Flip the Story

14Mar12

Yesterday at SpecTechnique we looked at cases when a cliche is deformed or expanded.

When you’re going into a deformed cliche, you think you’ve seen this line before. Then when the cliche flips around on you, you’re taken by surprise. This is a technique writers can use to breach their readers’ defenses.

Today we’re leaving sentence cliches behind and talking about how writers can subvert their readers’ expectations on a broader scale.

Writing speculative fiction is both a blessing and a curse. We’ve got lots of tropes, formulas, and received ideas to play with. But on the other hand, if we don’t add a sufficiently unique twist, we’ll just be remixing the past with better production values and style.

This is why flipping the story, if properly executed, can be so delightful. It turns expected scenes into unexpected scenes; turns cheesy plot-by-numbers story beats into beats that might actually provoke an emotion.

1. FLIPPING THE FAMILIAR STYLE

A few years ago, because I’m a nerd, I went to the Chicago Public Library to browse its graphic novels. My eye fell on Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha. To be honest, I knew I should read it. But I knew the life of the Buddha was deathly serious stuff, and I was scared of being bored.

I opened it and this is what I got…

What sold me was the deliberately anachronistic, casual voice. “Think again, bitch!” isn’t a phrase I’d expect to hear in a story about the Buddha, but I’m so glad Tezuka decided to do it this way rather than opt for some super-stilted, “accurate” approach which would doubtless be distorted in other, probably less honest ways. This is an example of flipping the STYLE.

2. FLIPPING THE FAMILIAR PLOT

Let’s talk about China Miéville’s first novel, King Rat, published in 1999. The book is good though slight even compared to Perdido Street Station.

In this first novel Mieville still seems to be having more fun running his craft than steering it, and sometimes it points in a rather cheesy direction. About ⅓ through, it seems to be headed toward a somewhat seen-it-already, by-the-numbers, atonement-with-the-father plotline.

 The obvious generic prediction is that everyone will end up with a big battle, where the father figure will die while saving the protagonist, thus redeeming his crimes with an easy story beat… just like in Return of the Jedi, you know?

 ( It’s probably typical of the Star Wars films to excuse genocidal crimes for the sake of a tender father-son scene. I only wonder how many such tender, “archetypal” father-son moments were going down on the surface of Alderaan the instant it went blooey. Maybe father-son moments only count when John Williams is playing in the background.)

Anyway that’s the setup, only what Miéville does next is brilliant.

 None of the three wanted to die. It was a mission which involved certain destruction for one. The sheer force of animal self-preservation seemed to preclude their willingness even to risk the odds of one in three. There was to be no sentimental self-sacrifice in this fight.

-King Rat

I can’t tell you how happy it made me to read that line. Naturally, Mieville lived up to his promise and took the plot in a different direction.

Drum and Bass…

3. FLIPPING THE FAMILIAR SCENE

In John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, protagonist John Perry joins up with the space army and gets sent to an isolated planet to attend boot camp.

“Fuck, not this again,” I thought as I turned the page. Military SF fatigue had finally kicked in. “Not another boot camp scene on another fucking isolated planet!”

I expected this scene to be pretty much just like the boot camp scenes in The Forever War and Starship Troopers, except probably with less skepticism than the former… and less crypto-fascist bromance than the latter.

What I got instead was the exact opposite. A boot camp scene that anticipated all my reactions and doubled down in the opposite direction. The result was my favorite scene in the novel.

4. FLIPPING THE FAMILIAR CHARACTER TYPE

There’s also a FACTIONAL LEVEL of “flipping the script,” which is when the entire plot and premise and setting are founded on the precise person the reader doesn’t expect.

Often this takes the form of parody — a good example is Mary Gentle’s Grunts, where the orcs are the main characters. In a parody like this, just citing the original can sometimes be enough to get a laugh — a move you could call flipping the script back again:

 That does it!” Oderic said, puffing smoke-rings that lurched, lopsided, into the air.” I’m going to tell the REAL story about halflings,orcs, the Dark Lord, and the final victory. The halflings are going to be cheery and moral and know their place; the orcs will be cowardly, and they’ll lose; there won’t be ANY mention of arms trading, and at the end, the Dark Lord will be male, and VERY, VERY dead!”

It’s helpful to think about ways to “flip the script” when something in your current project seems cheesy or stale or overdone.

(Funny how these terms for bad literature all refer back to bad food… maybe writers are all stuck in the oral stage?)

I had a moment like this when I was drafting out my Nanowrimo story, a novel called Time of Flight. I knew I wanted to write a story with gods, but every time I’d done that before, the results always felt super hokey — like Dragonlance fanfiction, or maybe just like Dragonlance, period. It was only when I got the idea of making the gods more flawed than the human characters that the gears started to click. That story will get finished this year, I swear it…

See you next time on SpecTechnique. I don’t know what we’ll be talking about. Okay, I do: we’ll be talking about writing or some shit like that.


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