Part Four: Common Workshop Story Types
Nadia Rebel, taking over on part four of the Turkey City Lexicon! Part four is closely tied to common sci-fi troupes, but we include it here for the sake of thoroughness and because many of the elements can be carried over into mystery, military thriller, or any fiction novel really.
Adam and Eve Story
Nauseatingly common subset of the “Shaggy God Story” in which a terrible apocalypse, spaceship crash, etc., leaves two survivors, man and woman, who turn out to be Adam and Eve, parents of the human race!
Hunter Conrad once killed a man for penning this kind of hackneyed story. In case you are just getting started and haven’t figured it out yet, this has been done to death.
The Cozy Catastrophe
Story in which horrific events are overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo- Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying. (Attr. Brian Aldiss)
The pantheon of prepper fiction is guilty of Cozy Cathastrophes. It seems that every TEOTWAWKI novel about economic collapse centers on a group of plucky survivors who were ready for the collapse, have plenty of guns and water in the shelter, and the collapse, for them, is little more than an inconvenience. If you are going to write a societal collapse story, do yourself a favor, make your MC a hapless convenience store clerk who didn’t see it coming and now must survive on her street smarts.
Dennis Hopper Syndrome
A story based on some arcane bit of science or folklore, which noodles around producing random weirdness. Then a loony character-actor (usually best played by Dennis Hopper) barges into the story and tells the protagonist what’s going on by explaining the underlying mystery in a long bug-eyed rant. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)
Mystery authors that don’t have a good grasp on their own story resort to the Dennis Hopper Syndrome. If you need Dennis Hopper to explain the plot to your main character (i.e. the reader) go back and have another look at your plot outline. Bringing in the Dennis Hopper character rarely satisfies all of the story problems. More often than not, he leaves the reader more confused than satisfied.
Deus ex Machina or “God from the Machine”
A story featuring a miraculous solution to the conflict, which comes out of nowhere and renders the main character’s efforts irrelevant. H.G. Wells warned against SF’s love for the deus ex machina when he coined the famous dictum; “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.”
In genre fiction this comes in the form of an outside character or agency showing up to save the day when all seems lost. The hero has her back to a cliff, the bad guy has the gun. Suddenly a black helicopter swoops in. An FBI sniper kills the villain in time to save the hero. Where in the hell did the FBI come from? How did they find out what was going on? Who knows. The writer was too lazy to work out the story details, so she slapped a Deus ex Machina on the end of the book. This usually ends with the government agent telling the confused hero ( also the confused audience) that the FBI had been following the whole thing from the beginning. They only decided to take action when it was clear that the hero was about to be killed and the killer was going to get away. This kind of ending leaves the reader scratching their head, wondering why the Deus ex Machina character didn’t step in and help a dozen other times during the story.
The Grubby Apartment Story
Similar to the “poor me” story, this autobiographical effort features a miserably quasi-bohemian writer, living in urban angst in a grubby apartment. The story commonly features the author’s friends in thin disguises — friends who may also be the author’s workshop companions, to their considerable alarm.
The Grubby Apartment is self explanatory, but it has deeper implications. If all of your story ideas feature yourself in thin disguises, then what you really yearn to write is an autobiography. Unfortunately, unless you are; A. Famous, B. Done something interesting, or C. Survived something incredible, then no one cares. No, the random quasi-philosophical ramblings of you and your friends at the local watering hole do not make a good book. No, your crappy love life does not make a good book. Readers want to escape their hum drum life. Why would they want to read about your hum drum life? If you haven’t been chased through the jungle by pigmy head-hunters and you aren’t famous, then your life is hum drum, no matter how witty or intelligent your mother said you are, the fact is you’re average and people want to read exceptional. We clear?
The Jar of Tang
A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise ending. Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story engineered so the author can cry “Fooled you!”
For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.
This is a classic case of the difference between a conceit and concept. “What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?” is an example of the former; “What if the revolutionaries from the sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?” is an example of the latter. Good stories require concept, not conceits. (Attr. Stephen P. Brown)
When done with serious intent rather than as a passing conceit, this type of story can be dignified by the term “Concealed Environment.” (Attr. Christopher Priest)
Story which thinly adapts the trappings of a standard pulp adventure setting. The spaceship is “just like” an Atlantic steamer, down to the Scottish engineer in the hold. A colony planet is “just like” Arizona except for two moons in the sky. “Space Westerns” and futuristic hard-boiled detective stories use this to avoid the laborious task of unique world building.
The Just-Like Fallacy comes most often in the form of thinly disguised Star Trek knock offs. Grasping amateur authors tend to craft stories which resemble the world of Star Trek in all but name. The characters exist on a one-to-one ratio. The reader will find Captain Dirk, First officer Mr. Splock and Communications Officer Nuhura. If your story could work as fan fiction, then you produced fan fiction. Call it such and offer it for free. Charging a reader for it is intellectually dishonest.
The Kitchen-Sink Story
A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it. (Attr. Damon Knight)
Here is another sin that YA authors commit frequently. Not only does their story have vampires, it also has harpies, mermaids, talking cats, at least two handsome guys who fight over the female lead, along with invading aliens, werewolves, global warming, a totalitarian government and unicorns. Pick a story. More than one major story element, (i.e. vampires, aliens, totalitarian government) are best handled in wholly separate books. If you like both vampires and totalitarian governments, the answer is not a Twilight/Hunger Games mash up, but rather, two individual series.
Somewhere, an amateur hack read that last sentence and thought: Twilight/Hunger Games mash up! Brilliant. Wrong. Crap. In fact, both series were crap. Adding them together only makes double the crap.
The “Poor Me” Story
Autobiographical piece in which the male viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can’t get laid. (Attr. Kate Wilhelm)
See the Grubby Apartment above.
Re-Inventing the Wheel
A novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a situation already tiresomely familiar to the experienced reader.
Reinventing the Wheel is usually a result of new writers attracted to writing through movies, television, role-playing games, comics, or video games. These are the same people who think it’s not necessary to be a reader in order to be a writer. They accept the idea a brain surgeon would need to go to medical school and a pilot needs flying lessons, but writing a novel? Hell, anybody can do that.
The Rembrandt Comic Book
A story in which incredible craftsmanship has been lavished on a theme or idea which is basically trivial or sub-literary, and which simply cannot bear the weight of such deadly-serious artistic portent.
In layman’s terms, the diction needs to match the story. Writing a hard-boiled detective novel using the language of Jane Austin is going to leave your reader feeling very confused.
The Shaggy God Story
A piece which mechanically adopts a Biblical or other mythological tale and provides flat science-fiction “explanations” for the theological events. (Brian Aldiss) The latest Noah movie is a perfect example. Hopefully we don’t have to go into how much that movie sucked.
The Slipstream Story
Non-SF story which is so ontologically distorted or related in such a bizarrely non-realist fashion that it cannot pass muster as commercial mainstream fiction and therefore seeks shelter in the SF or fantasy genre. Postmodern critique and technique are particularly fruitful in creating slipstream stories.
Closely related to the Abbess Phone Home
The Steam-Grommet Factory
Didactic SF story which consists entirely of a guided tour of a large and elaborate world. A common technique of SF utopias and dystopias. (Attr. Gardner Dozois)
Just like it sounds. The author had a clear vision of the world in which the story takes place, but no actual story. Sci-fi/fantasy authors who are big on Tolkien and Robert Jordan often run afoul of this problem. They are talented world builders, but a world without an inciting incident and ensuing plot, is a pretty boring place to be. It’s even more boring to read about.
The Tabloid Weird
Story produced by a confusion of SF and Fantasy tropes — or rather, by a confusion of basic world-views. Tabloid Weird is usually produced by the author’s own inability to distinguish between a rational, Newtonian-Einsteinian, cause-and- effect universe and an irrational, supernatural, fantastic universe. Either the FBI is hunting the escaped mutant from the genetics lab, or the drill-bit has bored straight into Hell — but not both at once in the very same piece of fiction. Even fantasy worlds need an internal consistency of sorts, so that a Sasquatch Deal-with-the-Devil story is also “Tabloid Weird.” Sasquatch crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don’t mix well, even for comic effect. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)
This one is closely related to the Kitchen-Sink Story.
The Whistling Dog
A story related in such an elaborate, arcane, or convoluted manner that it impresses by its sheer narrative ingenuity, but which, as a story, is basically not worth the candle. Like the whistling dog, it’s astonishing that the thing can whistle — but it doesn’t actually whistle very well. (Attr. Harlan Ellison)