Building a Novel on a Cliché (or Two)

Spring Finally Arrived Last Week (View from my window)
Spring Finally Arrived Last Week (View from my window)

It’s been more than two months since February 2nd — Groundhog Day — when Punxsutawney Phil predicted, erroneously, an early spring. Considering a prosecutor’s call for Phil’s death (as though the death penalty were a laughing matter), perhaps Phil wants a do-over, another February 2nd, just like Bill Murray’s character endured for decades in the comedy Groundhog Day (1993).

Life After Life ThumbnailUsing the same theme as Groundhog Day, which wasn’t the first to use a time loop, author Kate Atkinson’s Ursula Todd lives many versions of her life in Life After Life: A Novel (2013). The story begins in November 1930, when twenty-year-old Ursula points her father’s revolver from World War I at Hitler and pulls the trigger. Next, we’re transported from Germany to England, two decades earlier in time, to Ursula’s stillbirth, which the next chapter undoes, when the doctor arrives at the house “in the nick of time. Literally.”

This roughly 500 page novel is a tedious exploration of the “what ifs” in Ursula’s history, focused primarily on the two Great Wars. Ursula is born many times, dies in many ways, and changes the course of her life each time she gets to live it (unlike Billy Murray, Ursula isn’t fully aware of these alternate lives, but she has her déjà vu moments). It’s a grim story with humorous reprieves that are too dry and too sparse to balance the weighty subject matter.

Still, despite being depressing, tedious, and repetitive, the novel kept my interest. I wanted to see how each version of Ursula improved upon the last. I wanted to see how Ursula wound up in a smoky café in Munich pointing a revolver at the Fuhrer. Haven’t we all wondered how the course of history would have changed had Hitler died before he’d had the opportunity to rise to power? Would the Holocaust and World War II still have happened?

Kate Atkinson is not the first person (nor will she be the last) to base a story around such clichés as killing Hitler and time loops. Doctor Who, for example, has done both, as have countless other movies, novels, and television programs — the TVTropes website lists dozens of examples. Here’s one of my husband’s favorites.

As many have said, from the Old Testament to Mark Twain, there are no new ideas. According to Albert Bigelow Paine, in Mark Twain, A Biography, Vol. III, Part 1: 1900-1907 (1912), Twain explained, while discussing the copyrighting of ideas, that:

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.

Indeed, American copyright law recognizes the importance of borrowing ideas and themes from others by protecting through copyright only the expression of ideas, the specific words used, not the plots or the themes.

So, writers are free to borrow literary themes and plots, but they should be careful when attempting to re-do common ones, like time-travel, déjà vu, and killing Hitler. When they put these themes into their “mental kaleidoscopes” and give it a few turns, hopefully, it will produce a combination that adds value; maybe a combination that’s even better than its predecessors. Otherwise, their readers might think they’re the ones stuck in a time loop.

Note: I purchased the ebook through Amazon for $7.49, which I thought was a good price for a traditionally published book released this year. As of April 15, 2013, the ebook is listed at $12.74 (and on April 16th, it’s listed at $12.59). I would never spend more than $10 for this ebook. [Update: This novel is on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced today; maybe that’s why the price went up?]

Not Worth More than Ten Dollars


  1. Ha, I see that you are not such a great fan of LAL as I am, but I would be intrigued to know how you would review A God in Ruins – they’re quite different reads and of the two I did prefer this later companion novel. Loved the first, but admired it more – this latest one bowled me over… Wonder if you will be tempted to read it?

    1. Life After Life is an impressive book, though a little too grim for me. I hadn’t considered reading A God in Ruins, but maybe I should! I’ll give it some serious thought. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Thanks for your post, even though I mostly disagree with it. Yes, time travel and killing Hitler have been done before, but as you point out, so has everything else. Even Shakespeare wrote his plays based heavily on works that had already been published.

    I’m not sure why I loved the book so much, to be honest, but I did. I found it to be a fast page-turner, rather than tedious. I found the characters fascinating and I happen to love works set in the first part of the 20th century. My love for Kate Atkinson’s work in general is a bit of a mystery to me, but there you have it. I guess I just enjoy her voice and characters. I’m also so used to reading bleaks works that works others find depressing don’t faze me a bit.

    Just thought I’d add my two cents to the discussion. (I know this is an old post, but I just discovered your blog today.)

    1. I’m glad hear that you liked it! “Life After Life” is quite impressive, even though it was too grim and tedious for me. Parts of it have stayed with me over the last year, though, particularly her depiction of sexual and domestic violence. It’s a thought-provoking read.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Loving the time machine cartoon 🙂 D’oh! I didn’t realise that so much ‘killing Hitler’ stuff had been produced. And the reviewed book sounds as if it could be made much better with some ruthless cutting. Very interesting post.

    1. Yes, it should have been a shorter book, particularly considering how painful the subject matter is (I almost stopped reading the book 1/3 of the way in, but I’m glad I finished it).

  4. Loved this post. I don’t know how many times I have read someone’s short fiction in a class and immediately thought of a movie I saw that was almost identical and now I’m really careful with my own work. I would have to say twisting old ideas/ truths is one of the most difficult parts of writing, but it is what makes it so challenging and creative. It’s like any other art.

    1. Thanks! It’s tough to take old ideas and come up with “new and curious combinations,” as Twain described. Atkinson managed to do it, but her product was way too depressing for me. I prefer Futurama’s take on killing Hitler, and Groundhog Day’s time loop.

  5. That is a very interesting take on a novel I keep seeing reviewed. I have seen so much about it I have almost been put off it – although I am also not sure it would be for me – I hate time slip type things.

    1. Yeah, it’s tough to do the time loop theme well. In this case, it was demoralizing to get through a huge chunk of the book only to have Ursula die and start over, but seeing her transformation (from life to life) was interesting overall. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Thanks for the review—I’ve been curious about this one. Maybe not really up my alley after all.

    Side note, I like to think of Groundhog Day this way: if Phil sees his shadow, only six weeks left of winter; if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, only six weeks until spring! Then the outcome doesn’t really matter. Besides, I like winter 🙂

    1. It’s impressive that Atkinson managed to take two literary cliches and make it interesting, even if the result is too grim and slow-moving for my liking.

      I like your view of Phil! He should hire you as part of his defense team. I like winter, too, but not when it encroaches on spring. Spring is my favorite season.

      1. I would love to have a dogwood, such beautiful trees. As for Phil, no one was happy with him this year. For a bit of humor, an Ohio prosecutor indicted Phil for an “unclassified felony” and recommended the death penalty (I don’t think death penalty jokes are funny).

  7. This reminds me of another book I read some time ago called Elleander Morning.

    Blurb: Elleander Morning is an alternative history in which World War II never happened. In the book’s opening pages, Adolf Hitler is sitting in a café in Vienna in 1913 when he is assassinated by an American woman, Elleander Morning. The novel won several awards, including the 1986 Ditmar Award for best international fiction and the Science Fiction Club Deutschland’s Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis.

    I have the hardcover around here somewhere. I remember liking this book quite a lot.

  8. Oooh! Love your spring pic! Spring definitely didn’t show up early here either. I think the Punxsutawney probably just roll the die and hope for the best.

    The book sounds like an interesting concept, but 500 pages…and repeats…Hmm… Maybe I’ll stick to the Doctor Who version. 😉

    1. Yeah, Doctor Who is a safer bet! Atkinson’s novel is on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but it’s just too tedious and grim for my taste.

  9. I’m curious about ebook pricing. Atkinson’s novel is lenghty and trad pub. Wouldn’t that make it worth more than ten bucks? Just asking (I have not read it).

    1. It’s on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, too, but that doesn’t make me want to spend more than $10 for it. If it’s worth more than $10 to you, then you’re free to buy it, and you won’t be the only person who thinks it’s a fair price. The goal for the publisher, though, is to find the price that will maximize the profit, and a lower price might entice more readers while maintaining a large profit margin because ebooks are cheap to produce. As a general rule, I don’t spend more than $10 for an ebook. It’s just a file, and considering what we know about publishers, most of the profit isn’t benefiting the author. Thanks for the comment.

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