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Thinking about Genre

If you go to TV Tropes (and I won’t link you, as that might be hazardous to your spare time), one of the first things you learn, after “TV Tropes will ruin your life,” is that “tropes are tools.” Genre is a collection of tropes that has been codified through repeated use. Some stories are half-genres (like vampire, werewolf, or zombie fiction), and some are… Westerns,

Genres, as tools, help to convey information to the reader in ways that aren’t necessarily explicit. When you write a Historical Romance, simply knowing that the story takes place in year 18XX in Country Y will tell you a lot about the story before you’ve even introduced the characters. When it’s done well, that is. Not naming any names.

Like the different shades of monster fiction, genres come in micro- and macro- versions, not to mention delicate little slices of subgenre representing mere collections of storytelling devices. Superheroes have seen a surge in recent years, but remember right after The Incredibles and the first X-Men films came out and everyone was taking potshots at capes and spandex? That didn’t get old effing immediately.

I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. In their original context, capes and spandex were part of a very specific collection of tropes (to be precise, circus strong-man tropes), and it’s important to remember and respect that original context. Maybe things have changed since then, but there was a reason for them. It isn’t random, and it certainly isn’t stupid.

Tropes and genres as a topic of discussion may seem modern, even post-modern, but it’s important to note that discussion of storytelling elements goes back to Ancient Greek theatre, and many storytelling elements we take for granted–such as the three- and four-act structure and the happy ending–are very, very old ideas.

Every so often though, you get a movie or a comic or a book or a game that breaks down what we call “genre conventions.”

Sometimes these works launch entire new genres of their own, or they’re the first (or last) nail in the coffin of a particular genre. Don Quixote is a famous work of parody-pastiche that deconstructs the chivalric romance, which was cliched even by the time Quixote was written. Harry Potter wasn’t the first boarding school fantasy, but it’s one of the most notable now.

When the elements of a particular genre become so well-known that you can create a shorthand for the collection of elements themselves, it becomes possible to write in multiple genres within one. Going back to superheroes, you might not consider it this way, but Jekyll & Hyde is about the same sort of questions. Identity, duality of same, the purpose of morality as a social construct, and what drives a pleasant person with a seemingly enviable life to discard it for a shadowy path.

Jekyll was even created by a fantastic serum that turned him into a monster. Obviously no one is ever surprised to learn that story was part of the inspiration for The Incredible Hulk. A less abstract narrative, certainly, which has grown to include elements of acceptance and tolerance, perhaps taken from Beauty and the Beast.

The language of storytelling is a living thing, constantly growing and changing. Storytellers who see success in one area, be it video games, books, or comics–will try to tell a similar (or the same) story in their own medium of choice. And through recombination, sometimes we see the progeny of these adaptations return to their original medium.

Interestingly, genres seem elastic. Though specific tropes may mature in the translation from one medium to the next, a Western is a Western is a Western, and everyone knows that when it comes to zombies–you always aim for the head.

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CONFLICT (guest post)

Conflict drives a story. This is what we’re told. A character wants something, and something else rises to stop them. Honestly, it can get a little ridiculous when antagonists suddenly appear to prevent a hero from achieving something relatively unimportant like, I don’t know… groceries.

Like most writing advice, the truth is more complicated than that. If we’re being 100% straightforward, who your story has to do is engage and entertain your audience… that’s all. You don’t need conflict to do that if your audience isn’t engaged or entertained by conflict, it just so happens that conflict will do it for like, the majority. Of people.

So, what’s really important in creating entertainment and what role does conflict actually serve? You have to be willing to open your mind a bit to the ideas, because sometimes what really entertains can fall outside the sort of thing you find in the mainstream. Some people are entertained by home videos of people hurting themselves. Cue Jackass.

Schadenfreude is enough of a thing that America’s Funniest Home Videos and Jackass have an audience. Political punditry has an audience too. One of the first things you need to engage is subject matter that falls in someone’s interests. An easy way to start with this is to figure something that interests YOU.

You are potentially a member of your audience. It can be a good place to start.

A weird thing you can try to pull is of course to write on something topical or relevant. Current events or controversies can be subject matter that grabs an audience. It can be seen as “low” or even “pandering” writing to a fad or to rip stories from the headlines — but if it didn’t work, people wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be successful. Dull surprise.

It isn’t strictly necessary to create conflict for your story. So, what kind of conflict benefits your story? You want to include things that enhance and improve your story. Conflict for its own sake is tedious, like drama for its own sake or… anything that doesn’t really contribute or improve your story.

It’s worth looking at the core of your story to figure out what conflict will make it better. You should be able to explain the central points of your story in broad strokes, and add detail in successive iterations like reverse-peeling an onion really slowly. Some conflicts can be doubled and tripled up on in order to make them more relevant.

Ultimately you want to write with both eyes open — don’t add elements to your story arbitrarily. Everything you put in your story is a reflection of you: who you are and what you know. It’s a deliberate act of creation whether you’re fully aware of all your content or if you just coast through it. It’s better to be conscious of your content.

Under some circumstances, conflict for its own sake might be acceptable but you need to decide that when you write it. Don’t be lazy about it, and don’t defend your own lazy writing. Own your conflict. Own your writing.

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King of Teeth

One of the better jobs was simply maintaining the cage. Quiet, predictable work that was always done in a group or at least a pair. No chance that a grudge might sneak up on kill you. The others in the group didn’t even have to be allies. You were all united in not wanting to add to the blood you had to scrub off the concrete. Cleaning the cage was a little spot of peace in the Underground.

A flash of light caught Zaymie’s eye. She set down her bucket of rinse water and crouched, careful not to let her bare knees meet a soap-covered stain. No immediate joy. One of her locks slid over her shoulder as she  turned her head this way and that, trying to get the firelight from the sconces outside the cage to catch on the mystery object.

There. More of a glint this time, flashes over more than one angle, as if the thing had many facets. Her hand shot out and she jumped back to her feet. “Found a tooth,” she called out, palming it. “Who’s got the bag?”

“I do.” Tiger appeared at her side, the curt reply the only sound he made. Only long acquaintance with the short knife fighter kept Zaymie from jumping. He handed her the smelly burlap sack reserved for debris such as teeth and fingers.

Ill fortune. If Kickaby had been holding the bag, he would have simply thrown it to her, never mind the chance of spilling. When it came to a sharpness contest, Tiger was a dagger and Kickaby was a bowl. “Thanks.” She reached into the bag and relaxed her hand, not quite letting go of the thing. “I’m gonna see if it has any fellows.”

Their eyes locked. Tiger’s normally straight-lipped expression broke into something akin to a bemused smile. The cage was designed to be a heatsink, to cool the combatants in the sweaty, literal heat of battle. Not the sort of environment that allowed for flushed skin. Certainly not from something as basic as lying.

Goosebumps rose to sharp points, prickling hard across her neck like sandpaper under her skin. “Unless you want to be the King of Teeth.”

“Not today.” He turned away first, his breath and shoulders shaking. Laughing at her.

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Free-writing On the Run

Hadley leaned forward to get her head between her knees. Her frizzy black hair draped over her legs like a ragged curtain. “Are they still out there?”

It was a stupid question, which Brian wasted no time answering. “Where do you expect them to go? They’re as trapped as we are.”

She disagreed. Nothing with teeth like that could truly be said to be trapped. Predators were the masters of all they surveyed. The beasts weren’t trapped. They were in charge.

That and other similarly bleak and useless things crossed her mind in a whir of activity. She bumped her head back and forth between her knees like an indecisive pinball, then launched herself up. Too fast. Combined with the smell of neglect and old rat leavings, the whiplash blurred her vision. She slapped her face with one hand and rubbed her eyes. “You think the chains will keep them out?”

“I don’t know.” Her brother sat on the crumbling old mattress beside her and rubbed her shoulder absentmindedly. “The door is made of metal, so they probably won’t just chew through it.”

Probably. So comforting.

“Those claws didn’t look like they’d help much with tool-manipulating, either. Even if they’re smart enough to open the door, I doubt they could.”

The warehouse had been a boon. From the outside, it had seemed to span the whole world. It very well could have done. The truly wonderful part about it was that it clearly connected contiguously from within, while only threatening a few entrances.

The truly disgusting part about it was that it looked like a concrete factory had thrown up into a dusty wood pile. Hadley coughed into both hands, then twitched away from that comforting hand on her back. “Then we should find all of the doors and chain them.”

Only Brian could smile in that situation. She couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled. Too much stress. Too exhausted. But Brian was always grinning, laughing at his own stupid jokes, and generally finding the silver lining in everything. He flapped her hair away from her face. “Take a second to breathe. They’re locked onto us, which means that if we don’t move, they won’t.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“No, but I can figure it out. Using logic.” He tapped the side of his head with a grimy finger. “The usurper sent beasts after us. That could mean just about anything on his end, but what it means for us is that they’re not gonna do the kinds of things a ranger team would do. Like secure all the doors.”

As much as Hadley’s back ached to flop onto the mattress and curl up for a good long kip, she could smell it all too well. She wasn’t quite burnt out enough to consider it over the floor. There were less places for fleas and lice to live on the floor. “Then you think they’ll just hover where we are until we move?”

“It’s highly likely.”

“We should still chain all the doors.”

Brian scrubbed at his chin. There was a bit of scruff there, but he was still too young to grow a proper beard. “It’d be better if I went by myself. You need to sleep, and if we split up, they might be confused enough to go slow and split their own forces. I’d have a better chance of making it to the next door then.”

The floor definitely looked inviting. It would be hard and cold, visibly dusty with cobwebs that would stick in her hair for ages. Still inviting. Hadley slid to the floor and pushed herself farther from the mattress in little scoots. “And I’ll get the next one.”

“You better.”

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CRAZY dream

Listening to: Season of the Witch

I just had a crazy dream. In it, we were on a cruise and stopped at places like a haunted house movie theater, an antique house that was actually a large amusement park ride, and a giant water park of similar design. As we went to each place, my friends and I (there were a lot of them, like 7) were constantly accosted by people trying to steal my bag or my iPad. I kept checking I had them, and if didn’t, it was Danger Panic time.

We went through everything the first time getting through panic without knowing why. Then the dream repeated, showing me all of the details I or the others had missed.

One villain in particular proved to be the author of all our troubles. An ageless Witch needed all of my devices–the contacts list on my phone, some unsynced notes on my iPad, and some pictures and an executable file on a flash drive. All stuff in my bag (none of it with a real life counterpart)

She befriended me on the train, but when she stole two of the things out of my bag, one of my friends caught her and stole them back. He told our oldest friend, sort of the group Dad, and he counseled secrecy.

This sort of thing kept happening. At the amusement park house, I caught her and made sure I got to my bag first as it came out of security. I also made friends with a guard who kept watch on the Witch on the cameras for me. When I found a spell in my bag, I told him her true name ( one of my seven original friends had snooped it out) and asked him to burn the spell papers in a bin under his desk and get that image into a collage that’s part of a scary bit of the ride.

She got the message.

The Witch kidnapped one of our friends–one she damned as silly–and found he had his phone. She let him keep it because she could monitor his use, and all he did was send selfies to his boyfriend.

What she didn’t realize was that his boyfriend was in our group of 8 friends and every one of those photos was of him posing or blowing kisses in a spot that, when combined, gave us the layout of the water park she had booby-trapped. We navigated the traps, got him back, and defeated the Witch.

I can’t write this as a story, it’s too disjointed, but it was one of those really vivid dreams that makes it hard to breathe when you wake up but you’re really ALERT afterwards. Maybe not even rested, just super alert.

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Bad Day (freewriting)

In a competition for shittiest day, Ludy knew she wouldn’t win. She watched the news. Read books. People survived bombs, spousal abuse, and hurricanes. Her day had merely been a personal black cloud. Cartoonish. Still enough to soak her through and dampen her smile.

A literal rain storm brewed overhead, threatening to reward her imagery. She had an umbrella, but it was busted. Barely good enough to beat off a mugger, which had busted it even more. At least it still added to her outfit. Cheery pink and dotted with tiny white flowers. The perfect addition to her light blue sundress and grey jacket. Scarf with a duck pattern.

The scarf was the only thing that had survived her day. The jacket had lost a sleeve, and a rakish tear in the dress’s neckline prompted her to walk with her arms up. As if she were a boxer about to begin a match.

The skies opened up, weeping with a thousand unseeing eyes. Ludy stared into the rain with wide open eyes, baring her teeth like a wild animal.

And got a mouthful of dirty water.

Choking and cursing, she lashed out. She spat. Her arms swung, fast and hard. Her tantrum cut off suddenly as she realised that she had struck something. The way her day had gone, she should have expected a wall, but it was too soft. Something living. Not a stray dog with rabies, which she also should have expected.

A human man wearing a crisp business suit and a shocked frown. He held a cell phone to his ear, hovering as if it were more important than a crazy woman hauling off and smacking him in the street while she swore like a hobo.

She scowled at his umbrella. The source of the waterfall that had gushed over her face. “You should watch where you’re going,” she snapped.

“You hit me.”

“You nearly drowned me!”

He stared at her, clearly uncomprehending. “We’re on the sidewalk.” He looked around, as if he honestly had no idea where they were. “In front of a Chinese restaurant. How could I drown you?”

Words did not come. She spluttered for a few seconds. While her day had not been car-bomb bad, it had certainly been spread-the-misery bad. She snatched his obviously expensive black umbrella out of his manicured fingers and held it at just the right angle to show him exactly what he had done to her.

To his credit, he did not flail about and strike her. He coughed and spat water onto the sidewalk.

“Like that, you bitch.”

It would have been a good exit line, but he was still bent double. She didn’t want to just drop his umbrella and run away like a criminal. Her patience was rewarded when his coughing turned to laughter. An apology lurked in there, even as his suit went shiny, ruined in the strengthening downpour. “I’m sorry.” He held out his hand. “My name is Ivo.”

“Ludivine. Ludy.”

As she shook his hand, his eyes widened. “Are you okay?”

She laughed. It didn’t sound as good as his laughter. Her voice, always high and reedy, had become raspy in the freezing damp. “If I were any less okay, I would have to start screaming.”

“Do you need a doctor? Your dress…”

“You should see the other guy.” She held her hands up to her chest again. Jumped when Ivo covered her shoulders with his jacket. “Hang on, I don’t–”

“It’s the least I can do after I almost drowned you.”

He had already done the least. He’d apologised. It had been the first time she’d heard the word ‘sorry’ since she’d caught her ex in bed with two other women. It sounded better coming from Ivo. “I guess it is.”

“Are you hungry? We’re still standing in front of a restaurant. We could go inside it.”

Even wet, the jacket was warm. Her ducky scarf tickled her nose, pressed sticky against her skin. “Why not? I like Chinese food.”

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Wrong Number

I might continue this. Probably without using graphics.

~

Liam rolled onto his side and cursed. Every nerve blazed with pain. His pillow was crusty with blood, hopefully just from his nose. When he reached up to check, his fingers came away bloody and trailing bandages. He could remember cleaning himself up–clearly he had done a shitty job–as well as some of the fight. “Gotta stop getting into bar brawls.”

His phone chirped on the bedside table, the screen lighting up the room in an explosion of unwelcome light. After two halfhearted waves of his arm, he banged his wrist on the edge. A wrist that he had apparently not broken, but a sprain wasn’t out of the question. Especially after whanging it like that.

If the damn phone hadn’t gone off two more times, he would have left it for the morning. He sat up slowly and inched himself closer to the bedside table before reaching out, again slowly, to pick up the phone like a human rather than a blind monkey. Head throbbing like an unremittant club bass-line. It took a few minutes for his vision to clear away the purple splotches and allow him to actually see the screen.

The number was unfamiliar, but he was used to that. He used his phone for work, and since he worked mostly on commission, most of his calls came from unknown numbers that didn’t stay in his contacts list afterwards. What was strange was the amount of digits. Sure, he had a hangover, but that number was too long. The message didn’t seem to be about a commission either.

texta1

Having been in similar situations, Liam typed the first thing that came to mind and jabbed send without thinking.

texta2

A reply came in immediately.

texta3

Nobody went to clubs to dance. People went to clubs to lose their minds and fuck someone up against a bathroom sink.

texta4

Talk about a wrong number. Liam turned off his phone and dropped it on the bed. At least it hadn’t been a real emergency for someone he knew. And he’d even helped. How long had it been since he could say that he’d helped anyone? He tossed the bloody pillow onto the floor and tugged the bandages off. The blood had dried. It’d be a bitch to wash off in the morning, so he lumbered over to the bathroom to shower.

His skin hated him by the end of it, and his head would never speak to him again. No loss. They were bastards.

Somehow he made it back to bed, although he couldn’t bring himself to even look for fresh clothes. His apartment windows all had curtains. He could get away with sleeping in the buff. Especially since L.A. never reached a temperature that he would personally call ‘cold.’