If the story comes too easily, chances are it’s already been told
September 8, 2013
George Orwell’s writing was an early influence on my own. Not just his fiction, but also his essays. I recently returned to a dusty 1968 edition of his ‘Selected Writings’, which simply has that title, Orwell’s name and the name of the editor on the front – a beautifully unfussy cover by today’s standards.
One of the essays that stood out for me when I first read the collection was ‘Politics and the English Language’. It outlines his thoughts on what was wrong with English language usage at the time of writing, and what could be done to fix the problem. Reading the essay again, I was impressed anew with his clear-headed rules for communicating opaquely and with originality.
One habit that particularly peeved him was the way some authors resort to clichés. As he put it, ‘… there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.’ His solution, which forms his number one law for writing better, was to ‘Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’
It occurred to me at the time that this rule could be applied to story construction as a whole, to make a new rule that read something like so: ‘Never use a plot, character or other component of storytelling which you are used to seeing in print, film or TV.’
So, let’s imagine we’ve got to write a BBC detective series. So, we start off with a detective who drinks a bit too much, he’s divorced from his wife, he’s curmudgeonly, but basically good at heart and great at his job. Then we add a rookie cop offsider, not quite as sharp, but a contrasting, pleasant character and a reasonably fast learner. Each week, they’re called to a different small English village where there has been a murder and …
Yes. Ho hum. It’s already boring because that set-up would describe the vast bulk of this type of drama. That’s why it comes so easily, because it hasn’t had to be invented; merely recalled. This is the same type of laziness Orwell discusses with reference to well-worn phrases. An author who wants to say her lead protagonist is scared and writes that he ‘felt cold as ice’ is exhibiting that same brand of laziness. Clichés of plot and character switch off the brain, both the writer’s and reader’s. A good rule of thumb: if the story comes too easily, chances are it’s already been told.
Here’s an example of a UK detective drama that is highly original, just so people can’t say I’m picking on the Brits. So, there’s this depressed writer who is rendered an invalid with severe psoriatic arthritis. Confined to his hospital bed and unable to use his hands, he tries to overcome his writer’s block by creating a detective story in his head concerning Nazis smuggled into post-war England. The yarn he is constructing soon meshes with memories of his childhood, especially of his cuckolded father and suicide mother. By day, his world further fractures as he imagines the hospital staff performing surreal musical numbers around him to 1940s hits.
In short: ‘The Singing Detective’, an 80’s BBC series by Dennis Potter.
This series outline is immediately riveting because it sounds very different from the typical examples of the genre. And I bet it wouldn’t have come easily to the writer, either, as he toiled to make each moment fresh and surprising.
I should say at this point that I’m not advocating being different for the sake of it, or for shock value. I’m advocating being different to keep your audience awake, and because it’s lazy and insulting to do otherwise.
As well as detective stories, like many people I also enjoy a good post-apocalyptic novel and have been writing one of my own for several years. I’m very aware that the post-apocalyptic novel, like the detective yarn, is a well-worn genre and you’d better do something different with it.
Here’s my working synopsis:
“Rex has always had a bleak view of humans. He thinks the world would be better off without our species. So when a virus that has been manufactured to wipe out introduced pests to Australia, like the cane-toad and fire ant, makes the jump to humans, it is as though his wish has come horribly true. Wandering a devastated world armed with a gun that has only one shot in the barrel, he recalls life before, with his girlfriend. But as these flashbacks become increasingly real, changing as he relives them, are they more than memories? Should he still turn the gun on himself or has he, his relationship, and humanity got one more shot?”
So, that’s my main point of difference, having a protagonist who wanted armageddon. It’s thrown up many challenges, the main one being, ‘Why doesn’t he just kill himself, and be done with it?’ Working out why he doesn’t, and instead persists throughout the novel, has forced me to be inventive. Finding solutions hasn’t always been easy, but I believe it’s forced me to come up with a character and story-line unusual to this genre. And hopefully a yarn the reader won’t be able to easily second-guess, either.