Recycling Works

It’s a tried and tested technique: take an old, familiar storyline and recycle it for today’s audiences. Sondheim and Bernstein did it with West Side Story, inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; Helen Fielding based Bridget Jones’ Diary on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. So we’re in good company.

If imagination fails, old publications are great places to find inspiration. I work for the History of Advertising trust where we have large collections of vintage magazines; a quick browse reveals a storehouse of letters, problems and stories waiting to be recycled. There’s no copyright on ideas, so there’s no problem retelling an old tale, updating the setting and changing the characters.

Breathe new life into a familiar story by changing:

  • The age and sex of the characters
  • Their occupations
  • Their children or other relatives
  • The setting or time period
  • Their pets

Here’s a simple plot outline that often crops up in different guises:

Marital Conflict –

John is working too hard; Sue is depressed. They’re both exhausted because the new baby never stops crying.

Misunderstanding –

Sue thinks John fancies her sister; John thinks Sue fancies the postman.

Problems –

John misses an important party because of work, their toddler wanders off and the dog is involved in a road accident.

Conclusion –  

Heart-tugging reconciliation with the promise of a new beginning.

Now try this:

  • Change the age of your heroine – eg. from a young mum leaving her child at the school gates for the first time, to an older woman faced with empty nest syndrome after her children have all left for university.
  • Change a family Christmas at home to a summer wedding day in the South of France.
  • Change a skiing holiday with adults to a beach vacation with children

Each time you change the setting, location or age of the protagonists, you open up a completely different set of problems, tensions and resolutions to be solved. The possibilities are endless.


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