Squeeze that Story: Is It Fresh?

I read somewhere there are only eight facial types, which explains why you always see people who look like people you know.  Could the same be said for stories?  Is there really only a limited number of tales a writer can tell?

Originality is a problem for writers.  A short list of familiar stories might look like this:

  • Boy meets girl (or vice versa); boy loses girl; boy gets girl.
  • Good triumphs over evil.
  • Someone goes on a quest.
  • A young person comes of age and rights a great wrong (or several).
  • A hero fights either a monster or a powerful adversary.
  • A life-altering choice and its consequences.

Any and all of these can be combined into a story.  I see agent blogs and interviews where the literary agent says he or she is looking for something “fresh.”  How can the writer avoid the clichés inherent in not only fiction, but especially genre fiction?

Different genres have elements readers expect to see.  For example, romance must end on a positive note for the couple involved.  Readers of this genre expect a happy ending and a pox on the writer who doesn’t give it to them.  Thrillers need not end happily, but the villain is expected to be vanquished, at least temporarily.  The Joker may always be back, but Batman has to thwart him for a while.

Freshness results from combining these elements in a new way.  You can’t blindly follow the latest trend.  It will be over before you get there.  Some writers despair they will never invent something new.  Maybe not, but there’s a reason people read the same stuff over and over.  They like it.  Give them something to get excited about.

Change up the narrative voice.

How interesting would it be to read the same story from Joker’s point of view?  Or Alfred’s?  Writer Valerie Martin did this brilliantly in a rework of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.   Mary Reilly is Stevenson’s story told by Dr. Jekyll’s servant.  I know a plot element is good when I am insanely jealous that I didn’t think of it first.

Take a little-known element and bring it to the forefront.

Medieval stories often follow royalty and warrior characters, life in a castle, etc.  Karen Cushman wrote two excellent books for young readers set in the Middle Ages, Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice, which won a Newbery award.

Birdy is the daughter of a knight.  Her family isn’t rich, although they are better off than Birdy’s best friend Perkin the goat boy.  Alyce’s orgins in Apprentice are a bit more crude; when we first meet her she is in a dung heap.

Cushman’s research vanishes into her depictions of life in the Middle Ages, from the rushes on the floor of the manor house to the villager’s festival activities and the midwife’s primitive obstetric practices.  Her details make the books more interesting.  If you search for seldom-used aspects of a period or way of life, you might even find a plotline lurking among them.  Piquing your reader’s curiosity will ensure they can’t put the book down.  In Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, not only were the story and the main character engaging, but the book detailed a profession traditionally shrouded in mystery.

Write fully-developed characters, and put them in situations that challenge them.

No person is one way all the time.  Your character could be the good guy, but he might be capable of some very dastardly deeds in his pursuit of justice.  Think Dexter.  Tons of shows and books have been done about forensic experts.  Dexter is a fresh twist.  He’s also a serial killer who kills other serial killers.  To lead a double life like this, a person would have to compartmentalize.  What happens when the walls break down?

Villains who want to kill and destroy without any provocation or reason pop up a lot in comics, genre fiction and movies.  Like a force of nature, they overwhelm and confuse the hero, who must figure out what is driving them.  If nothing is, then it just becomes a blocking exercise.  Kill the villain so he can’t blow up the dam.

Everyone has motives.  People do things because they want something in return.  What does your villain want?  What’s he trying to prove, or aquire?  Why?  If it’s power, what does he plan to do with it?  If the reason is somewhat clichéd, like revenge, at least show his way of thinking.  A real person trying to get revenge thinks he is justified in doing so.  Show why your villain feels this way.  It’s not just because he’s bad.

Besides an astonishingly great performance by the late Heath Ledger, one reason the Joker in The Dark Knight was so good is that he had a subtext.   He was evil but how anyone could miss the wall of pain pushing off the screen astonishes me.  I actually walked out of the theater feeling sorry for the guy.  There wasn’t even any concrete explanation for his scars.  His stories implied he either told part of the truth or the real reason was so awful even he couldn’t stand to repeat it.  How intriguing is that?

Turn a cliché on its head.

Bram Stoker took the walking corpse of Eastern European vampire legend and made him into a nobleman, Count Dracula.  He’s still a a monster, but now one that might go undetected.  Anne Rice did him one better by starting the vampire-as-romantic-figure trend with Interview with the Vampire.  Now vampires are lovers, not bloodsuckers.

For an even newer angle, check out the adolescent vampire in Let the Right One In.  Being heme-dependent is secondary to the plot; the story is really about the friendship between two misfit children.  In genre fiction especially, the best stuff is about people, not stereotypes.

Imbue your fiction with freshness.  Read celebrated new books in your category and try to see why they are so different.  Then make sure your writing is the best it can be.  If you have any recommendations for stories that set genre clichés on edge, please share them in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Squeeze that Story: Is It Fresh?

  1. Good points. Makes me think of Watership Down where the story is told from the point of view of the rabbits or The Princess Bride that’s told from the point of view of a literary scholar translating a completely fictional story from a supposedly brilliant author. And I loved Let the Right One In. It was nice to see vampires that still acted human and were conflicted about what they were doing.

    • Thanks! :)

      Even the most trite story can benefit from a little shakeup. It’s really, really hard to think up something that hasn’t been done before. I’ve read stories that started out innovative but degenerated into a messy, predictable cop-out and I know we’ve all seen movies like that.

      I knew you would like *Let the Right One In*. I’m dying to read the book, but the library copy is reserved for a billion years.

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