Sometimes I think the “rules” of good writing are a mash-up of contradictions. For instance, you need to be original, but you need to follow the rules of those who have come before you. Don’t plagiarize, but take lessons from classic story structures. Which one should you follow? It seems that even the classics borrowed from each other.
I recently read a critical article of literary comparison between The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In its witty title it stated that Holly Golightly was Jay Gatsby in drag. Before I go any further, it should be noted that National Public Radio listed both of these novels in their “100 Best Characters in Fiction” list with Jay Gatsby hitting first place and Holly Golightly coming in at number 11.
Number 11 out of 100 is nothing to sneeze at considering that this article implied that Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, basically plagiarized from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Shocking? Yes. Completely unfounded? Not necessarily… Let’s take a closer look.
Here are the main reasons for this accusation:
Physical character traits:
- Both main characters are attractive, charismatic and enigmatic.
- Both characters have affected speech patterns. Jay uses phrases such as “old sport” while Holly calls everyone “darling.”
- Both characters have connections with organized crime.
- Both characters love to host parties.
- Both characters stop hosting parties once romance ensues for them.
- Both characters come from humble backgrounds.
- Both characters have changed their identities.
- Both characters live vicariously through more glamorous neighbors.
- Both characters are driven by dreams.
- These dreams ultimately lead to their death and exile.
- Both novels are told in first person.
- Both novels use beautiful imagery to describe the setting and supporting characters.
- Both main characters are visited by someone from their past.
Is this comparison meant to imply that Breakfast at Tiffany’s doesn’t deserve to be on the 100 Best List? Absolutely not. I love the book and could watch the movie on continual loop. What Truman Capote did with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story is to recreate and change it for his own purposes. They say there are only seven story plots. These are:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
This means you have to take basic principles of good storytelling from previously told tales, but then, you put your own style to it, add your own unique details, envision how your character will be different.
So keep writing your stories, but educate yourself by reading others’ works too.