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…

A Writing Lesson from Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is one of the most engaging, illuminating and beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television, and I can’t recommend it enough. While listening to Neil deGrass Tyson’s delightful voice explain the universe to me, something he said made me smile even more than usual:

“[Fraunhofer’s] spectrum lines revealed that the visible cosmos is all made from the same elements. The planets, the stars, the galaxies; we ourselves and all of life, the same star-stuff.” ¹

My first thought was that this was also a very apt description of writing. The elements of writing are the letters of the alphabet, as well as any diacritical marks (depending on which alphabet is being used). From there, we can arrange them to create words, and we can then arrange the words in any way we want to form a piece of writing. And the combinations we can create are limitless.

The same words used to write a quick email to a colleague could also be found in a story about losing a pet. A dry report can be made more interesting by rearranging the ‘molecules’ to catch the reader’s eye. The events of the day could be summarised in a text message that uses the most basic building blocks of language, but still retains emotional impact. A non-fiction book uses the same words as a romance novel. There’s no point in being judgemental about what we write and read, because when you break it down, it all consists of the same elements.

We are creating new words all the time. We borrow words from other languages and from the latest trends of our teenagers (I don’t care what anyone says, the abbreviation ‘lol’ is fantastic). New inventions, scientific discoveries, and changes in our physical and social worlds all result in the creation of new words. We make new words by putting two existing words together (known as ‘portmanteaus’). We even take the names of fictional characters and incorporate them into our language – scrooge, milquetoast, yahoo and malapropism are just a few.

This is the magic of writing. From a small number of letters, we can create hundreds and thousands of words. We can then use those words to create billions of unique pieces of writing. So don’t worry. You will never run out of words. You will never run out of ways to use those words. And remember that once you make those words a physical reality, you give them life; a life that also consists of the same star-stuff.

¹Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: Episode Five, Hiding in the Light


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 copper wiring curled…
2. Still, it really didn’t matter that…
3. My favourite dinosaur is…
4. It’s petty, but I really can’t stand…
5. A beam of light cut through…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.