A-ha, you’ve stumbled onto my latest blog series! Welcome to the first Lessons From Literature post. Today we’ll be discussing a YA novel: Cinder by Marissa Meyer.
Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.
Cinder is a difficult book to categorize in a single genre, and that’s what I love about it. The story has elements of fairy tale (because it’s a “Cinderella” retelling), sci-fi (because there are new technologies, people living on the Moon, mind control, and so on), romance (again, “Cinderella” retelling), and dystopia (because there is a worldwide plague, impending war, mutant soldiers, and more).
Lesson from Cinder: Let your imagination remake tradition.
In case you haven’t read the book, here’s a link to its description on Meyer’s website. If I had to summarize Cinder in a single sentence…it’s “Cinderella” set in the future, and the Cinderella character is a cyborg. Yes, you read that right. A CYBORG. Who doesn’t want to read that?!
As you can tell, Cinder was one of my favorite reads from 2017, which surprised me because I don’t usually like YA romance. It tends to be very shallow, both in terms of plot and characters. Moreover, while I do enjoy fairy tale retellings, there are a TON of them out there. Perhaps no fairy tale has been redone as much as “Cinderella.” The glass slipper is wearing thin; ways to make the story fresh and exiting have all but disappeared. That’s why I was so impressed with Cinder.
Meyer didn’t just rearrange the characters and events of “Cinderella” into a new book. She added her own world to the existing story. This is what makes Cinder feel so rich and “big” compared to the original fairy tale, and why it stands out among other retellings. Meyer kept the framework of “Cinderella” and added androids, cyborgs, mind-controlling people from the Moon, a deadly plague, spaceships, marriage alliances, junkyards, a lost princess, a desperate doctor…and on and on.
As a reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the magic and depth of Cinder’s storyworld. As a writer, I remembered the importance of letting my imagination run wild (in an orderly fashion, of course) with existing ideas.
When boiled down to their most basic level, many stories sound the same. The plot of Star Wars: A New Hope shares many similarities with The Lord of the Rings. It’s the setting and characters that make these stories feel separate from each other.
In other words, if you’re trying to come up with a totally new story concept, it’s not going to happen. There will always be elements of it that “have been done before,” or that sound similar to another concept (research the theory of intertextuality if you don’t believe me, or better yet, read my essay about it). So what’s a writer to do? Accept that those ideas have been explored before (a retelling is the extreme case) and find ways to make them your own.
Meyer decided to make Cinderella a futuristic cyborg. J.K. Rowling wrote about wizards who go to school. Brian Jacques created knights who are mice, squirrels, and other woodland creatures. Every great writer finds a way to make an idea their own, and when executed well, the story feels so unique that readers believe no story like it has ever existed before.
There is a lot to enjoy about Cinder and its subsequent books, including great characters, good writing, and surprisingly clean content for a secular book. But my big takeaway was the reminder to start with an idea and let your imagination play with it, like a child crafting with clay, until you’ve created something all your own.
Have you read Cinder? How do you make your story concepts uniquely yours? Leave me a comment below!