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Damn Suzanne!

Fellow IU alumna Suzanne Collins wrote the best trilogy I've read this century. She's got all the details of Theseus wrong, but...



Consider this a brain warm-up. I'm aiming for sense, but I'm not promising anything other than a tangent. This is what happens when I ride my bike.

You know that expression "there's nothing new under the sun"? People say that, as a way to excuse innovation. Or as a way to avoid disappointment, maybe. I know what it means, and then I'm not so sure.

But my question is, what's the innate value of "new," anyway?

I think we get excited about "new" because we're looking for a certain kind of chemical reaction in our brains. What teachers call the "aha! moment". When you perceive a problem (and I mean "problem" could be a way to fish, or a beautiful way to cover the body, or a need to let your mind travel away from the bonds of day to day navigation), and then you are presented with a solution (be that a fish hook, a robe, or a story), your mind feels a sort of symmetry. The mice rest for a moment, satisfied, and then start the wheel up again in search of another nibble.

But as this impacts storytelling, I'm not even seeking the "new." Because stories are symbol processors, like the mathematical equations that combine and recombine elements in such quantities that they produce a variety of reactions: explosions, state changes, nothing at all. What I find vastly more challenging than generating a "new" reaction, is knowing the qualities and characteristics of each element so thoroughly that I can produce the same reaction - the "aha!" symmetry of problem and answer - repeatedly. In small ways from moment to moment, and in large narrative arcs that change the way you think about everything in a very subtle way, and which culminate in deep-seeded blossomings of perspective-shift.

This process relies on consistency more than novelty.

This is where the layering of history and culture provide an invaluable service: our minds work as referencing machines, digging up all the connections to one thing.


Immediately there are a multitude of qualities and characters associated with this word, this proto-character, this "being" suddenly exists in the mind of the reader.

I think of: old, gray, mean, deceptive, responsible. I think of Cruella de Ville, Catcher In the Rye, Cinderella's Step-Mother, and Anne of Green Gables. I think of Carol Burnett in the bathtub singing about "lavooooliers!" And A Little Princess, Facts of Life, Battle Royale...

When I create the character that "Headmistress" will become, I use all these - and the layering of others that I can't even think of right now - to gather and juxtapose qualities that create together a predictable moment of: "I know what to expect, and then I don't, and then it all makes sense...aaahhhhh."

I want this character to be both recognizable and remarkable, but not "new." I want you to know her when you meet her, so that as the story unfolds, you will be surprised by the choices she makes, but understand immediately why she's made them.

I'm not even sure we are seeking "new." I think we like it better when we are surprised by our own experience of recognition. Of seeing something again that we've seen before, which massages all those previously stimulated nodes and makes us feel the intense pleasure of those same sparks again and again.

There it is.

In the past...