Over the years, a lot of different people have asked me the same question: Where do you come up with this stuff?
Sometimes it’s my dad commenting on my latest dilemma, but usually it’s about my wacky, over-the-top story ideas. My ideas are always epic in scale (sometimes too big for paper) and maniacal. Loaded. Symbolic. Tormenting in detail. So where do I come up with this stuff?
In order to answer this question, I’ve come up with sort of a ‘family tree’ about all the books and movies that have inspired my writing. Before I break it down in depth by ‘generation,’ here’s a nifty graphic I made:
I didn’t say it was a great graphic. I said nifty.
So take it all in, set aside your huh?s for the end, and let me break it down for you.
Was Goosebumps the first book I ever read? No. Was Welcome To Dead House the first Goosebumps I ever read? No. Is it my favorite one? Not especially. But it was the first of the series back in the day, and the story has stuck with me for a long time. This is raw Stine, before wackier jaunts like Monster Blood III. There’s no kids turning into dogs here, folks. This is pure terror with a dark ending. What I took from this was a sense of being fearless and over-dramatic….writing-wise, of course. Heh. Wailing kids and ghosts alike could be found at the end of every cliffhanging chapter. Usually the mystery was solved right away with the start of the new chapter, but still! For a young kid who didn’t tackle books in one sitting, this was storytelling at its finest! Scare kids, terrify them, make them want more–that’s R.L. Stine’s motto and that’s what made him a success. That and the twist ending. That was the real hook of Goosebumps, wasn’t it? Nobody was safe on that last page, especially not the reader. That’s where I learned torment.
But after reading my fair share of Goosebumps, I needed more. And I didn’t just want interesting stories about random people. I needed a series. Same characters, overlying plot–a precursor to LOST. That’s when I found Animorphs. These books had it all: sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror–you name it. The Animorphs were a group of middle-schoolers that stumbled upon alien technology that allowed them to ‘morph’ into any animal they came in contact with–but only for a maximum of two hours. Any longer and they were stuck as that creature forever. It wasn’t all fun and games for these kids; finding this technology was just the kickoff of an alien invasion. Turns out a ruthless species of brain-slugs had plans to enslave the human race. While the setup seems a little gimmicky, these books were all drama. Kids forced to grow up too fast, secrets that they had to keep from the world and each other, brother against brother, stakes way too high for a 13-year-old. And loss. Loss like you wouldn’t believe could be fed to a middle-grader. The sci-fi stuff was cool, but in retrospect, what kept me coming back was the characters and the turmoil. That haunting sense of Will this ever end? On top of all that, the books were all first-person, told from a different character each time. This was a play on perspective I had never dreamed of and I drank it up.
Before my run-ins with terror and sci-fi, I was introduced to fantasy. And not the sweeping, orc-and-troll fantasy, but good fantasy. Not to rag on all those Tolkien copycats out there, but the same old sword and sorcery quests don’t do much for me. I need a fresh take. That’s where Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep comes in. It was read to my 4th grade class by our teacher, Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson changed my life. She chose the greatest books (for the class and for me) and kindled my writing career, including Yep’s epic series of good versus evil that begins here. I don’t remember it word-for-word (which is why I’m re-reading it this year) but I do remember a sense of rebellion, of an underdog fighting a super-evil. And I remember an epic villain. This is Star Wars with dragons. From this, I learned to add a little heart and emotion to my writing, no matter the scale. I also fell in love with dragons–a very prominent feature in most of my writing.
4th grade was a big year for me, reading-wise. I was introduced to another book that shaped me: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. This book is tricky to place. At its core, I believe it is fantasy, but there are definitely elements of science fiction here. Theories of time travel and quantum physics, the genius children of a genius scientist manipulating dimensions to visit other planets–yeah, it’s all in there. But it’s also an epic quest, with creatures both spooky and majestic. And the beginning has that classic pick-you-up-and-throw-you-into-adventure feel that the first pages of The Hobbit has. But what I took from this the most is the fusing of genres. There’s no black-and-white here; it’s just good storytelling. I try to keep that in mind when I write anything. I don’t write a detective story or a love story or a horror story–I write a little bit of all three in everything I write. Plus, you will never read as cool a character as Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace.
It wasn’t all books that inspired me–although I bet Mrs. Johnson wished it that way. Movies also played a huge part in my childhood. I watched and re-watched the classics of my youth and still do. But only now do I see their real merit. For example, take the Ghostbusters films. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Ghostbusters. Probably up until 8th grade, I was convinced that Ghostbusting would be my profession in life. It was also about this time that I shockingly discovered that this movie was a comedy. A comedy?! Are you serious?! Surely the video store was mistaken. Ghostbusters was the epitome of horror, wasn’t it? Okay, maybe a documentary about the coolest job ever…but a comedy? Surely you jest. But, alas, I get it now. Ghostbusters is still one of the funniest movies of all time. I proved it by seeing it for the billionth time last Halloween–only on the big screen. I still busted a gut. But the snappy dialogue, the archetypal characters, and the mash-up of horror/science/comedy can’t be dismissed as anything but genius. There’s no movie like this and probably never will be. If you dissect my characters, you can probably categorize them as either an ‘Egon’ or a “Venkman.’
Another classic in the “Book of Mikel” is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Duh. What kid didn’t love this family of anthropomorphic turtles with impeccable martial arts training and a penchant for pizza? They were brightly-colored and the blueprint for cool circa the early 90s. But peel back the marketing and you’ll find a strong story. Four brothers, each very different, misunderstood by the people they choose to protect. Rooted in honor and bushido, this team of wisecrackers reminds us of the importance of storytelling. Yes it had creatures and The Shredder, but what’s more compelling than the tension between leader Leo and loner Raph? Or the sense of urgency when they search for Splinter, their adoptive father? Even in the midst of cool ninja moves, tasty pizza, and pop culture references, the most timeless themes of all shine through.
But, Mikel, when are you going to get to Star Wars? You’ve probably been asking that since you read the title of this post. Well, wait no further, dear reader, here it is! But what could I really say about Star Wars that hasn’t been said before–by the public or by my blog in general? Star Wars is inspirational to me, both as a storyteller and a human being. Stripped off all the ships and aliens, it is a story of human triumph. Classic characters, theatrical kisses, and over-the-top rescues. What does it teach? Don’t mess with the classics. A princess, a farm boy, and a scoundrel are a great trio in any backdrop. The precociousness of Luke Skywalker and the brashness of Han Solo are elements you will see repeated again and again in my work. Why? Because they are classic archetypes. Throw in a Princess Leia, make it a love triangle, and you have the quintessential storyline. Thanks, GL. I won’t forget it.
Apparently I really like sci-fi/fantasy trilogies from the 80s. But you shouldn’t be surprised by this one. Back to the Future was another staple of my childhood. Sure, I didn’t get a lot of the jokes, but so what? I got something much more important: inspiration. I really don’t think a better time-travel story will ever be told, but I can’t blame others for trying. In fact, I encourage it. Time travel is probably the most interesting thing to me. Even my love of flashbacks in storytelling can be traced back to the thrill of a time travel flick. There is a lot of fun to be had when working in the world of time travel, but there is also something beautiful in the idea that one can go back in time and fix mistakes. Change everything. Start fresh. So look past Michael J. Fox’s puffy vest and behind the wacky goggles of Christopher Lloyd, and you have a story at the very core of human interest. Human obsession even. I have yet to successfully complete a time-travel story, but I always try. And the mind-bending paradoxes that I have created in trial have made me a better writer. I keep experimenting. One day I’ll get it right.
Well that ended up being a real monster, didn’t it? If you’re still reading this: what’s wrong with you? That’s like 1500 words about movies I liked when I was a kid? But the way is paved. These are the classics that shaped the kind of person I am. The Second and Third Generations are really where my writing career found its voice. So stay tuned!