Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's All Been Done Before

John McFetridge

These days I feel like we’re living in a golden age of crime fiction – there’s so much of it and it’s so good.

I remember all too well in the 70’s and early 80’s when all we had was Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard.

Now, it’s great to be a reader of crime fiction but as a writer one thing we hear a lot is that everything’s been done before. How to keep it fresh?

I like stories that use real events as a jumping off point to imagaine what led up to the pivotal moment.

Fiction has always done this, of course; James Ellroy and his own mother’s murder (and the Black Dhalia case and many other Hollywood crimes of the 50’s), Richard Price took the story of a woman who claimed her kids were abducted when she was carjacked and wrote a fantastic novel, Freedomland, and Elmore Leonard sat in with Squad Seven – the homicide detectives – in Detroit and wrote a great article about it for Detroit Magazine and also quite a few excellent crime novels.

With so many books and TV shows set in the world of crime and investigation these days there’s bound to be some overlap. How many times have we seen the same ‘ripped from the headlines’ story show up as a Law and Order and a CSI and a Cold Case?

One of the saddest things about late twentieth century life for me was realizing that there are so many similar serial killers there really are only a couple of profiles repeated over and over – and the victims are almost always children or young women. It gets us angry to think about it, but there’s not much to say. So many writers try to make these conventions ‘fresh’ because there’s no depth to the characters, no insight to bring to the stories. There was nothing in Ted Bundy’s life that wasn’t in a million other guys’ lives, nothing we could have changed, no rule or law or even social convention that would have made a difference to him.

We always run the risk of simply exploiting these tragedies.

So how do we tell the same stories in new ways? (I think as long as these things go on in our world literature is still one of the best ways to try and understand).

For myself I prefer stories that stay as true to what really happens in our world as possible. The writer puts it in a meaningful context in a unique voice.

Here’s what got me thinking about this:

This week I saw an episode of Flashpoint that has a very similar climactic scene to one we have in an episode of the TV show I work on, The Bridge. And it’s a scene that’s been done in lots of other shows and books and movies.

There’s a bad guy (really bad, a serial killer on Flashpoint and a guy who’s killed some cops on The Bridge) who isn’t remorseful at all and there’s a cop who has gone bad (been driven to the brink by injustice and more concern for the rights of the bad guy than any compassion for the victims, something like that) and is going to kill the bad guy.

Other cops show up and there’s a stand-off.

It’s good vs. evil, it’s civilized people vs. barbarians.

Yes, the bad guy is bad, but we don’t execute him without a trial in a public square. We have laws and procedures. People have given their lives to protect those laws, they’re what make us civilized. It isn’t some other bad guy threatening to kill him, it’s officers of the state, people we’ve trained and entrusted with our security and the upholding of our laws and institutions (on Flashpoint they made it personal – the ‘bad’ cop was the sister of one of the killer’s victims. We made it a little personal on The Bridge, too, the ‘bad’ cop was the long-time partner of the cop the bad guy killed. And the cop who went bad was a widower who had pretty much joined the family of the cop who was killed).

So what happens?

Do the “good” cops shoot the “bad” cop or let him shoot the bad guy?

I don’t think it matters how many times it’s been done before or how much you want to make this situation different, new or fresh, or whatever you want.

I also don’t think your personal political views matter, or what you wish would happen.

What matters, to me, is what would really happen in that situation with the characters that you created and put there.

And what happens in the Flashpoint ending is very different than what happens in The Bridge ending.


John McFetridge said...

It's been pointed out to me that in the 80's we also had 3 masterpieces from James Crumley and a dozen great books from Ross Thomas.

I haven't read any of them, but I'm going to correct that now, starting with the Crumley.

Dana King said...

As you know, John, I'm not averse to ripping off a headline when nit suits me. The key is to take no more than you need, then let the characters unique to your story have it play out as they would. Even though I'm a fairly detailed plotter, I'm always aware of what each character would be likely to do in that situation. If a character has changed some from how I envisioned him at the beginning, I'll go back and fudge the story to make it work.

I used to have "Oh shit!" moments when I heard someone had done a book or a movie on a similar premise to something I was working on. No more. I just make it a point not to read the book or see the movie so I'm not unconsciously influenced to do it their way. It'll be different.

Keith Logan said...

My word, yes, get cracking on THE LAST GOOD KISS, by all means possible! I am in the camp that thinks it's a wonderful book. Hope you enjoy.

Steve Weddle said...

I know what you mean.

When I'm working on a book or a story I see so many places that it has been "done" before.

I guess it's the little things you put, that adding up of the personalities that makes it your own.

Not to geek out completely, but there was a Star Trek: TNG episode in which Data the android was bummed because he couldn't bring his own personality to his violin playing. He told the captain that he combined these three folks to come up with a sound. But he was just stealing their sounds. Aha, the captain said. But you're the one who decided to pick those three and combine them out of the zillions you could have chosen. So I guess that's what we do.

Now that I think about it, I've probably seen that combining violinists thing somewhere else.