That gun is loaded

Would you feel comfortable with someone waving around a gun they do not know is loaded? How do you feel about someone who is not a marksman doing trick shooting?

No, this is not a post about Gun Control or Firearm Safety, it is a post about writing.

No one in their right mind will deny the fact that stories humans tell have patterns. Some of these patterns, over time, become so common that they earn the title of “trope” or “cliché.”  You know some of them by sight, having seen them again and again. New ones appear every so often, Sometimes old ones go out of fashion, and sometimes they return and, for a little while, seem new again. Sometimes “new” tropes and clichés are actually old ones in disguise.

Let me pause a moment to define how I am using these terms:

Trope: a common or overused theme or device

Cliché: something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective

A trope can be a cliché, but not every trope has to be. “Cliché” is what happens when that loaded trope misfires and a character, scene, or entire story dies to the reader’s interest because of it. I know you know the feeling.

That moment, in a movie, where that thing that always happens, happens and you groan inside. For that moment in the story, if not for the whole of it, the writers have lost you. You are back in reality and rolling your eyes at the choices made in creating the film.

The story lies bleeding. Maybe it’s just a fleshwound. Maybe it is fatal. Either way, it could have been avoided.

So the question becomes: How can we, as writers, practice acceptable trope-safety?

Step 1: Awareness

We are all inundated with tropes. Whether they would arise from our minds independently, or whether we are simply fed them from early childhood, they are in us. Chances are the first thoughts coming out of your head when you sit down to write, are tropes. In order to avoid any unpleasantness later on, you need to learn to recognize them, see them for what they are.

Step 2: Acceptance

I am of the opinion that tropes are neither good nor bad. I know people who struggle to avoid them altogether. The truth is, that is a trope in itself and often creates meaningless mush. Tropes exist, and continue to exist, because they serve purposes, and often serve them well. Fearing them is counter-productive. You will never be able to write anything meaningful by avoiding them completely. If you don’t believe me, spend some time wandering around tvtropes.org*. There is a trope for everything.

*Warning. This website will eat your time like a huge time-eating sarlacc.

Step 3: Education

So we cannot avoid tropes. What, then, should we do with them to prevent accidental story mutilation?

Before a firearm can be either safely used, or safely discarded (whatever your preference) the person who has it must know what it is and think about what they want to do with it. The key is education and thought. Learn to recognize tropes, decide not to fear them, and then be deliberate in how you use them. The difference between effective use of a trope and a trope-turned-cliché can be very slight.

This sounds vague, I know, but I cannot tell anyone how to use tropes because there are so many and I have no idea how any writer, other than myself, wants to use them. I think there are a few strategies, though.

a. Turn the trope a little. Don’t change it entirely, but tweak it (and make sure you know if the tweaked trope is also trope). Think of this like a feint. Your audience gets something just different enough from what they expected to cause them to look at it more closely.

b. Flip it. This one is pretty common, so be careful. It is usually referred to as an inverted trope. Princess saves knight can work quite well, but inverted tropes are tropes, too, and can become cliché or, worse, feel forced.

c. Play it straight. Be very intentional. Know what you are doing, and have a good reason why. It is a little safer to do with with less-common tropes, but sometimes it’s fun to go with the “well-worn.” Just try to avoid doing this by accident because purposeless tropes easily become boring or even annoying.

d. Subvert it. If there is a trope you really don’t like, consider using it to make a point against itself. This is the ultimate bait-and-switch of storytelling. I don’t particularly like this strategy, though it is sometimes very effective. Just be careful not to make war on straw.

e. Leave it. If the story will work just as well if you abandon the trope, or move to a less-expected one, then maybe you should do that. While tropes can be fundamental to plot or character, often times they are just trappings. Trappings can matter a lot, but not all are of equal worth.

f. Beware the implications of your tropes. This isn’t so much a strategy as very good advice. If you write about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, make sure you don’t miss the problematic undercurrents. Whether you play them straight or subvert them, being unaware of them can undermine whatever story you are trying to tell.

Ultimately, this post is me working through these questions for myself. I value input, and if this post has helped make you more aware of tropes, or helped you see new ways of dealing with them, then I am glad. Many times have I seen a perfectly good story or character fall prey to careless trope-use. If I can see it less in my own work, and less in the work of others, I will be very happy.

Do your part to reduce story mortality!

Practice Trope Safety:

Awareness, Acceptance, and Education.

.

I would like to dedicate this to BeKindRewrite. I promised her, long ago, that I would write this post.  She has written many good articles on this kind of thing, too. For starters, check this out: How to Be Original


N. T. Wright: “The line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them”

jubilare:

This blog is hit or miss for me (though always interesting) but this quote is a definite “hit.”

Originally posted on Dover Beach:

N. T. Wright

“The line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between the West and the rest, between Left and Right, between rich and poor. That fateful line runs down the middle of each of us, every human society, every individual. This is not to say that all humans, and all societies, are equally good or bad; far from it. Merely that we are all infected and that all easy attempts to see the problem in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are fatally flawed.”
- N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture

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The Writer’s Spidey Sense (#WritingWednesdays)

jubilare:

This is part of a series Brenton is posting (and there is a new fantastic one today!) I think that it is clear, in the reading, when a writer has trusted his or her instincts; followed where the story and the characters were leading. I could be wrong, because I am not in the heads of others, but I know the difference in my own writing between what comes and what is written to fill in the gaps, and I think I see the same pattern in others.

Anyway, go forth and read!

Originally posted on A Pilgrim in Narnia:

writing_wednesdaysThis blog is part of a series of Wednesday posts on Writing Resources. See next Wednesday for the value of False Starts in Writing.

In our beat-you-over-the-head technotronic age, CGI is going to be a big feature in any superhero flick. But as much I should complain about the complete over-soak of CGI that makes it look like reject footage from that disastrous film 2012, I have to admit that there are parts I like. In particular, I love how we get to see Peter Parker’s spidey senses in play. There are a few scenes where this plays out–most of them in the 3 minute trailers that give the best of the movie away. But here is one of my favourites, the Times Square scene:

Using cutting-edge technology borrowed from The Matrix, we can imagine how Spider-Man sees the what is coming at him. And what the Webslinger…

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Xena, Arizona Ranger

The other day I was listening to Marty Robbins, as I do now and again (after all, the man’s voice is like gelato, creamy and smooth). Specifically, the song Big Iron. Songs often influence, or interweave with, my writing. This song makes me think of the main protagonist of my WIP, who is a ranger, though not quite like the Rangers of the Old West, idealized or otherwise; not entirely unlike them, either.

The thing is, my ranger-protagonist is a woman. She’s not a gun-slinger, partly because her distance-vision is terrible, but mostly because there aren’t any guns in her world. However, I can definitely see her hunting down an outlaw and taking no prisoners.

So, on impulse, I stopped the music and began to re-sing the song to myself with the ranger being female. Then, when I reached the part about the outlaw, he became a woman, too. The result follows.

“Big Iron,” by Marty Robbins, altered lyrics in red.

To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day,
Hardly spoke to folks around her, didn’t have too much to say.
No one dare to ask her business, no one dared to make a slip,
The stranger there among them had a big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

It was early in the mornin when she rode into the town.
She came ridin from the south side, slowly looking all around.
She’s an outlaw, loose and runnin,” came the whisper from each lip,
“And she’s here to do some business with the big iron on her hip,”
Big iron on her hip.

In this town there lived an outlaw by the name of Texas Red.
Many folks had tried to take her, and that many folks were dead.
She was vicious and a killer, though a girl of twenty-four,
And the notches on her pistol numbered one and nineteen more,
One and nineteen more.

Now the stranger started talkin, made it plain to folks around,
Was an Arizona Ranger, wouldn’t be to long in town.
She came here to take an outlaw back alive, or maybe dead,
And she said it didn’t matter, she was after Texas Red,
After Texas Red.

Wasn’t long before the story was relayed to Texas Red,
But the outlaw didn’t worry, those that tried before were dead.
Twenty folks had tried to take her, twenty folks had made a slip,
Twenty-one would be the Ranger with the big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

The morning passed so quickly, it was time for them to meet.
It was twenty-past-eleven when they walked out in the street.
Folks were watching from the windows, everybody held their breath,
They new this handsome Ranger was about to meet her death,
About to meet her death.

There was forty feet between ‘em when they stopped to make their play,
And the swiftness of the Ranger is still talked about today.
Texas Red had not cleared leather ‘fore a bullet fairly ripped,
And the Ranger’s aim was deadly with the big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

It was over in a moment and the folks had gathered ’round.
There, before them, lay the body of the outlaw on the ground.
Oh she might’ve went on livin, but she made one fatal slip,
When she tried to match the Ranger with the big iron on her hip,
Big iron on her hip.

Big iron, big iron,
When she tried to match the Ranger,
With the big iron on her hip.

 

It certainly changes the mental imagery, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I love the original version of the song, too, and am as happy to sing it as to sing my slight adjustment.  Since doing this, though, I’ve tried flipping the pronouns in other songs, and it nearly always works.

Anyone who reads my blog consistently knows that I consider myself a feminist, and I in no way feel that I have to choose between feminism and loving and respecting men. Feminism, to me, means being considered a whole person, on equal standing with men, who are also whole people.

The culture I live in is riddled with messages that I don’t like. Few stories have interesting (much less powerful) female characters, and alternative feminist narratives sometimes seem to belittle, if not demonize, women who desire traditional female roles. It all makes me want to throw up my hands and shout “stop telling me what I should want and give me some better stories!”

Things are getting better in this regard, but progress seems slow. I will keep playing with songs and writing my own stories that neither limit women to periphery or symbolic roles, nor demonizes them if they make their mark on the world by keeping a home and raising children.


Errant Star

An short for BeKindRewrite’s InMon challenge. One of my darker characters decided to philosophize a bit. I should probably preface this with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer, so here it goes: The views and opinions in this snippet are those of the character and do not necessarily represent those of the author.

Personally, I know very little of astrology and so far as I am aware, there is no star of Melinoe, much less an errant star (planet). Melinoe is, however, a minor figure in Greek mythology, a nymph of the underworld associated with ghosts, nightmares, the moon, and madness. Cheery stuff.

 

I was born under an errant star. So are many great men, their restlessness driving them to fame. But it is said that men born under the ascendancy of Melinoe’s star are destined for great madness, or for the bringing of death, or both together

I have heard it said that there is no fate, that we make ourselves. It may be so, for as I look back, every step I have taken was a choice made freely. Every time I took a life I had clear reason, a purpose. If I knew nothing of star-wheels and prophecies I would never think twice. And yet, I was born beneath the influence of Melinoe’s wandering light.

Which begs the question: Am I an unwitting slave to cosmic patterns? If so, the blood on my hands is blood on the stars. They are the murderers and I am but their tool. Is that why some stars are tinged with red?

If not, if I have done these things of my own will, have the stars, since before my birth, been following me?


An Exercise in Excentricity

In my last post, I asked some questions and promised to give my own answers in my next post. This is that post.

The questions remain open to be answered, though. I really do need some outside input to help break me out of my usual creative patterns.

So, if you intend to answer these questions, please do so BEFORE READING THIS POST! I don’t want to influence your answers.

That said, here goes nothin:

1. Make up a constellation and a brief story for it.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… there was a great wolf spirit and a great serpent spirit roaming over a primordial world, and they were brother and sister. They were sent to shape the world for creatures who would come after them. 

Now, the wolf was an orderly creature who liked patterns and measures, while his sister serpent loved all things unpredictable and chaotic. For a time, they worked harmoniously, each one seeing the beauty in the other’s plans, but after a while their ideas came more and more into conflict. Unwilling to compromise, they parted ways, each one traveling over the surface of the world and shaping it according to their own desires.

When the siblings had covered the world, they began to run across and change eachother’s designs. As time went on, it seemed as if they would completely undo their own work and leave the world as formless as when they had begun. And so the Great Spirit reached down and scooped them up to release them in the sky where they would have more space to shape and form and would not interfere with the creatures that were to come.

The eye of the wolf is the fixed polar star, ever reliable. The serpent runs through the chaotic band of many stars, and her eye is red and inconstant.

2. What is your favorite holiday (excluding Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Easter) and  why?

 4th of July.  I absolutely love fireworks, and New Years is too insane. The 4th is, at least around here, a laid-back holiday filled with grilled food, family, and explosions. Sparklers, and elaborate fireworks displays never fail to fascinate and awe me. Thank you, Chinese inventors! I am also fond of my home nation and like to have a set time to celebrate its existence.

3. Name an object you would like to see featured in a story

 I want to read a story that involves a magical lint brush. Why? Because the non-magical kind don’t work nearly well enough to solve my cat-hair issues.

4. make up a name for a spell and tell me what it does

Brightsnap: brightsnap is an alchemical transmutation creating silvery beads that explode on sharp impact, exuding a blinding light for as long as a minute. Because honest uses of brightsnap are rare, it has been outlawed and knowledge of the ingredients and process have been suppressed. On the black market, the beads now fetch a high price. 

5. Choose a plant and make up a symbolic meaning for it

I’ve been doing this one for a while, so I will pick one I haven’t yet added to my list. 

Trillium: a meeting of ways/convergence

6. What is your favorite ghost/folk/scary story (can be humorous or not)

This is a tough one for me. You already have my favorite ghost poem, so I must think of something else. I am very fond of several E. A. Poe stories and of some of the folk-tales I have come across. Poe’s work is pretty well-known, though, so perhaps I should highlight the latter. I have little tangible reason as to which folktales and ghost stories speak to me, and which don’t. Here are two very different ghost-stories, both with roots reaching far back into human history.  The first one is a vengeful ghost tale, and the second is a sad one.


A Ramble in Which I Ask for Help

I am not sure where I am going with this post, but then I figure this blog is mostly here for me, so I am allowed to let my mind wander sometimes.

As usual, I am thinking about the craft of writing, the thread of stories, of characters and places and worlds (Earth, and the worlds of imagination).  My WIP takes up a lot of thought and a lot of time, but I am making more progress on it than I ever have before. Not only the actual writing and editing process, but the world-building questions that underpin everything.

Astronomy and calendars have been one focus lately. Did you know that the Mayans (and some other Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures) had two to three calendars in order to map time? All the hoopla about 2012 being the end of the world seems to have evolved from the fact that the “Long Count” cycle ticked over to the same length of time believed, by the Mayans, to have preceded the creation of mankind (a more in-depth scholar of these things than I may correct me, but that is how I understood it).

Anyway, I am fascinated by the different ways humanity has found to keep track of the passage of time. Did you know that the Romans changed the length of an hour throughout the year in order to account for what we call “daylight savings?”

In order to stoke my creative furnace, I have some questions I would like you to answer, if you are willing. I won’t steal your ideas (unless you want me to), I just want to get my sluggish brain thinking about these things again. Consider it an idea-bouncing contest. I will answer them, myself, in my next post.

1. Make up a constellation and a brief story for it.

2. What is your favorite holiday (excluding Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Easter) and  why?

3. Name an object you would like to see featured in a story

4. make up a name for a spell and tell me what it does

5. Choose a plant and make up a symbolic meaning for it

6. What is your favorite ghost/folk/scary story (can be humorous or not)

 

Characters are rummy. So are people outside written stories, though, so I suppose that is as it should be. I like my protagonists and antagonists all to be people I can empathize, and even sympathize with. In that sense, I suppose, I don’t write fairy-tales. There are behaviors that bring destruction or redemption, choices made that could have been different, but the paths are those of people, not symbols. I speak no word against fairy-tales or allegory. I love both, they just serve a different purpose.

One of my favorite characters from Tolkien’s mythos is Smeagol/Gollum. He ain’t pretty, and he’s rarely nice, but he feels very real. He could go either way at his crossroads, and the paths he chooses are understandable, if disastrous for him. His is a very human story, one that is easily recognizable in others, but hard to see in ourselves. I hope readers will see characters in my work that they do not want to emulate, but to whom they can relate nonetheless.

Aaand it is probably time to bring this ramble to a close. I need to go see if the little inch worms that have camouflaged themselves in yarrow petals are still about. My garden sorely needs some care, but at least it is alive, aye?

 


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