Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’ (III)

Writing Lessons from The Simpsons (III)

“People say, ‘How do you get your ideas for episodes?’ With Mike [Reiss] and me, we thought, ‘Lisa likes ponies. We’ll give her a pony’…It’s not that hard sometimes.”

– Al Jean, DVD commentary for Lisa’s Pony (The Simpsons: season three, episode eight)

When we say we have to have a good idea in order to write, what we actually mean is an original idea. We don’t want to write another generic romance, murder mystery or supernatural-themed trilogy. We want something fresh and exciting, something that will grab the reader’s attention! We want people to ask us, “Where do you get your amazing ideas?”

But it’s not our ideas that people will love. It’s the way we write about them.

If you haven’t seen this episode of The Simpsons, the idea might seem like a cliché: oh, an eight-year-old girl likes ponies, how original. But the resulting episode is far from a cliché, because it’s not about how eight-year-old girls like ponies. It’s about how Lisa likes ponies and what happens when her dream finally comes true.

In the episode, Homer buys his daughter a pony to overcompensate for his poor parenting. He then has to take a second job to pay for it. It’s only a matter of time before Lisa realises that the price of her dream is too high – figuratively and literally. The moment she has to give up her pony is genuinely moving because her bond with the animal was real.

How many of us have had to give up something we wanted or loved because it turned out to be unfeasible? How many of us know have overcompensated for behaving badly instead of doing the hard work of changing our behaviour? How many parents know what it’s like to be unable to give their children what they really want? Or work so hard to give their children everything that they exhaust themselves in the process? (Granted, Homer wouldn’t have had to take on a second job to buy a pony if he’d been an attentive parent in the first place, but it’s still something to which people can relate.)

All of this came from one simple idea – Lisa likes ponies. Readers and viewers don’t dismiss something because the central idea isn’t original. If that were the case, then no one would be writing love stories or murder mysteries or supernatural-themed trilogies. It’s what the writer does with the idea that counts. If something resonates with you, write about it. And if you’re stuck for something to write about, remember that ideas don’t have to be that hard sometimes. Just pick something and start writing. You never know where it will take you.

This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words.

1. The window stuck and…
2. The hard beak of the crow pecked…
3. It was raining yet again…
4. Eggplant sneak attack!
5. I found an old VHS tape…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net.

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