have five or six versions of LBD.
What’s so special about it? Why do I have more than one? And what does this have to do with writing?
First off, I lived in southern New England where the LBD was de rigueur. So that may account for several of the dresses. But even aside from those social constraints, most women have at least one LBD. The reasons are myriad. Solid black is slimming. It’s elegant. Dressed up with pearls, sheer stockings, and heels, it can take you to any restaurant anywhere. It can be dressed down with flats and a belt to go to work. It can take you on a sexy date. Or even to a funeral.
Given its versatility, why have more than one? And this is how I think it applies to writing. I have a summer LBD—okay, I have a summer casual LBD made of the most breathable cotton that I can wear to the library or wear over a swimsuit—and look elegant, slimmed, refined. I have a dressy silk summer LBD—ditto the elegant, slimmed, etc. It’s got flirty ruffles and a plunging neckline. Then, there’s the LBD sheath made of linen with straight lines—it works so well with a wool hound’s tooth jacket and pumps. And the turtleneck knit LBD. And the other silk LBD with the structured lines….
Got the picture? Even though they all do the same thing (flatter the female figure, create an atmosphere of sophistication, etc.), they all do it in different ways. I think it’s the same with writing. There aren’t that many plot lines in literature. In fact, the Greeks divided it into two types. Comedy and tragedy. (Comedy ends in a marriage, tragedy ends in a funeral.) But it’s the telling that makes all the difference.
Take the traditional boy-meets-girl-problems-ensue-true-love-wins story (i.e., a comedy to the Greeks). What if the story occurs in a dystopian society (Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.)? Or what if it happens in 19th century and the girl comes from a poor family and the gentleman is a wealthy, prejudiced young man (Pride and Prejudice)? Or how about a thwarted couple who get a second chance at love after they blew it the first time (Persuasion)? Or what if the novel is set after a war and the man takes years to get home and they both have to suffer and wait—Odyssey?(Yes, I know they were married before the war, but that’s just a variation on the story.) These novels are all variations of the literary LBD—boy meets girl and they fall in love/get married. The difference is in the telling.
So my advice to my friend, to myself, and to you, is write me a new LBD novel—use some gorgeous fabric, throw on some frills, show it to me with some three inch heels, and I’ll buy it. And so will all my friends.