Tuesday, November 4, 2014

From Galvanism to Google: Tropes That Are Killing Your Novel

Authors have to walk a very fine line between writing what they know and just making shit up. Unless you happen to be Ian Fleming (the guy who lived James Bond's life before he wrote the novels) you tend to rely on a combination of your own experiences and research. Unfortunately for a lot of authors "research" means reading books and watching movies written by people who didn't know what the hell they were talking about. As a result a lot of tropes which should really be put out to pasture keep cropping up again and again in a day and age where they really have no business being.

It is impossible for a single blog entry to cover every possible trope that needs to be brought to your attention; that's what TV Tropes is for. And, just so we're all on the same page, this entry is going to focus on tropes regarding technology and history (for those who want social tropes I already covered cultural appropriation and killing women as a source of motivation).

All right? All right.

Trope #1: Knockout Drugs

We've all read a book or seen a movie where these chemical miracles figured in. Just load up a hypodermic, put it in your crossbow or compressed air rifle, and you can bring down any subject with no muss and no fuss. Your hero might struggle valiantly to remain awake, but in a matter of moments it's going to be lights out no matter what happens.

What, this? It's perfectly safe. Just count backward from 10...
Have you ever wondered why anesthesiologists get paid so much money? You know, the people who take all of your vitals and then carefully administer you with a cocktail meant to keep you unconscious during surgery? It's because if they screw up by so much as a few milliliters it's possible for you to go under and never come up again. That means that unless the people chasing you and firing dozens of tranquilizer rounds at you have a concoction specific to your body chemistry you're either going to just get woozy, or die. Possibly one then the other if you're hit more than once.

While this trope might seem nit-picky it's actually a small representation of a bigger problem; namely authors who throw in science without making an attempt to figure out how it works. We're not talking hand-wavey sci-fi tech either, just everyday chemistry and physics that you can find explained on wikipedia if you need a fast and loose explanation of what you're trying to do.

Trope #2: Everyone Speaks Modern Colloquial Languages

Have you ever been scrolling through your list of TV options and inexplicably found yourself watching one of those ghost hunting shows? Well if you have then you might have been lucky enough to catch one where the crew went overseas to report on some foreign ghostly activities. Maybe they were looking into ancient battlefields in Romania, or creepy islands in Thailand. While it's flavorful, you can tell that the writers (yes, ghost hunting shows have writers) are running out of ideas. How, you ask?

All the ghosts speak English.

That's eerie... how did they know we're American?
Of course any author with a shred of craft would never screw something like that up so blatantly. He would at the very least go to a Google translator program and get a phrase from the ghost's home country. Sometimes that's all it takes, but sometimes authors forget that language changes over time. Put another way that Arabic phrase you're seeing now might work in modern day Dubai, but if your heroes have mysteriously traveled back to the 7th century then chances are good it would be gibberish to anyone who heard it.

Language changes and adapts, and if you're going to play with it then you're opening a big ole' can of worms regarding it. On the one hand it's good form not to have your medieval sword-swinging British badass call someone "dude" on page two of your book, but it's also a good idea to remember that words like warlock have a unique cultural and geographic origin before you start using them in the wrong cultural setting.

In case you're curious, warlock is a British term that was imported from Scandinavia and other parts of Northern Europe.

Trope #3: Everyone Has Cell Phones (And No One Uses Them)

Technology often dates the books we read, and the cell phone is just one of the latest revolutions we use to date when a story takes place. If they're big and blocky we're looking at a story in the 1980s or 1990s, and if they're sleek and computerized we have a modern day or future thriller. The problem with cell phones, just like the problems with any other form of mass-produced technology, is that it will change your story.

How's that you might ask? Well I'll give you a good example.

I wonder what other forms of technology everyone has?
Some time ago I was given a job editing a modern fantasy story. Our reluctant lead had gotten caught up fighting a dragon (long story), and during the "discover esoteric prophecy" part of the book he had to get a piece of information from the radio station he worked at (a co-worker's home phone number, to be precise). So he steals another character's car, tear-asses across town, gets into a wreck, and then has a tense cat-and-mouse through the station for reasons that are never quite revealed. The whole time I was reading this all I could think was "Why are you wasting all this time and effort when you could just call the station?"

The main character had specifically mentioned having a cellular phone. He had the Internet. He even had a home phone for whatever reason (but apparently so did his co-worker). There was nothing to stop him from dialing information to get the number, looking it up in a directory online, or just calling the station and asking the receptionist to give him the number off the piece of paper on the break room wall. All of these were approaches that would have taken less time, required less effort, and which anyone who grew up in the Internet age would have turned to first before getting in the car and driving across town.

The short version? If you introduce any piece of technology whether it's a radio in your wristwatch or a cybernetic Internet connection in your lead's left eye then you need to remember that technology is real to your characters. It's a tool they possess, and if it's something they use on a daily basis then of course it's going to be the first thing they turn to in order to solve a problem. Also, technology affects society. If everyone has cell phones with cameras in them, how hard is it going to be for a blood-soaked shoot out to stay quiet?

The answer, as modern governments have found out, is it can't be hushed up. Period.

Trope #4: Occult Books Just Sitting On Your Lead's Shelf

The plot device of the rare-and-occult-book is not new. It's the whole plot of The 9th Gate and a version of it drives the film Cigarette Burns. Books by their very nature have a certain mystique, and an occult book doubly so. After all if a book has a whole secret cabal associated with it then it must be really special, right?

It would, and that's why we create those plot devices that our protagonists chase after. Regular books that hold important plot information are just that though; regular, ordinary, garden-variety books.

Even these.
The problem with this trope is not the existence of fictional books that drive your plot. If you want to create a book specifically to advance plot and to convey information to your main characters that is fine and dandy. The Necronomicon and other tomes of its ilk are cherished relics in the halls of horror, after all. The problem arises when an author writes the phrase, "so he spent an hour reading through his occult books," or something similar.

There's no such thing as occult books. The word occult means hidden or secret, and the word itself has taken on a mysterious air because of how often it's been used in thrillers and horror stories. If something has been written down and mass-produced though that's about as far from secret as you can get. What most authors mean when they use the term occult books is books about rare, obscure, or mystical subjects. This can be anything from academic treatises on the European witch craze, to obscure tomes about the changes the early Catholic church made to the Bible when translating it from Greek to Latin, to diary excerpts from a cannibal who was arrested and executed in Texas in the year 1902. They're just books... books about weird subjects, but books all the same.

The problem is that when you call them occult books we find ourselves wondering how someone not in a cult managed to get his hands on a secret grimoire, a hand-written account of the life of Paracelsus, or some other truly rare and obscure tome. You can't buy occult books at Barnes and Noble, but you can buy The History of Occult Symbols in America if you're willing to check the bargain bin.

If you want to make your hero's search for specific information feel more real then all you need to do is throw out some titles and author names. Talk about some databases he looked through. If your hero is not an expert in the subject though it's always better to phone a character who is an expert and to let that character deliver the information your hero truly needs to progress the plot. Don't just say you typed some key terms into Google and found everything about an ancient esoteric order. If it was that easy to find then you should be done by chapter four.

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