May 24, 2010

Making a Cliché Into a Story

I’m struggling with how to make a cliché into a story. By this, I mean, how do you take a situation that has been done so many times, sometimes well but most often badly, in all different media, and make it into a good literary story?

In this case, I’m writing a story of a teenage boy who shoots his cranked-out father in self-defense. How many times have you seen something like this in TV or read it in crime fiction? Each sentence is a booby trap of words and received ideas. Each situation has been laid out so many times, how do you make it new?

When I first began the story, I was immensely unsatisfied because it sounded like a bad crime novel ~ not a novel of a bad crime but a crime novel that’s really bad. I used that standard shock opening and then I detailed the crime and then I had him on the run. I used words like “hide evidence” and “the cops.”

So how do you get around this? How do you make genre fiction into literary fiction?

Well, I think the first thing to do is to slow way way down. You know how most genre fiction slides smoothly over the surface of things. The pace is heightened because that’s what a lot of readers like with this fiction. It moves fast. It doesn’t question reality; it affirms preconceived notions. It entertains. Which is great, if that’s what you want your fiction to do. Also, have characters think about things. Put in flashbacks ~ not indiscriminately but as they directly relate to what’s going on in the scene.

Second, inhabit the character’s body. Give the five senses. Don’t write what you see on TV ~ first of all, your point of view is way outside the story and, second, TV is not real life. Put yourself bodily into the character’s body, and give your reactions to a scene like that. Feel the tensions in your body. Smell the smells and hear the sounds and feel the textures and let the sense memories flow.

Third, question each and every sentence and each and every move. Make it real. Make it new. Hunt down those clichés and root them out. This is definitely at a sentence level – words like “the cops” and “destroying evidence” and the like. But it’s also on a larger level. Don’t have them doing exactly what you’ve read and seen in these plots before. Real life is more complicated.

Fourth, make your characters fully realized, rather than cardboard cutouts. Having them complex beings with long histories will make the job of avoiding clichés easier.

I think it’s also important here to trust your unconscious ~ it knows a lot more than we think. If a skunk pops into the narrative, go with it. See where it leads. If your character’s nose itches, tell us about it and let him scratch it. Maybe this aspect of his character will lead you somewhere.

I say all this, but let’s see if I can actually do it.

What I’m Reading Today: I’m three-quarters of the way through Thom Jones’s collection of short stories The Pugilist at Rest. Boy, the title story just knocked my socks off (pardon the pun). Taking disparate elements (Vietnam, boxing, epilepsy, art and philosophy, the man’s man) and putting them into the same story ~ it just works. He really explores that psyche so well. I just read my first story of his with a female point of view character (“Unchain My Heart”), though, and I’m ambivalent about it. She’s so far from me, at the beginning she doesn’t seem real, a cliché, but then as it goes on I’m more convinced. And I do think there are women out there like this character, the female equivalent of Jones's male characters. Killer last line, though: something like “She’d gone deep, now she was going for speed.”

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