Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sometimes people write crap

Interesting column from Nathaniel Tower a while back about stories and tricks he's tired of seeing in magazine submissions.

An editor of a literary magazine has to put up with a fair amount. Among the struggles we must face on our daily quest for literary greatness is repetition. I’m not simply talking about the monotony of reading submissions. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that, at times, it feels like every submission is exactly the same. 

Stories that begin with someone coming out of a dream or end with someone realizing it was all a dream – You’d think that all dream stories would have been banned from the universe by now. It seems as if many writers haven’t gotten the memo. I’ll personally kill the next character that wakes up from a dream at the beginning of a story. And ending with a dream? Well, that’s even worse. You might as well just call the story “Nothing Happened At All” and leave the rest of the document blank.
Ending a story with a dream seems to be a cheat against the reader, doesn't it? Remember when Bobby Ewing died, but it was all a dream? Sean Munger talked about this particular situation a few years ago. For Munger, given the set-up, the other options were a faked murder, an almost murder, or twin brother.

The twin brother thing can be just as off-putting as anything else. As a Guiding Light fan, I recall the dual role Vincent Irizarry played. Heck, if you see someone drive off a cliff in a soap opera (day or night, in or out of the rain) there's very little chance the person died. And, if he or she did, maybe it was a twin. Or maybe they bring in a twin. Or maybe you're a twin.

Look, sometimes people write crap. You get backed into a corner and think, well, how am I going to make this work? Then you spend a month at your desk making it worse.

Or you pick up a book and groan when it starts with the main character waking up from a dream. Or a hangover. Or suddenly there's a dream scene in the story that is supposed to SAY IMPORTANT THINGS about the story itself.

Dreams are dumb. In the sleepy dreams, people never do anything that makes a damn bit of sense. See, you were there, but it wasn't really you. I mean, it started as you, but then you were on the porch, but it wasn't a porch. It was a ship. On and on. And the dreams we have for ourselves are also dumb. You know what my dream is? Getting through the week without pissing blood. Finding a good burrito in the frozen food aisle. Happiness. Blah blah. Who gives a shit?

The reason that dreams in stories are dumb is that they're often used as lazy cheats. (Not all cheats are lazy. Shut up.)  The writer gets backed into a corner and is too damn stubborn or lazy to keep working with the same level of creativity.

Wrote yourself into a corner? The Star Trek: TNG writers tried to do that each season and then spend the off-season working their way out of the corners.

Writing yourself into a corner is great. You've given yourself a challenge. A scope. Tower complains about dreams because he sees that too often in magazine submissions. That's because it's easy.

The reader is entering your story on page one, and you can have Robert Langdon being awakened by a phone call. OK. That seems an easy starting point, which makes sense if you want to write an easy story. If you don't mind tropes and cliches and are working with something you've pulled from Masterplots, page 74.

I'm not going to tell you to not write a dream. Dennis Lehane did it wonderfully in Mystic River in a scene with bird and a busted wing.  But you're not Dennis Lehane. (Unless you are, in which case, Hi, Mr. Lehane. I love many of your books.)

I have read books with cheats and enjoyed them, but they're still cheater-heads. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the subject of my master's thesis, kinda opens with the two of them waking from a dream. Of course, it's a bit more clever than that, as they're waking from being born, what with it's being the first page and all.

But a story itself is a dream. We're already once removed from reality. And the further you take your reader into Phonyville, the more trouble you can expect. We're asking readers for trust. We're trying to make the people in our books real. We're entering a contract with the reader and each time we cheat, that's one more chance to lose the reader.

Don't cheat. Stay in school, kids.


Holly West said...

I promise never to begin or end a story with a dream. Thankfully, it's never occurred to me to do it and I try to steer people away from it when I'm critiquing something.

But my dreams aren't dumb. They are very, very smart.

Good post, Steve.

Dana King said...

As with anything else, it's execution. The problems noted here require a hell of a lot of execution to overcome their inherent flaws, and some of the writers who try them should just be executed, period, case closed. You're right: much of it is laziness.

I have the same feelings about serial killer novels, but squared. Since they almost always kill women, it's the whole "woman in danger" cheat to ramp up tension; and there's also the "implausible motivation" cheat, because they can make up any bullshit they want and say it works because, hey, this guy's nuts.

As for the writing oneself into a corner? This is why I outline.

Steve Weddle said...

Holly, Thanks.
Dana, Yeah. You don't have to worry about explaining the character if he's "nuts."

Dale T. Phillips said...

Ah, but Lehane did do the dream thing with Shutter Island, and I was disgusted and let down. So yeah, even the good ones get lazy sometimes. Strike this stuff from fiction for awhile, writers, and get to original work!

Dana King said...

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I loved SHUTTER ISLAND. It all goes back to the execution. Of Lehane's books, it's MOONLIGHT MILE I don;t care for. Reads to me like he was tired of people asking for Patrick and Angie so he wrote one more book just to shut them up.