I’ve been asked about a dozen times lately to take part in “The Next Big Thing.” If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of a self-promotional blog tour that a lot of authors are passing around. I passed on it because that’s not the kind of thing I use this page for. Oh, sure, I’ll mention it if I have a new release or maybe if something of mine goes on sale, but I don't want to go much further than that. This page is more about hints and instruction than anything else.
And I suck at self-promotion.
But that’s all a bit besides the point. I didn’t want to blather on about crossing that line this week. I wanted to talk about crossing lines.
Some people think a genre story has to be pure. A horror story should be nothing but suspense and scares and gore. Every moment of a drama should be serious and weighty. Comedies should be non-stop laughs—there shouldn’t be a moment where something inherently funny isn’t happening on the page or the screen..
The thing is, those "pure" stories are all boring as hell. The horror ones stop being scary. The drama becomes melodrama. The comedy becomes painful.
The reason for this is a lack of variety. An idea I’ve mentioned before is that the tension levels in a story should rise as the story progresses. It’s great to begin my story with the action dialed up to nine, but it doesn’t really leave me anywhere to go. If my novel or screenplay has everything dialed up to nine, what I’ve really got is a monotone story.
Likewise, if every point on my story graph is the same point—say unspeakable horror or maybe uber-cool action—then what I now have is a homogenous script. Flipping pages is like cutting into a block of cheese. Every part is just like every other part. Case in point...
UNSPEAKABLE HORROR !!
Even when I’m escalating things, getting the same point over and over and over again becomes silly pretty quick.
Consider most of the good stories you’ve read or seen. There’s a lot of comedy in Jaws. Ernie Cline’s cyber-fantasy tale Ready Player One has some moments of serious suspense. Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wonderful love story in it. Dan Abnett’s sci-fi action novel Embedded has a pretty enthusiastic sex scene. Ghostbusters actually gets a bit scary at points. The characters in the new Hobbit movie break out into song. Twice.
That being said, I don’t think any of us would call Jaws a comedy, and Embedded is hardly a porno. Raiders has that love story and a couple really good laughs, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call it a romantic comedy. And The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is definitely not a musical. We all realize that little dips and swings into what would qualify as another genre doesn’t invalidate a story.
If anything, they usually strengthen it.
The secret to all storytelling is characters, and the best characters are going to act like real people. They’ll tell jokes at the wrong time. Some of them will think about love and sex when they should be paying attention in board meetings, and others will fret about those board meetings at moments they should be thinking about love and sex. A few of them might even be stressed about scratching the paint on Dad’s car when they should really be worried about the axe murderer lumbering up behind them.
One of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back is when they're about to test the carbon-freezing on Han Solo. For all intents, he's walking to his execution. He knows it, his friends know it, we know it. Even if he survives-- he's gone. Leia knows this and finally admits her true feelings... and Han responds with a wiseass comment. We all giggle and then there’s a horrible blast of steam as Han’s turned into a piece of collectible wall art.
Y’see, Timmy, if my stories and characters lack this kind of range they’re going to come across as very flat and tedious. If I can’t have a moment of laughter, a bit of flirting, or a non-sequitor distracted thought, my characters are going to feel like puppets rather than people. Much like a chef uses a few different flavors to bring out the main tastes of a meal, a writer wants to sprinkle in a few moments that step out of the genre to make the characters and the material much more powerful.
So don’t be scared to stretch a toe over those lines now and then.
I know I said I was going to talk about structure, but that’s kind of a huge set of post so I think I might save it until the new year and take a bit of stress out of my holidays. So next time, I’m probably just going to say something quick about heroes.
Until then, go write.