Thursday, March 29, 2018

Everything Old Is New Again -- Reviving Old-School Literary Tropes and Techniques for Contemporary Fiction


There are so many literary conventions that have fallen out of use -- or at least out of favor -- in modern fiction. You hear it all the time: Don't use infodumps, show don't tell, no page after page of description, don't jump heads, no omniscient narrators, etc.

With that in mind, there's only one question for this new writers roundtable...


What is your favorite of the old conventions or tropes to revisit, and how do you use it effectively for contemporary readers?

Amanda Niehaus-Hard: I think genre writers have been steadily incorporating more literary techniques into their writing, but instead of thinking of these things in academic terms, they’re often referred to as “easter eggs.” Allusion and parallelism in themes are there, but they aren’t called out as such.

One of the literary techniques that I miss in genre fiction is the omniscient narrator. What’s in favor right now is that very close limited point-of-view, where you’re plugged into the brain and sensory system of one character, and this can be extremely effective, especially in horror. This technique fell out of favor years ago, (even inside literary fiction) but YA authors are bringing it back, in a way, in the voice of a ghost narrator.  There’s a lot you can do with omniscience – especially in a longer work. Ellen Gilchrist is a contemporary literary author using the omniscient narrator to provide commentary on the story, even entering the story as a character herself. It’s a powerful tool that I’d like to see the genre community experiment with. 

Another technique that is not only out of favor, but often warned against by editors, is the use of multiple points-of-view (derisively called “head-hopping” in the romance community.) Now it’s true this is a technique that can get out of hand quickly, so authors are usually encouraged to limit point-of-view to alternating sections or chapters, or for shorter works alternating paragraphs. Virginia Woolf was the master of “head hopping,” so authors who want to experiment with this should look at how she handled it. I see it being much more effective in some genres than others. (In horror, sometimes the dread and sense of isolation can be enhanced by staying firmly inside the head of one character. With a larger fantasy series, being entirely in one mind can become tedious for the reader. Even books in the Harry Potter series play with this – pulling away from Harry’s direct experience as the series goes on, to give the reader an overall picture of the very-real problems both the Muggle and Wizarding worlds are about to confront.)

I do wish genre writers would consider what they could accomplish if they were as precise with language as some varieties of literary fiction authors. One aspect of lit fic (some would say the only important aspect) is the sound of the language, the rhythms of the sentences. Ray Bradbury was a genius at finding language that actually sounds like the thing he’s writing about. (Remember the scene in “Something Wicked This Way Comes” where the mirrors are breaking? Those sentences, read aloud, actually sound like breaking glass. It’s amazing.) Genre writers would be well-advised to pay as much attention to the pacing of the sentence as they do the pacing of the unfolding plot. Borrow and steal from poetry techniques, from Gertrude Stein. Borrow and steal from the language of Ulysses, of Borges and Calvino. 

Literary writers pride themselves on breaking with tradition, and I’d like to see more genre writers attempt the same. Ursula LeGuin was a proponent of breaking literary “rules” inside imaginative fiction. She encouraged writers of all stripes to overturn conventional ideas about “story,” even questioning the advice to build a story on “conflict.” Literary writers very often will craft short fiction that doesn’t follow Freitag’s pyramid or Aristotle’s Poetics. The story might end just before or just at the moment of the “crisis.” We might never see falling action or any kind of resolution. Try mapping LeGuin’s famous story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” on that pyramid. That story reads more like a sonnet, with a two-line turn at the end rather than an actual conflict/crisis/resolution structure. 
Last month I read two different independent works advertised as short story collections, but that were really more like novels in fragments – a literary technique that I hadn’t seen in genre fiction. This excited me to no end. I’m seeing a lot more experimentation inside YA, where the phrase “novel in verse” isn’t looked on with suspicion but with delight. I would love to see genre writers experiment with structure and form the way literary authors do. Of course that’s a huge risk. The experiment might pay off or it might fail miserably. Ultimately your “art” still has to communicate enough to the reader to make the process of reading it worth their time. I imagine that for every story she places in The New Yorker, even Joyce Carol Oates has one or two that never see publication, and that’s okay.

Ultimately, fiction supplies us with an enormous tool box of techniques and devices we can use, and I don’t think we should necessarily limit ourselves to what’s in fashion today, or even what’s considered “the law” today. Tell a good story, use whatever methods you need to in order to do so, and don’t let how we currently view fiction limit how you see it. 



Rob Cerio: The infodump can still be done well, when presented in the proper literary device. One of the reasons I admire Douglas Adams so much is his use of the narrative tool of the hitchikers guide entries to do the infodumpingin the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Perry Constantine: I like omniscient narration, but it’s really tough to get right. I’ve done it myself on occassion, though I can’t say for sure if it’s been effective.

Gordon Dymowski: When I'm writing, I actively try to avoid obvious tropes. After all, part of storytelling should be as much in subverting the obvious direction as it is in straightforward storytelling. But there are two tropes that I think have been overused...and that I try to openly integrate into my storytelling in clever ways.

One is the Inevitable Corruption of The Hero. You know the drill -- the hero has a gun on the villain. The villain says "Kill me." The hero drops the gun and says, "If I kill you, I'm no better than you."

Not every hero is ethically pure, and I like the idea of temptation...but the whole I-won't-kill-you cliche is overplayed. But planting some smaller incidents of moral question help flesh out the hero's limits. After all, having the big twist doesn't make sense without some examples of how the hero can go wrong. Another (which I'm integrating into one of my current projects) is to suggest that the hero may cross that line...but less out of moral certainty and more out of their own self-destructive or morally righteous behavior.

(Note - I'm not spoiling anything; these are storytelling choices. Your mileage may vary).

The other is the ever-popular Romantic Triangle. Or to quote the J. Geils Band: "You love her, but she loves him/And he loves somebody else, you just can't win..."

Whether you grew up with 1980s romantic comedies...or even more popular current fare, you know how much this gets overplayed. And the approach, which leads to the "Stalking for Love" trope....just won't cut it with a modern audience.

Part of the way try to subvert this in my writing? Make sure that it's a triangle that has a healthier resolution. Perhaps one of the characters in the main couple realizes that their feelings aren't as strong. Or that the pursuer ends up finding strength through a strong friendship with the person that they desire. (Or even that the pursuer finds their feelings stem from some other inadequacy). It's also easy to fall into the lazy trope of having the pursuer...well, "keep tabs" on their desired one. It's much more interesting to focus on the internal struggle of someone who has feelings for someone but also has to acknowledge that the person does not share that feeling. Or even discuss such a relationship in a different historical context to create a unique set of dynamics.

Example: one of my current projects involved women in the 19th century. Extended friendships which involve hand-holding, some physical affection, and emotional intimacy led to strong relationships between women. So much so that the concept of a "Boston marriage" arose - this is a state where two women live together like a married couple normally would. (And given the historical context, this wasn't seen as problematic or "bad". It just was.) Having someone infatuated with a woman in a "Boston marriage" would give it added texture...and making the person infatuated a third woman might even give it more poignancy and grace.

But from a storytelling perspective, it would make it worth it, because sometimes subverting and reshaping well worn cliches provides for more effective storytelling options.

Bill Craig: Flashbacks are good places for exposition and infodumps.

Richard Laswell: I'm a fan of very detailed descriptions. Tolkien would not have been nearly as popular if his world was a vague shadow in the background. I'll likely get in trouble here but witness the difference between Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. I fully admit the Narnia books are vivid and entertaining, but more in an action thriller way than the rich sprawling tapestry of Middle Earth.

Michael Woods: I like the omniscient narrators. I like to tell some of my stories as if they are being told by a bard entertaining folk in a tavern or traveling show. Other times I like to be highly descriptive of the details. Never blend the two though. It makes for boring reads.

PJ Lozito: What I'm working on now revives the old saw of challenging the reader to guess the identity of a masked vigilante from a pool of possibles.