Thursday, April 18, 2013

Stripped Bare

            First, time for the shameless plug. Ex-Patriots, the second book in the Ex-Heroes series, gets re-released on Tuesday from Broadway Books with a cool new cover.  It’ll be at bookstores, airports, your local PX... pretty much everywhere.  You can pre-order it over there on the side, or go visit your friendly neighborhood bookstore and ask them to get you a copy.
            Now for a quick tip.  Well, quick compared to last week’s ramblings.
            If you’ve been reading this collection of rants for a while, you’ve probably picked up that I’m a bit of a genre fan.  If you’ve read any of my books, it’s probably very clear.  Sci-fi stories, horror stories, fantasy stories... I love this stuff.
            Of course, a big part of loving something is recognizing the flaws in it.  Let’s be honest—there are a lot of horrible genre stories out there.  A real lot.  Depending on who you talk to, some of them are mine...
            Anyway, it struck me the other day that there’s a simple test for good genre stories.  Can I explain my story—and have it make sense—without any of those genre elements?  For example...

--Without the strange force field, Under the Dome is the story of an isolated town falling apart as different characters make different power grabs.

--A Princess of Mars becomes a straightforward fish out of water story if you pull out the sci-fi elements.  John Carter could be anyone dumped in a strange, baffling culture where he doesn’t speak the language.

--SuperTroopers is still a solid story about police rivalry and budget cuts even without all the comedy.  With the corrupt cops and drug smugglers, you could almost make it a crime drama.  Or a Romeo & Juliet-style love story.

--If you take the undead out of I Am Legend (any version of it), it’s a desert island story.  It’s one man alone (or sometimes with a dog) trying to balance staying alive with staying sane.

--Without magic, the Harry Potter books are the story of an unpopular orphan as he grows up, makes friends, finds his way in life, and learns about the parents he never met.

--Ghostbusters without comedy becomes a great sci-fi/ horror story about a Sumerian prophesy come to life.  Strip out the sci-fi/ horror and it’s a comedy about a bunch of guys trying to start a bizarre business who suddenly discover they’ve hit a gold mine and everyone wants to hire them.

--IT without the horror is just a group of childhood friends who reunite to solve a puzzle from their childhood.

--Pitch Black is the story of shipwreck survivors who find themselves dependant on their somewhat-misjudged prisoner to protect them from dangerous predators.

            Now, I’m not saying this as a jab at these books or movies.  The point is not that these tales can be boiled down to much simpler plots.  It’s that they have underlying plots which have nothing to do with their respective sci-fi/fantasy/horror elements.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I strip out the genre components of my story, I should still have a story.  Some writers depend so much on their genre stuff that they don’t grasp they haven’t actually developed any sort of real plot.  They’ve just got a pile of cool elements that doesn’t really add up to anything.  And if they looked at it without the sci-fi/fantasy/horror elements, they’d see that immediately.
           So, get your story out and start stripping.  Pull off all those layers, take a good look at what’s underneath, and... well, make sure you’ve got something worth looking at.
            Next time...
            Okay, I’m going to be honest.  Next time is a week before this new book is due on my editor’s desk, so I’m not going to be here.  I’ll be busy panicking.
            Week after that, though, I’d like to talk with you about the dreaded Scooby Ambiguity.  And I’ll probably be a day early because Thursday morning I head to Dallas for Texas Frightmare.
            Until then, go write.

3 comments:

  1. Can you post some examples where you can't do that? It seems like that's possible for any story, to a certain degree.

    Take out the zombies and the superheroes and Ex-heroes could be a a simple war story. It's not, of course, it's excellent, buuuuutttt.....

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  2. "Phantom Menace". Take out the sci-fi/fantasy and it's just a couple hippies looking for a part for their busted truck. EXCITING!

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  3. Hey, Travis,

    First off, I am so very sorry it's taken me over a month to get back to you. May was ridiculously busy for me.

    To answer your request (so to speak), it's a good thing when you can't come up with any examples-- it means most of the stuff you're seeing has been put together well. :)

    As for examples... Scriptmonk mentioned The Phantom Menace. I agree that the story under the thick genre layers isn't a particularly good story, but there is one there.

    I hate to name names, but one current example of doing this wrong is the CW show Arrow. If you take out the vigilante/revenge aspect, the entire show collapses. There's not a single part of it that doesn't tie to that one element.

    Make sense?

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