Successful fiction always depends on conflict and often relies on surprise. The mechanics of telling stories successfully are not secrets. That’s why this article decrying the latest developments in Game of Thrones is a little annoying. Maybe they were just going for click bait. It seems the critics want to go to Vegas and gamble, but they want everyone to come home rich.
Vegas doesn’t work that way. Neither does compelling fiction. Bad things happen. People die. Deal with it…or don’t watch or read Game of Thrones.
I’m sure some fans are earnestly distressed at things that occur in the show. However, what happens in fiction stays in fiction. Those characters people love and love to hate do not reside on Earth. They are in Westeros and that’s a terrible and dangerous place to live and die. The show’s producers could suck the scary out of it, but then everyone would complain and no one would watch.
People complain George RR Martin kills off his characters. That’s the risk that makes it worth reading and watching. The sense that “anything could happen” is what is missing from other, lesser, books and shows. If you watch a game where everyone wins, everybody’s bored. Even the winners would stop playing to seek out more challenging pursuits.
If you want reassurance that everything will work out, watch iCarly reruns (as I do.) If you want a complex story that’s a gamble every Sunday night (as I do), watch Game of Thrones.
Yes, to some degree, what happens in fiction doesn’t stay in fiction.
What happens in Westeros might make you squirm or cry or feel disgust. That’s why you’re watching. If it didn’t affect you and it doesn’t make you care (like the last season of Dexter) then we won’t watch or we’ll hate-watch. Oh, Dexter, you fell so far.
Same with reading. A good story has stakes and people lose and die. All sorts of terrible things can happen and that conflict keeps more people riveted to the screen (even if, perhaps especially if, they have to look away sometimes.) What pushes some away will pull more closer, like watching a car accident. You want to look away. Maybe you should. Most won’t.
A few other thoughts about misconceptions about fiction*:
1. It’s not “manipulation” if I make you hate or love a character. It’s good storytelling.
2. If you recognize a theme or element from something else, that doesn’t make it a copy, a tribute or plagiarism. It just means there are only so many stories in the world. As an author, I’m only obligated to tell my story with my unique voice (and a pantload of panache, thank you very much.) There were, no doubt, other stories about similar topics. (But they lack Chazz.)
3. Just because a way of telling a story is not something you’re used to reading (e.g. second person) doesn’t necessarily make it “experimental” or “bad.” Don’t say to an author (as one friend of mine was told) “Nobody does it.” There are plenty of examples of alternate POV books.
4. The familiar plot device (sometimes observed pejoratively as “tropes”) is what makes many stories work. You could come up with something more elaborate than the old reliable ticking time bomb under a seat, but make it understandable. (GoT came up with a bad guy in an insurance salesman for mariners. You had to watch the explanation a couple of times to get the gist. They should have used a trope. Instead, they confused viewers.)
Tropes are only bad if you get bogged down in too many of them. Readers want to be surprised, but tropes are touchstones which ground the story and make it comfortable for the reader. A writer once pitched me a story utterly devoid of tropes. Unique, it was. Understandable, it was not. (Yes. I’m quoting Yoda.)
Genres also have specific expectations that you don’t necessarily want to avoid. If the couple doesn’t get together at the end of a romance, that’s not a tired trope. That’s an expectation the reader paid for. Romance readers want you to land the plane safely after a stormy flight (and possibly a slap and tickle in the washroom.)
5. If you’re very familiar with a non-fiction topic and read a book aimed at beginners, it’s churlish to snark, “Nothing new here.”
6. “Churlish” is a word that should be used more. I’m also a huge fan of “groovy.” Use it today! (But not “far out!” Forget that crap.)
7. “It’s been done,” is an dull barb. Everything has been done. It’s up to us to write it in a fresh way.
8. I don’t owe you a happily ever after ending and I never guarantee it. When I come to the end of a story, I write satisfying finales. The conclusion might be happy. Might not. Spin the wheel and find out. I don’t write soothing books for children.
9. Some people, like me, say they “hate” cliffhangers. We’re a vocal minority and we don’t really mean it. If you’re writing a series and you advertise it as a series, the reader should expect some questions to be answered and others to be raised. I “hate” Walking Dead cliffhangers. You know…that thing that brings me back to the television set for the next episode every time? People hate cliffhangers most when the device is effective.
10. I don’t write for readers first. I write for myself first. I’m at my desk or a coffee shop or on my couch when I write and I have no idea what “readers” (that amorphous mass waiting out there in the future somewhere) will like. I don’t write by committee. I can’t take a poll. I can’t work to a writing prompt. There is no formula. I just unearth the story and what ignites, burns. I know what I like and I’m hoping readers will climb aboard my crazy train. I’m not looking to board someone else’s commuter bus.
11. Politics shows up in my writing. So does religion. My worlds are populated with all kinds of social interactions (gay, straight, minorities, right and left.) No apologies. Whether the world is post-apocalyptic or I’m writing in the slow apocalypse we’re in now, my books are populated with people. People have opinions, so characters have opinions. They worry about what might happen to them after they die so God comes up for discussion. Some suffer existential angst. Not all the opinions I write about are opinions I happen to share. NO APOLOGIES! Characters come alive in readers’ minds because of familiarity. Depth and resonance come from dealing with big questions. I regret nothing.
12. I don’t always answer those big questions in a way every reader is going to like, either. I often let the reader figure out for themselves how the big gears of the universe turn. However, if someone is prepared to send me a huge sum of money, I could rewrite a book that aligns perfectly with every ideology that person holds. I’ll hate it and only that person will read it, but I do have kids to send to college so…there you go.
13. I scratched me a book. Everybody gets an opinion, but the writer doesn’t have to listen to that opinion. If you do listen to that opinion, know this: someone will tell you something is grammatically wrong, but they are incorrect. (They’ll also tell you in the same breath they’re an authority.) Someone will declare they’ll never come back for more. You can go back and fix something and/or write another book. You’ll get better the more books you write (if you get feedback from an editor or writing group etc.) The review you read today that is depressingly kind of accurate in some regard will be a cause for laughter at cocktail parties in a few short years. Forgive yourself and assume no one else will.
14. I can write books fast. I can write books slow. If you write faster or slower, that doesn’t make it de facto better or worse. The calculation in that criticism (usually coming from slower writers) almost always deletes the crucial variables: x = the quantity of procrastination divided by y = we are all different.
15. When we put ourselves out there and stand up on our hind legs and dare to speak or write or paint or sing, someone will think they know us. They’ll make assumptions about us, even people who should know better. If you write about zombies, they might assume you’re dumb. If you write erotica, your neighbor might skip straight to slut shaming or ask you out. If you write “literary” they might assume you’re smart and rich.
Though it’s awfully tempting to think so, no one knows us through our books. Fiction reflects reality in a warped mirror. Fiction is not reality. No one knows another’s mind. The writer, in writing mode, remains a cipher. Therefore, ignore the people who are looking for clues to your psyche in your writing (even your Mom) and write whatever the hell you want. It’s not about you. It’s about telling a good story and engaging those who dig your chosen flavor of crazy. Writing crazy shit doesn’t make me crazy. Writing crazy shit keeps me more sane.
16. Don’t write what you know. Write what you care about. Supporting details will be researched or they will be made up. Unless you’re writing a textbook on thoracic surgery, it’ll probably work out.
17. It’s tempting to make people think that writing is arduous. If so, maybe you should try writing something funner. And use the word “funner” more often. (Thanks to comedian Greg Proops for that.) When people complain about the task of writing, I suspect they’re either in the wrong head space at that moment or in the wrong business altogether. I’ve done hard labor and worked retail. That was awful. Writing is a joy and, usually, it’s play.
*This blog and this post is not aimed at readers. It’s aimed at writers. I mention this because, though some readers suffer these misconceptions about the craft, that doesn’t concern me. That’s their business. I’ve met writers who fall for them, though, and that’s a worry.
~ I am Robert Chazz Chute. I’m a suspense novelist who is much kinder and more patient than this post may make me appear. Visit my author site, AllThatChazz.com, for updates on new cars added to my crazy train.