Literary Palimpsest (Don't Worry, I Don't Know What That is Either)

Okay, so I meet the greatest people at book signings. Toni Pilcher was one said person. She is amazing, and I begged asked her to blog for me on the League today.

A little bit about her first: She is simply a graduate student at BYU pursuing her MA in English, writing her thesis on young adult literature. Even though she's a starving student, she spends her grocery money on books, and she has frequent nightmares that her bookshelves are empty.

She is so much smarter than me! So let's have her take it away!


Last summer, I attended Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Salt Lake City. I came with questions because I was struggling with my dystopian WIP: the story was just not progressing. At the conference, Martine Leavitt, author of Keturah and Lord Death and other wonderful YA novels, introduced me to the concept of the palimpsest. In technical terms, a palimpsest results when the writing on a clay tablet or a piece of vellum is scraped away and replaced by new writing. Often, the original words can still be seen through the new words. In a similar way, as Martine pointed out, an older story can illuminate the themes of a new story.
Now, this literary palimpsest is no new thing in YA lit. Many books are retellings of older stories. Fairy tale retellings are easy to recognize, but some retellings are more disguised. It wasn’t until after I finished Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book that I realized it was a unique retelling of The Jungle Book. With this knowledge, my second reading was much more interesting!

Other books borrow plot structures. The most famous structure is probably the hero’s journey. But think of how Rick Riordan adapts plots from mythology without simply retelling the myths. And in Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, aspects of the main character’s favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, become very important to the plot.

Some books simply make references to characters or lines or themes. The characters in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders read Gone with the Wind, and the idea of becoming Southern gentlemen informs their decisions later in the novel. Poetry is also an important influence in The Outsiders (Stay gold, Ponyboy!), as it is in many other books. Most recently, poetry has provided motivation for the characters in Ally Condie’s Matched and Crossed. Literary palimpsest works on many levels.

After getting this great idea from Martine, I immediately began to brainstorm “master” stories that could illuminate the themes in my WIP. I settled on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and my WIP exploded—in a good way. I have so much more insight into my characters! I’m using some of my favorite lines from Winter’s Tale, including the line that gave the play its name (“a sad tale’s best for winter”), as guides for plot, dialogue, and character development. Though I have a different character line-up and setting than the original, I’m borrowing the basic plot structure and reworking some iconic scenes. And yes, I’m even using the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by bear.”

Whether or not readers actually recognize the story beneath the story, I think literary palimpsest can strengthen a manuscript. For a writer, it’s like being an apprentice to a great wordsmith and having something to show for it.

Do you follow a master story when you write? Do you recognize the influence of master stories on the books you read?


Emily said...

Yes! I love this. My WIP is a retelling of 'The Tempest.' It is very loosely based, but, like you, there are some recognizable features.

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