Why can’t we Duct Tape the Nuke Trigger?

Fencon, a local sci-fi and fantasy convention is write around the corner (Wow. Yes, I did just right that). I attended last year and even signed up for the workshop with Karl Schroeder. Somewhere, buried in the posts, there are even a couple blurbs about my experience. Good con, good workshop and I walked away with a bit of knowledge and a few contacts, such as fellow writer Tom Howard who provided an excellent, well organized beta read of my novel, Collateral Damage in a time frame that would make even Hurricane’s head spin.

Oh yeah, Hurricane is a one-legged geriatric superhero with super speed whose uniform mostly consists of a hospital gown.

During that workshop, I remember taking a break with a fellow wannabe writer and discussing strengths and weaknesses of the class. He mentioned that “the whole hero thing” alone was worth the price of admission and continued to go on and on about it like Mr. Schroeder had cracked open a sacred text lost beneath the frozen tundra of Antarctica which was only recently stumbled upon by hapless adventurers.

The “hero thing” was of course a brief mention of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.  Sorta a staple of any workshop I suppose. I nodded in silent agreement to avoid embarrassing him.

Of course, I only assume everyone has heard about this. If you haven’t get caught up a bit.

A lot of people talk about this as a formula. In reality, it was really an analysis that has been adopted into a formula. It forms the basis of even more formulas and so-called secrets to telling good stories. All of which people will sell to you so that you too can be a writer.

I’m not dogging the theories or the countless books or formulas. They are definitely things every storyteller should know. But what I’ve found with all of these is it’s best to first write what you want and then recognize the universal truths hidden within. Then, if it makes the story stronger, you can accentuate certain parts of the formula and play to these universal notions in order to make something which a broader audience can feel connected to.

The danger lies in using formulas as a checklist. Hollywood is especially bad about this. The two most recent movies I’ve seen, Oblivion and Pacific Rim, both suffered from moments where tropes and formulas really weakened the story. Magical negroes, a stock underdeveloped adversarial “good guy” that grudgingly accepts the main character, and the someone-has-to-hold-the-nuke-trigger-and-I-left-the-duct-tape-at-home trope that has been re-ravaging theaters lately (Avengers, Pacific Rim, Oblivion).  Michael Bay (Armageddon) would be proud.

All jokes aside, telling stories is hard. Especially original stories. In fact, common wisdom says all stories have already been told (thus the Heroes Journey that gets repeated ad nauseum) so it’s all in how you go about telling them. The presentation.  The execution. So go ahead and stick with the formulae and tropes, but be clever about it and never let it override your own personal style.

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4 replies

  1. “But what I’ve found with all of these is it’s best to first write what you want and then recognize the universal truths hidden within. Then, if it makes the story stronger, you can accentuate certain parts of the formula and play to these universal notions in order to make something which a broader audience can feel connected to.”

    Yes, yes, so much this.

  2. Dear Writer,

    Thanks for the attaboy. I appreciated your in-depth, honest critique of my book, too. I thought that workshop was a complete waste of time. Most of us sat around and checked our emails while the instructor mumbled and said things like “I’m sorry I made you submit an outline and a first chapter, but there’s just so many of you, I don’t think I can read them all” and “I had some notes but I lost them” before listing the 9 points of a 6 point structure. Good grief!

    I will be forever thankful, however, for meeting you and Ash Robbins in three day brain-dampening exercise. Ash stopped by for coffee with me and Belinda when she was in town Memorial Day. I critiqued her Fencon entry for this year, but I can’t rave about it too much because members of my crit group submitted, too.

    I am listening to Stephen King’s On Writing and it’s pretty shocking in places. At first I was disappointed when the first three hours were all about his family and growing up, but now he’s getting into his writing process and I’m having to rethink stuff. He doesn’t have a plot when he sits down! He shuts the door and pulls down the blinds. He hates adverbs venomously. I do like what he says about using “said” (he loves it) since it agrees with my thoughts on the matter. He says vocabulary, grammar, style elements, and truth are the basic necessities. He also writes 2,000 words a day, every day of the year!

    I write on park benches, my office, my kitchen table, the Waffle House. I don’t have a set time or a set number of words. Maybe I need to get more disciplined. He says the two most important things about being a writer are doing something healthy every day (he walked until he was hit by a van) and being in a loving but no-nonsense relationship.

    Interesting stuff. Makes me rethink a lot of the things I’m doing.

    In regards to your Hollywood theorem, one of the excellent writers in my crit group describes my stories this way: “You have written this scene cinematically, looking at the broad view, when you should be writing it from one actor’s viewpoint.” She’s absolutely correct, and I’m more than happy to blame it on my copious movie input.

    Checklists are the little mind killers, in my opinion.

    Ten entries on my Amazon page now.

    • Glad I didn’t come off as too critical on the swap. Always worried about that, except with my current group ’cause they know what to expect by now. I have heard so much about On Writing that I’m starting to feel inadequate as a writer for not having read it. I work in the same way King does, seat of the pants, no plot spelled out. For Collateral Damage, all I had was “powerless kid whose dad is a superhero” and a start on what I thought was a short story that simply kept going. The lack of plotting showed in my first draft but by the time I got to the second, I was able to pull things together better.

      On my old schedule I wrote five days a week, two sessions each day (one for shorts the other for the novel). I might have gotten about 2k on a good day. Since I finished Collateral I’ve been on a bit of a break – home improvement projects and such, but dabbling with shorts and novels a bit each week. I’ll get back into a rhythm once the back porch is wrapped up. In the end though, not sure word count is important as long as you are writing but I do use it as a motivational tool.

      Glad to see the Amazon page growing! I’ll work on catching up though you’ve got a heck of a head start on me!

      • Not at all too critical! In fact, you really just solidified some things the more level-headed in my crit group had been telling me all along. For Nano, I’m going to rewrite the first third into a separate novel. You were right; there’s too much going on for one book. Maybe if I split it out, I can focus more on my protagonist. Like King, I need to focus on the situation and not the story. He, like you, likes to come up with the characters and give them a horrible conflict. He thinks he’s a successful suspense writer because even he is in suspense as to what’s going to happen next.

        If you have an old cassette player around, I’ll be happy to send you these six On Writing tapes when I’m done (I’m on the fourth).

        I don’t ever do 2,000 words a day (maybe during Nano). I need to have better discipline.

        Hang in there and look for me at Fencon,


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