Ignore The Puppy

“Because that means it’s the city.

That means it’s the landscape: the bricks and the girders, and the faulty wiring and the shot elevator machinery, all conspiring together to make these myths true. And that’s crazy.”

Samuel Delany

Modern fictional characters live in a world of paranoia. That is to say that what is delusion in the mind of a paranoiac (“the world is a conspiracy and I am the center of Their plans”) is the reality they live in.

Modern thought regarding the structure of fiction, with its emphasis on story beats, hero’s journeys, and  character arcs has given rise to a literary landscape of literal madness.

I am not talking about experimental or absurdist fiction here, but mainstream popular writing. Everything that happens in a work of fiction is because the author makes it happen. When the author is working to fit events into a pre-determined formula the result is unrealistic and contrived.

It kills tension. The reader knows the story in advance. The death of the mentor isn’t a tragedy, it’s inevitable. When the boy meets the girl and a silly misunderstanding puts them at odds, no one is wondering if they will work out their differences before the last page. We know that the scrappy orphan will survive and that the villainous henchman will come to a messy end. When the police chief fires the headstrong detective we know it’s temporary and that everything will be cleared up in the end.

When the story is determined by a formula, the odds are irrelevant.

This is, I believe, partially responsible for the inversion of tropes that is currently in vogue. That doesn’t help, though, it just substitutes one formula for another. The old formulas at least had the advantage of being emotionally satisfying if logically absurd. The new subversive formulas provide neither tension nor satisfaction. So what is the solution?

Ignore The Puppy. 

Throw away the beat sheet and the outline. Lose the hero’s journey. Forget the narrative structure. Look at the situation in your story logically, as if it were happening in the real world instead of a story, and ask, “What would realistically happen next?”

Paradoxically, you will surprise your readers. We have come to a point where a reasonable outcome is seen as original and groundbreaking.

Go off the script. Let the events unfold realistically–not in the nihilistic sense of “realism” where everything predictably turns out for the worst, but with the quotidian uncertainty of real life. Jump the railroad tracks and go freewheeling across the countryside.

You’ll find yourself blazing new trails that will surprise you. And that will surprise–and delight–your readers.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ignore The Puppy

  1. There’s a screenwriter named Jeff Kitchen who teaches a method he calls “Reverse cause and effect.” He roughs out the concept of the screenplay, the theme, the dilemma of the main character, the climax and ending. Then he outlines the screenplay back to front. He starts with the ending and asks the question, “What caused this event to happen?” Then he asks the same question until he works from the last act and sequence to the first act and sequence. Then he goes through each sequence and outlines scenes from the end of the sequence to the beginning of the sequence in finer and finer detail.

    • Mary says:

      That works if you have an ending. Though you do have to work to put yourself into the uncertain mind of the opening characters, so they don’t glide too smoothly to their pre-ordained success.

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