What Makes a Story Cliche?

As always happens at my writer’s group, we had an interesting conversation. One of our members worried that her submission was cliche.

She’d seen particular elements of her story in others: an alien returning to his own world, a teenage love triangle, an oppressive, autocratic government. She wondered if that made the story as a whole cliche.

The funny thing was, the group couldn’t come to a consensus. And it made me wonder: does quality affect perceptions of cliche? Does recency factor into the discussion? And is cliche as bad as some people seem to think? Let’s talk.

Quality Excuses All

One thing I’ve noticed: Audiences forgive cliche if they deem the art “really good.”

Take Netflix’s Stranger Thingsfor example. It’s one of the most popular shows on TV, yet seems to retread familiar tropes. A short list: shadowy government organizations, psychic children, monsters invading small towns from alternate dimensions, heavy synth soundtracks.

When separated from the whole, we get some cliches. Yet the show’s production quality, attention to detail, and nice guy Bob Newby mask these flaws. If the successful elements weren’t so successful, we might not forgive the cliches.

Popularity and Recency Magnify Perceptions of Cliche

People are more likely to label stories derivative if similar stories are already popular.

Take vampire fiction. I can’t tell you how many online fiction markets strictly forbid vampire fiction. Any of it. This is, of course, thanks to the Twilight series, which has single-handedly ruined vampire fiction for the next decade or so, I’d guess. Just say the word “vampire” and wait for the groans.

This works both ways. When we haven’t seen a particular idea explored in a while, it might feel fresh, even if it really is cliche. Take La La Landfor example. A fun movie. Singing, dancing, mean J.K. Simmons. All good fun. But remove the musical elements and you’ll find cliche. Struggling artists in Los Angeles get together, break up, reconnect again after one of them gets married. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Imagine if this came out in the thirties, when Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire made dancing cheek to cheek famous. People loved it because they hadn’t seen it in a long time.

A Little Cliche is Good

Imagine a story that you’ve never seen before. Its structure, characters, settings, and themes are all unique.

First of all, such a story does not exist. No work of art is completely original; everyone’s working off a predecessor’s template, whether they know it or not. Second, this probably wouldn’t be a very good story. Fact is, conventions and tropes exist for a reason. They give us familiar handholds to grasp. If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t get far off the ground.

So what makes a story cliche? Lots or little, depending on whom you ask. But if you ask me, I think cliche gets a bum rap. Treat it like salt: use a little, but not too much.

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NaNoWriMo 2017 in Review

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

It’s December, which means NaNoWriMo 2017 is officially in the books. This is the second time I participated and the first time I hit the 50,000 word mark. I’m glad I did it.

Did you participate in National Novel Writing Month too? If so, you probably learned a lot about yourself as a writer. I know I did. Allow me to share my best takeaways.

You Really Can Do It

Writing an entire novel seems impossible—until you do it. Participating in National Novel Writing Month is proof of that fact.

This year, I enjoyed using the NaNoWriMo website to track my progress. I entered my word count every day to see how many words I wrote each day, and how many more I needed to stay on track for my goal. Super handy and a great way to stay motivated.

You Just Did the Hardest Part

Buy yourself a coke, champ. Filling a few hundred blank pages is a monumental accomplishment.

Of course, we’ve just got manuscripts right now. They’re not novels until we edit them!

Though this is another daunting task, we now have the confidence to do it. Plus, it’s actually pretty fun to paint a shinier coat over the initial strokes. Since we’ve been racing against the clock all month, it’s unlikely that our first draft is ready for readers.

So let’s reorganize and refine those raw concepts. The result is sure to be magnificent.

People Now Think You’re Awesome

I mentioned this in my pre-NaNoWriMo blog post, but I think it bears repeating: people are always impressed when you finish a novel manuscript. I once interviewed for an internship and was asked what accomplishment I was most proud of. My answer: “I finished a manuscript for a novel.” I don’t have conclusive evidence, but I think it went a long way toward getting the internship.

Just because NaNoWriMo’s over for this year doesn’t mean we should stop writing. Keep at it!

Why the Divide Between Speculative Fiction and Literature?

Floating Castle

Literature | ˈlit(ə)rəCHər | noun | Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit. – New Oxford American Dictionary


According to a certain stuffy pocket of the literary community, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, collectively known as speculative fiction, don’t qualify as literature. Decent stories? Maybe. Cool ideas? Sure. But in the eyes of this snobbish literary elite, speculative fiction just doesn’t measure up to stuff like The Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick

Would you ever read Moby Dick willingly? Yeah, neither would I.

Take the 2003 National Book Awards as an example. That year’s winner was none other than Stephen King, who of course mainly writes horror. The literary elite wasted no time in attacking him, no doubt because he’s just a lowly genre writer. Here’s a quite from critic Harold Bloom.

“The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”

You forgot chapter-by-chapter, Harry, but whatever. I disagree with you.

In an episode of my favorite podcast, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, host David Barr Kirtley led a panel on this very debate. Recorded to promote Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, edited by John Joseph Adams and Joe Hill, the panel featured such influential SF figures as Adams, Hill, Carmen Maria Machado, Seanan McGuire, and Jess Row.

It’s interesting; Adams and Hill have starkly different opinions on the purpose of the volume. On the one hand, John Joseph Adams thinks of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy as a vehicle for speculative fiction to prove its worth to the literary mainstream. In his own words:

“I and other science fiction fans believe that the best science fiction and fantasy is on par with or better than any other genre. My goal with The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy was to prove that.”

Joe Hill, however, argues that speculative fiction has already merged with literature, and that it did so a long time ago.

“The instruments of science fiction and fantasy—the tools in that genre toolbox—have been out there in the literary world and being explored for at least a decade now, in work by people like Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy. Science fiction and fantasy is part of the literary mainstream, and has been for a while now.”

At first glance, Hill’s argument resonated more with me. There are so many novels out there—The Road, Fahrenheit 451, Cloud Atlas, and 1984, just to name a few—that are generally considered literary, non-genre works, yet are so clearly speculative fiction that it’s difficult to argue otherwise.

The more I’ve thought about this debate, the more I’ve started to like a decidedly different answer.

Why doesn’t the literary mainstream accept speculative fiction?

Why does it matter?

Let’s refer back to our definition of literature for a second. In the grand scheme of things, does The Lord of the Rings have “superior or lasting merit”? I’d say so. Since the trilogy’s publication in 1954, it’s been an enduring classic for generation upon generation. It’s been translated into 38 different languages (not sure if Tengwar counts there). Furthermore, it’s a story about enduring human ideas: friendship, tyranny, power, greed, love.

Does The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have lasting merit? Does DraculaDoes Slaughterhouse Five? 

If you’ve ever read any of those books, you already know the answer.

Truth is, we don’t need to speak up for speculative fiction. Speculative fiction speaks for itself.

 

 

Are you a fan of speculative fiction? Me too. Check out some of my speculative work here.

Unearned and Pointless: When Character Deaths Don’t Work

From Amazon

In fiction, everything happens for a reason. So when characters bite the dust, the audience wants to understand why. (Unless we’re talking about someone like Joffrey Lannister. In which case, reasons need not apply.)

A film called Trick ‘r Treat got me thinking about this topic. I really enjoyed this movie. It’s a horror-comedy Halloween anthology film featuring a murderous school principal, zombie children, and a demonic trick or treater. I loved pretty much every minute of this film—except for the very first scene.

It begins with two characters: Emma and Henry. They’ve just returned from a night of trick or treating, and Emma decides to dismantle their Halloween decorations, since she knows Henry won’t do it. Henry’s kind of like, “Yeah. True.” He also points out that removing decorations before the night’s over goes against tradition. Emma does it anyway.

As she’s putting away the decorations, an unseen assailant murders her. Henry comes out later and finds Emma’s dismembered corpse in the yard. And…scene!

Okay, this is a horror movie. The mortality rate for characters in horror films is far above the national average. And, as I mentioned, I think this is an excellent film. Yet I have an issue with this scene because the character’s death feels undeserved and pointless.

First of all, when we meet Emma and Henry, Henry feels like the character more deserving of death (no offense, Henry). He’s dopey and clueless. Plus, he won’t help with the stupid decorations. Emma, on the other hand, seems like a perfectly likable character. She doesn’t do anything in the scene to make her death feel earned aside from breaking the rules of Halloween. Yet she isn’t ware of the rules (nor is the audience) until it’s too late.

Here’s the thing about character deaths: Oftentimes they should feel either earned or significant to the plot. Otherwise, they feel cheap. If the villain dies at the end, no one minds. If the main character’s best friend dies and that death has no further bearing on the plot, something’s off.

I’ve seen cheap character deaths in other films as well, and they’re just as jarring. For instance, in Jurassic Worldthere’s an assistant character named Zara who’s needlessly and brutally eaten by dinosaurs. It isn’t just the character’s death that’s jarring—it’s the way she dies, being dropped into the waiting jaws of a sea monster. Seems unnecessarily nasty.

As mentioned earlier, I’ll admit that genre bends this rule somewhat. We expect character to die in horror films, often in gruesome ways. This makes sense, considering the genre is all about scaring its audience.

Still, the best works of fiction, horror or not, should strive to make character deaths feel earned. Deaths are plot points, after all, so like any plot point, the preceding actions must progress toward them. If an author/filmmaker doesn’t work toward a character’s demise (whether it’s a nasty one or just a regular one), it can often feel hollow. Plus, if a perfectly innocent character gets killed in a really awful way, audiences are likely to be repelled.

Character deaths work best when they’re earned or they serve a purpose to the plot. Striking that perfect balance is a challenge, one that even experienced filmmakers and authors don’t always get right.

Okay, I’m gonna go clean up my Halloween decorations. Wish me luck.

Vonnegut, King, Rushdie, and the Art of the Opening Line

Writer

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, widely considered a literary classic, starts with a simple sentence:

“All this happened, more or less.”

Isn’t that an amazing first line?

Now we’re not all Kurt Vonnegut (okay, none of us are), but we can still learn from the guy.

Why is this line so good? It sets the tone: satirical, somewhat detached, and spare. Thousand-page tomes are all well and good, but concise and precise literature is oftentimes even better.

Of course, there are many ways to start a story. Stephen King’s opening lines, for instance, often display a distinct style. Here’s the first sentence of King’s short story “The Monkey”:

“When Hal Shelburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eave, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he would scream.”

King takes a slightly different approach than Vonnegut, though I think it’s no less effective. The first sentence of Slaughterhouse Five serves to set the tone for the rest of the novel. King, on the other hand, often starts with a character, sometimes several, and a situation. In our example, we’ve got Hal Shelburn, a father, and his son, Dennis. Dennis just pulled something awfully creepy out of a corner of the attic. What is this thing? Why is it so scary? The only way to find out is to read on. And that’s what makes it so effective.

For a third example, let’s turn to the great Salman Rushdie. His controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses begins thusly:

“‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'”

This sentence is sick.

There’s a lot going on here. We have an element of fantasy introduced: the process of resurrection. We have a main character who is perhaps offering wisdom to another character. We also have the exciting image of a man “tumbling from the heavens.” How did he get there? Who is he singing to? Why the heck would a guy who’s falling from the sky be singing? There’s only one way to find out…

The best first sentences grab our interest, make us wonder, and invite us into the story. They might address tone or character or action or any number of other story elements, but, it seems to me, they all do one thing: demand us to read the rest.

The Importance of Laughter, and Also Hot Sauce

Hot Sauce

When I was in college, I made a movie for an introductory film course. It was not very good.

It was called 61 Days, and it was about a guy with a terminal illness. He’s been given the cliche timeline: just two months, sixty-one days, and then whappo. He croaks. So he decides to go on a cross-country adventure with his brother. I gotta say, I packed an impressive amount of emo voiceover and sappy closeups into those five minutes. The best is my main character’s slow-motion, Hallmark-stamp-of-approval grin at the end. Sugary sweet enough to melt your teeth.

The final cut of 61 Days was screened in a theater in downtown Ithaca, New York, along with about forty others. Most were quite impressive. Most of us showed a lot of promise as filmmakers.

But here’s what really struck me about those films: in terms of subject matter, the vast majority of them were like mine. They were depressing, melodramatic, obsequiously emotional. Everyone’s movie was about a bad breakup, substance abuse, mental illness, or, like my film, someone dying. If I had to sum up the afternoon in a single sentence, it would be this: “Look at me, I’m sad.”

Of the forty or so films screened that day, only one sticks in my mind as more than a generality. It was about a guy who travels back in time to feudal Japan in order to steal an ancient hot sauce recipe. The film featured samurai sword fights, goofy one-liners, and intentionally-poor lip dubs.

Everyone laughed. Everyone thought it was exceedingly funny. But secretly, I’m pretty sure everyone was thinking the same thing: amusing, but certainly not an A+ film. The unspoken understanding, of course, was that humor is not art. It’s just funny.

But is it?

When I watched that samurai movie, I felt a little lighter. I felt happy, at ease, even inspired. But when I watched my film and all those others, I quite frankly don’t even remember how I felt.

That film made me realize something: we all take ourselves too seriously. I took myself too seriously when I made a film that was identical to forty others. I said to myself, “I’m a serious filmmaker, so I’m going to make a serious film.” And sure, I did that. But I also made a film that was pretty forgettable.

Out of everyone in that class, the guy who made the hot sauce film was the only one of us willing to set aside his own ego. And, for that reason, he made a film that was far more memorable than the others.

Does that mean that comedy is superior to drama? No, not necessarily. In fact, in the artistic world, the reverse is far more often true. Adam McKay directed Anchorman, but no one seemed to recognize him as a true artist until he directed The Big Short. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, that’s kind of a big deal.

We can’t discount the value of laughter. If everyone could stop taking themselves so seriously, if everyone learned to just laugh at disagreements rather than fight over them, I think we’d all have a much better time. We all deserve to laugh. And, at times, we all deserve to be laughed at.

I never met the guy who made the samurai hot sauce film, but I wish I had. I imagine he’s a pretty cool dude. If I had asked him why he made his film, I imagine his response wouldn’t have started with, “My inspiration was born of my desire to explore the true nature of what it means to be a condiment…”

I like to think he would’ve said something like, “I made it because I thought it would make people laugh.”

And that’s all the reason I would need.

Why You Should Try National Novel Writing Month

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as the cool kids say) is a fun time of the year. It’s a time when people come together to create their own versions of one of the greatest forms of art there is: the novel!

Have you tried it before? Are you thinking of trying it? Here are some reasons you’ll want to join National Novel Writing Month yourself.

NaNoWriMo Gives You a Hard Deadline

I explored this idea in an earlier blog post from this month, but it’s still relevant, no matter what. In my opinion, most writers need deadlines.

This might sound harsh. Still, I know a ton of talented people who could generate a ton of great work, if only they hadn’t been working on the same project for three years. I’m not trying to put anyone down for doing so; writing is your time, and you should work on whatever projects you’d like. But hey. Sometimes you’ve got to move on to the next project.

I know I need deadlines. I often review my stories numerous times, making cosmetic (and ultimately low-impact) edits. For example: shuffling commas around. This is probably not a great use of my time, and it’s why I like deadlines. At some point, I can say, “This is as good as it’s going to be.” And then move on.

NaNoWriMo Gives You a Sense of Community

Unless you dig the working in a coffee shop thing, writing might feel a little lonely. And even if you do work at Starbuck’s, baristas are unlikely to chat about your first chapter.

But during National Novel Writing Month, you’ll have an entire community to people to discuss your writing with. NaNoWriMo is one of the rare times when everyone writes crazily hard for an entire month. Yes, that’s write—ahem, sorry. That’s right.

If you’re feeling lonely, head over to the National Novel Writing Month homepage. You can register your novel there, update your progress, and chat with others who are doing the same. Writing novels is hard, so feel free to encourage your friends as they slog through theirs. They’ll do the same for you.

NaNoWriMo Helps You Improve

Being a writer is all about gradual improvement. The first novel you ever write is probably going to be hideous. That’s just how it is. The key is to improve, and continue improving.

NaNoWriMo helps you do that. It gives you an excuse to go ham on your long-form writing skills for a while. Plus, it gives you a short window to do it in. As stated above, it’s kind of like forced practice. And, it’s a better time than any to get those much-needed reps.

I’ve found that the more time I put into my writing, the better it gets. So if you try NaNoWriMo, that’s a whole month of excellent practice. Which will help you improve. Which will help you write something even better next year. Woo hoo!

Bonus: People Will Give You Mad Props

If you tell another human being that you’ve written a book, they’ll be super impressed, especially if they’re not a writer.

Give yourself a deadline. Join a community. Improve your writing. Earn street cred. National Novel Writing Month starts in a little over a week on Wednesday, November 1st. Try it out!