Read any good books lately? Seen a good movie? Maybe. Finding good fiction is not impossible. But finding stories that don’t also devour your last drop of patience can be a fool’s errand.
Writers can be notorious herd animals. When they find a formula that sells, they aren’t going to write anything else. Because it sold. Meanwhile, we buy it, because there’s nothing else available. So it keeps on selling.
It’s apparent from the synopsis whether a story is an original one crafted by a writer’s soul and imagination, or whether it has been crammed into a cookie cutter. It’s right there in the beginning.
The Obligatory Tragedy
Reeling from the loss…, Recovering from the tragedy…Mourning the tragic accident that took…After losing … When her husband/son/mother is killed … How many synopses don’t introduce the protagonist with the tragic premature death of a loved one? This trope has become so de-rigor in some genres that before the first page is even written, our hero must sacrifice a loved one to the story gods.
Is this the only way to give a character depth? Is there no other catalyst to provoke a story into action? I suspect that there is, but perhaps there is no other way that is quite so convenient.
Nobody Has a Job
All this reeling from loss inevitably sends the character packing to somewhere else to start a new life. Or to find the real killer. Or to confront their past. In doing so, they may move into a haunted house. They may embark on an international quest to solve a mystery. They may even reconnect with a former lover who turns out to be far superior to the husband they buried.
One thing they will not do is get up in the morning and go to work.
Because lets face it, if they had to do that, they could not have packed up and moved away to recover from their loss. They could not globe trot around to find the killer or crack the spy ring. They could not stay out all day with a shaman trying to find the grave of the haunt that is terrorizing them, and then stay up all night with a priest trying to exorcise it.
So they tend to inhabit a certain uber-class. They’re famous writers living off royalties. They’re independent contractors who can design software and web-pages from home. Often, they’re vaguely associated with the media, and can jet off “on assignment.” Or maybe they’re just living off their sacrifice’s life insurance.
Whatever they’re doing, it’s not spelled j-o-b.
Everybody is Divorced
If a character is single, it’s because they are divorced. If they have never been married, they are a child of divorce. If a character is married, it’s their second or third time around. Every family is blended and extended out into seconds and thirds among step-parents and step-siblings.
In fiction, having an ex or steps is as mandatory as putting a family member in the grave.
This is not just writers imposing their own sub-culture upon their characters. It pretty much describes half the country, making it normal. But what about the other half? Looking for the half of us who are in in-tact families — the half that has no steps or exes — is quite a tall order. We are normal too. But in fiction, we are invisible.
Keeping it Real
There’s nothing wrong with escapism. There’s nothing wrong with tragedies, uncommon professions, or divorces in fiction. What’s wrong is making them mandatory elements of every story. What’s wrong is never writing about anything else.
What’s wrong is leaving the majority of us out.
Yes, we all like to escape to a world where people look like models, have unlimited funds with no job, and can go jet-setting around the globe to rip the curtain off the Vatican’s most shocking secrets. But we also like to see ourselves and read stories about people we identify with, like:
- Stories set in communities where, if you bury your loved one on Saturday, you still have to be back at work on Monday,
- Stories where some people do live in nuclear or extended families and stay married for life, and
- Stories that resemble our own lives and celebrate our own reality.
These stories exist, but they are rare and hard to find, especially in film. The stories that reflect our actual experiences are not considered worthy to be told. We can’t find a story about a young man trying to decide whether to return to his hometown after college and take over his parents’ small business, or to follow his passion and be a high-school basketball coach. We can only find a story about a researcher who, reeling from the loss of her twin sister, drives off to start a new life in a new town, where she discovers a secret government project to turn orphans into super-soldiers and the only one who will help her stop it is her ex-husband.
Because that’s the only one that gets written. And that is the real tragedy.
The Lazy Muse
The novel or movie script I would like to write would be a zombie revenge fantasy. One night all of the protagonists’ dead family members rise from their graves and gather into a posse that descends upon a writers conference, determined to avenge their deaths. As the zombies close in on the hapless writers, their readers and viewers race in to their rescue with a fleet of buses and vans.
Days later, the writers find themselves dumped off the buses in various actual communities with unglamorous names like “Denver,” Reidsville,” or “Seward.” There, their only hope to survive is to perform a j-o-b and live among the non-glitterati.
Will our heroes rediscover the inspired muse and finally connect with their readers and audiences? Or will they lazily cling to the shortcuts they know and love — digging fresh graves for their wealthy heroes’ family members and fattening the wallets of divorce lawyers? Down in the trenches of the workforce, will they have the time and energy to write at all?
This one’s got page-turner written all over it.