Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Don't Be Afraid To Change The Rules When You Write Your Story

How many times have you sat down to write a story about something really popular, but you can't think of a way to make your story different from any of the others already out on the market? You want to write a zombie apocalypse, but you don't want to just fade into the horde of other cannibal outbreak books. Maybe you really like this idea for a modern fantasy story about a witch investigator, but sexy witches who use occult rituals are a dime a dozen. Or you've got a really cool concept for a vampire novel, but you're worried it will just get swallowed up by all the Anne Rice imitators out there.

If you find yourself in this situation, get out your pickax, and dig a little deeper. Upset the foundation stones of the story you think you're writing, and question the rules you accept without thinking. You might find a whole, unplumbed subbasement waiting for your creative touch.

Careful, some of these holes go down pretty far.
A lot of the time when we want to write within certain genre lines, we restrict ourselves without even thinking about it. So, before you get discouraged that your book sounds like everyone else's, take a moment to question the pillars holding up those other stories, and ask if they're supporting anything in your book... or if they're just big, ugly impediments.

Change Is Different

To help you get an idea of what I'm talking about, let's return to those previous examples I used. Let's start with the zombie apocalypse.

So, you've got the dead returning to walk the earth. They destroyed society, and their virus is transmitted by a bite. Maybe, if you're hip, everyone on the planet already has the virus, so they rise when they die even if they weren't bitten as long as there's a lot of the body left intact. In the face of such a well-trodden setup, you feel like the drama of your story is going to get swallowed up in the indifference to zombies. So, change that up.

Well, I guess I don't really NEED the pseudo-scientific angle...
Change it how, though? Well, let's start with the "plague" part of the zombies. Toss that out entirely. There is no scientific reason for the dead to walk, so break with tradition there. Maybe, instead, it's a curse. Maybe demons have possessed the corpses, and are wreaking havoc. Maybe no one knows why they come back at all... they just do! Perhaps that means society has broken down into pragmatists, religious fanatics, and post-modern shamans, putting their faith out there along with their guns to stay one step ahead of the slavering hoard. While not a gigantic change, it's enough of a change that it might get people who are all zombied-out to read your back cover, and give you a chance to make your pitch.

You can do this with pretty much any cornerstone of a genre. Take the witchy investigator. You don't want your story to be just another hard-edged-Wicca story where witches are misunderstood, and she has to use her powers for good. So, question why you'd use that setup. Make your protagonist a traditional, Halloween-style, sold-her-soul-to-Satan-for-power witch. Give her a canary that is actually a horrible demon in disguise, and make the struggle for her soul a genuine point of contention. She has to deal with what she gave up for power, and her only solace might be to use those infernal gifts to do some kind of good. By changing that single pillar of the genre, you've made something that's pretty damn different.

Or take the vampire example. Vampires are a mythology that's existed in practically every civilization across the world. The sort of Anne Rice/Vampire The Masquerade setup is relatively recent. If you want to avoid falling into those tropes, then ask why you're using that kind of vampire at all? Why not use old English folklore, and make them the risen dead who were werewolves in life? Or people who were cursed at the time of death, and so may not rest? Is it a strain on the psyche not to devolve into a ravenous monster, thus adding the element of loss of humanity that drives many horror stories? Or is being a vampire something that only a select few can become? Whether by birth, genetic activation, or some other sort of sorting principal? Bonus points if you don't actually call your character a vampire, and you step away from the powers/weaknesses we've associated with the monster archetype since Bela Lugosi did his thing.

You Might Need The Pillar, But If You Don't, Knock It Down!

There are no rules to good writing that anyone can agree upon, but a lot of us will use existing shorthand to bring across big aspects of our stories. However, if those boundaries are getting in the way, toss them out! Your private detective doesn't have to be a former cop with a busted nose and a drinking problem. Hell, make him a guy with a bad heart who was way too smart for the written exam, but who couldn't pass the physical. Don't want your fantasy wizards to feel like every other spellslinger out there? Change up your magic system, and do away with the fireballs and lightning bolts that have dominated our covers ever since Dungeons and Dragons got popular.

Be different. It's your story, so before you conform to any guidelines or preconceptions, ask if those things are genuinely supporting the story you're telling. If they're not, then toss them out!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully it got some wheels turning in my audience's minds. If you like what I have to say here, and you want to keep up on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me here, then consider contributing to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Or, if you'd rather, you could Buy Me A Coffee, instead! Either way, I'll be happy to send you a free book as thanks for the support.

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