Friday, June 20, 2014

"It's been done before" doesn't matter. Doing it awesomely matters.

First up, Gail Carriger's June Book Club reading of FORTUNE'S PAWN is still going! Goodreads discussion thread is here is you want to talk Devi with other totally awesome people.

As someone who is infinitely interested in all aspects of the writing life and business, I spend a great deal of my casual internet browsing time lurking around places where authors talk shop. On the down side, this also means I spend a lot of time skipping over endless rehashings of certain eternal writer questions - First vs. Third person, do readers skip prologues, how much editing is too much editing, etc. But the reoccurring topic that I notice the most, probably because it's the one that bothers me the most, is cliches.

I've talked about this before, but, like the zombies it would be cliche to compare them to, the idea that cliches are the bane of good fiction keeps coming back. And that's really sad, because when used correctly, cliches (or, more appropriately, tropes) are a fantastic way to build a familiar feeling base that readers can instantly feel at home in.

Because I'm hungry, let's think of books like bread. It's fun to try something new -- say a jalapeno-artichoke brioche with a walnut honey glaze--but no one is in the mood for all new experiences all the time. Sometimes, we hunger for the familiar done well: a perfectly baked French baguette, or a tangy loaf of sourdough served just right.

The same basic idea applies to reading. A classic trope (the farm boy hero, the sexy immortal vampire, the hard boiled detective) might look like a cliche on the surface, but when done well, tropes can actually become selling points. Readers already know what they like, and offering them the same thing again served up with style can be just as much of a hook as something completely new.

The best times, of course, are when you can create something that is both familiar and original at the same time. The new spin on an old favorite is the holy grail of commercial fiction: the same, but different. To revisit our bakery metaphor, take the sensationally selling cronut. It's just a fried croissant shaped like a donut and covered in sugar. Two common expected things, jammed together to make something new.

But while making the cronut of fiction is a fabulous goal (and the genesis of every sub-genre), there's also nothing wrong with baking a killer baguette. A big, popular trope done right with your own signature style is a marvelous foundation for any story, especially since the audience's built in familiarity of the trope gives you a ready made set of expectations to lean on, subvert, and play with. The key here, of course, is that your trope has to be done well, but that's true of anything. Have you ever seen a piece of writing advice that said it was okay to halfass something? I didn't think so.

So writers, please, the next time you feel the need to reject an idea because you feel it's been done before, remember: these tropes keep reappearing for a reason. People like them, they work well in stories, and best of all, people think they know what to expect. That's when you can have real fun - when you turn the cliche on its head. But even if you don't, even if you just take the time to make your chosen trope as interesting and deep and well-thought-out as possible within your own story, you'll end up with something that is delightful in its own right. "It's been done before" doesn't matter. Doing it awesomely matters.


Michael Mock said...

I love this.

That is all.

Wolf Lahti said...

"The important thing... is not to avoid the cliché, but rather to use it only with discrimination and sophistication, and to shun it when it is a substitute for precise thinking." [The Careful Writer]
—Theodore Bernstein

Nick Green said...

"Giving people what they [think they] want" is hardly a lofty ambition, though, is it? We're more than chain-store bakeries. I don't like comparing books to pastries.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a writer, but I am a reader. I read for fun and entertainment.
When reading I'm not looking to expand my brain in strange and painful ways. I'm not looking to push the envelope or journey to the 9th dimension or learn the language because the book really IS written in Klingon.
I just want to have a good time.
Why should a writer care more about what "I" want then their own boredom?
It's simple really... I BUY books.
I don't beg, borrow, or steal them. I take my money and give it to authors who write what "I" want to read (to the tune of about 6 books a month).
I know it's not an author's dream to pander to readers like me, but THANK GOD FOR YOU!!
Oh and here's some money:) Keep up the good work:)

Lori L MacLaughlin said...

Love this post! I'm going to remember that last line.

Judith Smith said...

Using tropes can lead to some of the most original writing -- taking a familiar situation, and saying something new and fresh with it -- can give the reader much more to think about than just looking for something "new" and then not really having very much to contribute.

Often "originality" is nothing more than a disguise for having nothing much to say.

Giving readers what they think they want, then saying something real, something the reader more than they expected -- is just as much art as some paint thrown at a wall.