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Monday, January 13, 2014

Filing off the serial numbers

When Pixar posted their rules of storytelling, my favorite was Rule 12.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

This weekend, I critiqued a story where this was my first encouragement to the writer. Her technique was fine, and she had her pacing down, so why didn't the story grab me? Trust me, I analyzed this piece to death, and even while driving to my critique group, I was still coming up with new angles for making the story start to breathe.

But finally I came down to the final answer: tropes and stereotypes dominated the story, whereas the places the story lived were the places the author had struck out her own path.

I'm obfuscating and declarificating the details because it's her story, not mine (whereas I make merciless fun of my own story.)  But at one point in the story, a walk-on character mentions her pet. The character is a gentle, sweet old lady, Mrs. Witherspoon, who owns a purebred Persian cat named Cuddles. During the conversation, she mentions her neighbor, Bo, who keep a nasty alley-cat named Butch. 

You can see the stereotypes at work here. But what if she'd thrown away her first idea? What if the sweet little old lady had the nasty alley cat? What if she'd named the nasty alley cat Cuddles? What if the redneck neighbor was raising purebred Persian cats and had several champion showcats? What if the fluffy purebred Persian cat were named Butch?

This is where you can start taking your readers' presuppositions and turning them on their heads, keeping everyone intrigued because no one is predictable. Send your story off the rails -- or rather, lay out rails and send your story on a different set of rails. Why? Because your readers are going to enjoy the ride more with the occasional surprise that makes them say, "Oh…?" followed by, "Of course!"  

The story in question had taken all the tropes of its genre and recombined them, but they were still all the same tropes, and because of that, you pretty much knew the ending after the second page. Every genre has its stereotypes (the damsel in distress, the tortured man with a past, the reluctant hero, whatever) but your job is to get more mileage out of those characters by filing off the serial numbers and fully owning them.

Escape the stereotypes. Your mobster doesn't need to be named Frankie or Vinny. Your romantic lead doesn't need to have green eyes and beautiful hair. Your villain may still be a mad scientist, but maybe his motivation is more than just "I wanted to show everyone my brilliance, until the day I went too far." Your first ideas are probably good, but take them further. Reshape them. Surprise us.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or knitting socks. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 

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