Recently I watched Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY horror movie. It’s a movie full of tropes: everything in there is something you’d expect and things you’ve seen in different horror movies all your life. Still, the film feels quite new and really different.
The other day somebody asked on Facebook the difference between clichés and tropes. It seemed obvious to me, but I had to think hard about it. A ‘trope’ is something familiar: like elves in a fantasy story, or the seductive vampire, or the quick-draw in westerns, etc. A trope is something people look for. In contrast, a cliché is something well… old. Something we’ve seen over and over and we probably are tired of. Like the perfect elf, or the ‘good-looking-good-boy’ vampire, or the ‘fastest gun in the West’, etc. A trope is something you can use and still have something fresh. A cliché is something stale that will not be interesting unless it is twisted and perverted – maybe we can use it here or there but at our own risk. If HEREDITARY uses clichés I didn’t notice them because the movie felt fresh: it surprised me, really. I really recommend it.
It also made me think about something else. We shouldn’t be complacent with our writing. Really. I see it all the time: people trying to write something in this or that genre and use a few tropes and in fact just ending up with a bunch of clichés. They make it too simple. And so it becomes uninteresting. People are drawn to what’s familiar, but also to what’s different. They want to learn something new, to be surprised. And so the unexpected is a writer’s friend. If it does not crush the hopes and expectations of the reader it is our friend, as contradictory as this may seem.
The unexpected happens all the time in life: we forget the keys, we run into a long lost friend, we drop the coffee cup on our lap, we trip on a dog. And so this could also happen in fiction. I would argue it should happen in fiction. It is our right and perhaps our duty to make things more difficult for our characters: because life is not simple. Here’s an example I sometimes use when I’m teaching: a man runs into a burning building to save the woman he will love. But if it is that simple, it’s boring. How many times have we seen the romance between a damsel in distress and the white knight that comes to save her? So make it more complicated: he comes to a door and it’s closed, he tries to smash it in and cannot do it; he goes back and sees a staircase, as he climbs it, the steps start to crumble, so he grabs the floor above and pulls himself up, but now the flames and the smoke push him into an empty room. He can’t see anything, maybe there’s no way out, but then he sees a cat slipping through a crack in the wall, and he goes into another room but then… Through the window he sees the woman he was going to save jumping down, killing herself: he was too late. Only later, when he meets the woman’s sister and she thanks him for his courage, will he fall in love. My point is: make it complicated. Complicated is the realm of fiction.
But complicated is not enough: it should also be creative. Our solutions must be different. We must not be complacent: if the situations and the characters are not different enough, we must change them, upgrade them. And this is, in my opinion where we must invest much of our energy. And, in many cases, this is what leads to Writer’s Block – being unable to be different enough. If you want to know more about the nature of Writer’s Block, I spoke about it here.
Now, when sometimes I need to spawn better and more interesting solutions I often do it through a particular creative process I picked up from 1940’s advertising agencies. First, though, let me speak to you about two kinds of thinking we have. Divergent thinking looks for many different solutions to a problem, as many as it can; Convergent thinking, however, looks for the right solution, the best solution. So if I ask you how many routes can I take from Lisbon to Madrid, you will use your divergent thinking and look for several routes. If, however, I ask you what’s the best route from Lisbon to Madrid, you’d look for the best route using convergent thinking. A Creative solution comes from a combination of both kinds of thinking. But if you look for the right solution, the best solution, when you should be looking for the most diverse solutions, you will most likely get blocked.
So this creative process I use goes through 5 different steps in order:
- RESEARCH – Go fetch. You need as much data and information you can about the Theme, Scenario, Era, Characters, etc. You need to feed your mind.
- FIND DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS – Let your mind go free. Go run, go to the beach, sleep, play, swim and… most of all, list the different solutions that come to mind about the situation you’re writing.
- FIND THE RIGHT SOLUTION – Pick the most interesting solution of all to the particular problem. Choose an idea.
- WRITE – Write the scene, go through the motions, put your character through the pain.
- REVIEW – Review, re-write, get an Alpha-reader to look at it if you find it necessary. If it’s not good enough, if you’re not satisfied, go back to step 1.
I was watching my favorite Nolan movie the other day, INCEPTION, and I have to say I love the Final Image of the movie – the spinner on the table we never know if it’s going to stop or not. I just think it’s so clever! We can interpret it to death! At the same time, it’s really simple. It’s simple and complicated at the same time. And the image is cut at the absolute right moment. Sometimes, a single solution can change our take on the whole story altogether. But for that, we must not be complacent. We must not stop until we are fully satisfied with the solutions we use.
And that’s all I had for you this week. Hope it’s useful. See you around the next campfire, fellow knights.