Monday, July 13, 2009

The Challenge Of The Familiar Story And Its Tropes

It's been said that there are no new stories, that every tale can be traced to an earlier one, and so on, ever backward like a traceable genealogy, showing similarities as with a blood line. Some say this is because when tales are stripped down, there are only 7 true stories, or 12, or 24, or 32, or 56--heck, pick a number--and that what differs is the manner of the telling and the accompanying details.

Within these familiar stories lie even more well-known tropes. Depending on the genre, you will know them for what they are: the dark and stormy night, the strong but lonely man, the tortured and tragic hero, the sun-washed green fields, the shadowy castle crowned with lightning, the powerful weapon, the deserted island, the ship floundering in the storm-swept sea.

(At this point, I break for a brief plug: I would like to mention Ria Lu's Talecraft story-creation card game once more. I've blogged about it before, and I think the card game is a well-researched trove of information about various story genres and their accompanying tropes (with bibliographies too!). I think there are new expansion packs available in the market to enhance the original set; and the way the game's set up, you can get some pretty challenging combinations of tropes to fit into the story you're tasked to write. For example, using some of the Talecraft cards (and bending the rules a bit), try coming up with a horror-mystery-romantic comedy-adventure, featuring a haunted hero, a vigilante, a clock, a disease, and a cat. Gee, why not throw in a dog and a mouse as well. It's not impossible, but it's sure going to need some time to form).

No one, not even non-readers, have escaped the most common of these tropes. The knight in shining armor in fantasy is reflected as the virtuous and valorous hero in all tales, even if we don't immediately recognize him since he doesn't always wear chain mail and carry a big blade and a shield. The damsel in distress, serving sometimes as the sole reason for action for every other character and that only (her role is simply to shriek and cry for help when in danger), still exists in many books and films, much to the chagrin of feminists the world over. Some months ago, I read a piece of fiction where I immediately recognized the main character as another incarnation of the mad scientist from Shelley's Frankenstein, which, some argue, was preceded by statue-loving Pygmalion. The former is a tragic horror/science-fiction story, the latter is labeled as a Greek love myth, and in the story I read, the main character did some horrifying things to others out of some twisted emotion he believed was love; but they were all the mad scientist.

It's not just the typical genres that are suffused with tropes. Taking realism into account, we often find the same, introspective, emotionally sensitive, tortured and troubled characters. In some acclaimed realist tales, you can recognize folks like the despicable thief, the cowardly soldier, the quiet rebel. The wise teacher is also pretty common in realist tales; just Obi-wan or Gandalf in different clothes, is all. I'm sure you've encountered the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold many times in local stories as much as in foreign ones. Likewise, setting can also become a trope. Philippine social-realist stories have many scenes of rural or urban poverty, or farmland with chickens and carabaos, or noisy rallies teeming with activists carrying placards and bullhorns. The OFW character has, in reflection of our society's current state, become a trope now, too, and I'm sure the settings these folk find themselves in--airports, ships, the countries they work in--will become more commonplace in future stories.

Which brings me to a couple of stories I read over the weekend for a closed fiction workshop hosted by The Manila Litcritters. Two of the pieces taken up were the authors' versions of what for me were the "ghost-hitchhiker" and the "space opera" story.

I'm sure you all know these two familiar story-types: The "ghost-hitchhiker", in its most common variation, is that of a lone driver on a deserted road who picks up a hitchhiker that disappears when they get to their destination, leading one to conclude that said hitchhiker was not a real person but a ghost (I kinda' remember reading an Archie comic when I was a teenager that told this same tale, but the writer also included an unresolved crime into the mix); the "space opera", though more broad a term, has for me as its most common tropes as interstellar travel, giant space ships, space-men, maybe an alien or two (even just a hint), an invasion, lasers and other similar advanced weaponry, with a big chance of battle and giant explosions (which still makes a big boom in the vacuum of space somehow, even if there's no air to carry the sound, but who cares, eh?).

I could tell that both authors had fun with these two stories and their tropes. I think they succeeded because both authors played fair, and stayed true to what would be expected by a reader when they come across such tales. If they had been unfair to their readers and did not stay true to the tropes, it would have turned their stories into something else; but by sticking to the parameters of what was expected while still laying a claim to their own innovations (in other words, playing by the rules without breaking any--maybe teasingly trying to bend some now and then--all the while introducing their own originality and variations on the story without stepping over the lines), they gave their own twist to the familiar. To further explain, I'd like to borrow quotes from the article "Genre Tropes And The Transmissibility Of Story" by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold:

"In genre, we have stockpiles of tropes of varying familiarity. These elements serve to enhance the transmissibility of the story. When a writer takes up a standard trope, either to serve in its stock role or to invert it for their own purposes, they are tapping into the traditions and shared referents of their genre.

Without these tropes and the shared assumptions they signify to serve as lubrication in the machinery of plot, genre stories would be heavily constrained by the need to explain.

What makes a genre story transmissible, which is to say, accessible and meaningful to the reader, is its use of genre tropes. Viewed from that perspective, the tension for the genre writer lies in the balance between the degree of familiarity of the trope and the degree of novelty of the writer's innovation within the story at hand.

The story is transmitted to the reader at least in part because of the tropes. Some are emotional, some are external. The transmissibility of story is both enabled and restricted by the tropes of the genre within which the story—and the reader—are functioning."

The rest of the piece is here, over at The Internet Review Of Science Fiction.

Stephen King wrote about doing something similar with his short story "1408". For all the years he had been writing horror, he had yet to write his "ghostly room at the inn" version until "1408" (he had already written his vampire, zombie, haunted hotel, and end-of-the-world stories, though). The "ghostly room at the inn" is another familiar tale, handed down over many years and which exists in many cultures (I kind of remember reading a young adult story set in medieval Japan that also tackled the same).

Simply put, the two authors in the closed fiction workshop had been busy working on their versions of those old tales and their tropes, and by giving them their own personal twists and approaching them in their own way without being unfair to the reader, they churned out stories that work. Everything is there in their stories: The person who was actually a ghost, the spooky, lonely, uncertain atmosphere, the terrible weather and the lack of sunshine, the hints that some things are "not quite right"; the lasers, the space ships, a black hole, the threat of an invasion, the technical scientific jargon that makes sense if you don't think about it and doesn't make sense once you do, and yes, the giant explosion that still goes "boom" in the vacuum of space (the author may not have explicitly written "boom" in the text, but I swear, I heard it).

Which brings me to this: Some of you may want to try your hand at doing the same, even as just a simple writing challenge. This is more than just retelling an old fairy tale in your own way, though that can be fun also. This involves taking a story that has been with us for ages, maybe even some urban legend, and, while staying true to its core, adding your own flavor.

An example: Who can forget that campfire story about two lovers making out in a car in the middle of the night with the radio playing sugary-sweet, diabetes-inducing songs, when suddenly, the DJ interrupts the music to report that a notorious serial killer (sometimes called "The Claw", sometimes "The Hook", because he lost a hand and it was replaced by, well, a metal claw or a hook) had broken out of a nearby jail. This scares the girl so much that every noise she hears outside the car makes her think of the killer. The boy argues with her, still tries to get into her pants, but fails because she's no longer "in the mood". Frustrated at the news report, and knowing he won't be able to get any that night, the boy just drives the girl home in a rush then heads home himself. Natch, the next morning, the boy checks his car and finds a claw (or a hook) dangling from the end of his bumper.

Do you think you can come up with your own version of this?

It doesn't have to be an urban legend this specific; in fact, it may be harder to work with something like this since there are more elements you have to stay true to. You can try the local urban legend of "the white lady" instead. Heaven knows the Philippines has more than its share of ghostly white ladies running around every road, street, avenue, boulevard, and dirt track. The white lady story is sufficiently vague that you can have more leeway to play around with.

Or you can go even more generic, and try your own "haunted house" story, your own "feeling the presence of a recently dead relative" story, your own "hero killing the evil monster and saving the world" story. Lest crime readers out there feel left out, then here's this: try and write your own "locked-room mystery", wherein somebody gets killed or something gets stolen inside a, well, locked room (duh). If you want to make it a bit more challenging, you'll have to end the story with the head sleuth assembling all the suspects and personages inside a common room, whereupon he will explain to them his wonderful deductions, until he names the murderer or the thief, after which, the usual hijinks ensue.

Just remember to stay fair, and play by the rules; don't cheat the reader. He should recognize the familiar story and tropes you are playing with. This could make for an interesting writing exercise in case your mind is particularly dry for the moment, because you already have a familiar story and its tropes to serve as your skeletal framework. Whatever "fleshy mutations" you plan to visit upon your skeleton will then be of your own doing.


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