I think that the line between a story that’s cliche and a story that breathes new life into an old trope can be very fine indeed. Sometimes, I think that the line is more in the head of the reader than anything else. Of course, the writer has to do his or her part. You’ve got to give that old idea new trappings, new characters and settings to make it interesting again. A new twist on the plot, if you can think of one, is good, too.
But, sometimes, there’s nary a new twist to be found. After all, there are a finite number of plots out there — depending on who you listen to, it’s 10 or 12 or maybe 36. You can boil so many radically different stories down to “man vs. man” or “man vs. machine,” etc. The thing that makes them stand out is how the writer told the story.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because of two stories that I submitted to Every Day Fiction. One was a ghost story, and it was rejected for being too cliche. The other was my recent acceptance, “A Million Faces.” The acceptance email actually said that they felt I’d breathed new life into an old trope, which was really nice to hear. I’m really excited about sharing that story with the world — I had fun writing it, and I felt like I really connected with the main character.
But I wonder what it was that made AMF work, while my ghost story still languishes without a home?
I started thinking, maybe I, as a reader, am too close to the ghost story. The stories that spook me the most are ghost stories. Hack-em-up stories gross me out, but they don’t really scare me. Ghosts, however… whew! I still think the pilot episode of the show Supernatural, which dealt with plenty of ghosts, was the scariest one they ever did — followed by all the other ghost stories. The ones about various earth-bound monsters or demons… still interesting, but not as much with the creepy chill factor.
I was never a big fan of The Sixth Sense, but I think that’s because it was built up to me way too much. I didn’t see it until DVD, so by that point, after all the hype, it would have had to be a much more impressive film for me to be blown away. I did think the twist was cool, though. The movie The Others, however, was totally creepifying to me! And there was the other movie that I saw where a guy had this whole life on an estate with a wealthy, eccentric family, and at the end it turned out that the estate was a crumbling ruin and they’d been ghosts all along. That one totally freaked me out, too — though, sadly, I have totally forgotten the name of the film.
So, maybe because ghost stories really affect me as a reader/viewer, it’s harder for me to write one with some distance? Maybe what seems cliche to other people, doesn’t feel that way to me because I still enjoy that trope?
I don’t know if that’s the case, but it would make sense… I struggle with the same thing in my urban fantasy stories. I love stories about vampires, werewolves, etc., in all their forms. I like the classic stories, but I like the ones that twist the myths, as well. To me, it’s about the characters and what they do with these ideas — it doesn’t bother me if the vampire has a reflection or not or if the werewolf can only change on the full moon or has full control of the shifting abilities. The creature’s abilities and flaws are tools that help the writer tell the story they want to tell with their unique set of characters.
But, I’ve gotten rejections on my urban fantasy stories because the editors of that publication felt the stories didn’t do anything unexpected enough.
On the flip side, I absolutely hated the novel Eragon. I couldn’t even get through it. It felt too cliched, and I didn’t like the writing style. I’ve always loved stories about dragons, but I didn’t feel like this one gave me anything new to hold onto. In addition, the characters were achingly flat. So, not only was there no new twist, but there were no characters to really get behind or get involved with.
But, I’m definitely in the minority on that one, if the way the novels are selling are any indication. I even had some friends who read the book say that, yes, they thought it was derivative of basically every fantasy epic in recent history (everything from Tolkien to Star Wars), but they still enjoyed reading it. And, heck, they made Eragon into a major motion picture, so a lot of people out there have to like it.
In the end, I think luck continues to play a big role. Write a good story — the story that you want to write, not the one you think the market wants you to write — and then send it out. Sure, you may get rejections if the editors feel that you didn’t twist the trope into something new enough. But, there is probably someone out there who will get your story andÂ who will love your voice enough to publish it. It’s the idea of the right story, in front of the right person, at the right time.