Transposing a classic plot - an idea for getting inspired to write a novel

If you're having trouble coming up with a good idea for plot, or if you're just starting out writing and you're not sure what constitutes a decent plot - one option is to take an existing story that you like, and transpose it.

This gives you a proven working formula for your novel, meaning you can concentrate on learning skills such as character development and writing tight prose. And by using one of the greats, you can learn a lot about the elements that are involved in a good plot on the way.

What do you mean by 'transpose a novel'

When talking about transposing a novel, we usually mean changing the location or era (though there are no laws, so you could switch the genders of all the characters, or turn them into ferret colony). Most commonly, an old classic such as something by Shakespeare will be moved into the modern day.

Transposing a story in this way brings a variety of challenges and opportunities. When using an established plot, you'll still want to make it your own, and to do so, you can take advantage of elements that exist in the new surroundings, that wouldn't have in the original. It can be fun to look for parallels between the two worlds, and if you're really smart, you can make interesting insights about how the world has changed or stayed the same...

For example, the rich feuding families ancient Verona in Romeo and Juliet were morphed into warring gangs in modern day New York in West Side Story (see below for more examples).

Remember that if you chose to follow this route, you're not bound by any rules about what you have to stick to and what you can change - it's completely up to you. You can be as faithful or deviant as you like. You could even change the ending to one you find more satisfying. The main objective is to ensure you breathe new life and flavour into the story, don't simply create a weak copy with only the names of places changed. Be ambitious and create something unique from the ingredients.

Examples of novels and movies that have been transposed:

Probably the most well known story to have been transposed many times is Romeo and Juliet, which has been brought into modern New York Gangland with West Side Story, as well as the Disney movie, High School Musical.

Sherlock Holmes has recently been rebooted by the BBC, who have taken the unusual step of retaining the exact names and characters and simply plopping them down in modern day England. The stories have remained somewhat faithful, but with the addition of modern knwoledge of science technological advancements and some bowing to the local customs (thich less hallucinogenic drugs).

Tess of the D'urbevilles was wrenched out of its rural English home and replanted in modern India, where it flourished as the film, Trishna.

Suggestions for further transpositions:

  • Star Wars in a medieval village
  • The Hobbit in modern day London
  • Les Miserables in futuristic space

What are your favourite modern adaptations of old classics? Do you have any suggestions for transpositions you'd like to read?

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