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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Trite Is As Trite Does

One of the pitfalls writers attempt to avoid is being trite. Being trite, first on the writing level itself, and then being trite in a story plot.

There are, however, some forces that work against that.

First, we should probably define trite. In reality, people tend to think of the term too rigidly. They say if it's been done before, then it's trite. But there is another golden rule contradicting that: there is nothing new under the sun. No matter the phrasing, the story line, etc., most likely you can find someone who has said it or written that story before.

Okay, so some might narrow that down a bit to say, "if it's been done frequently before." That hits closer to home. But still is too formulaic. Here's why I say that.

What is trite is more subjective. What is trite to one person isn't to another. Depends on what they've read and how many times they've read it. So my definition of trite is any writing or plot that makes you say, "Oh, this has been done to death," or "I've seen this a million times."

I ran across that the other night. On the TV was a movie about a ragtag soccer team from  a hick town that was formed by a teacher at the school. Of course the kids know nothing about soccer, and the first thing they do is go play against a championship team and get slaughtered. Right then I told my son, "Here's how the rest of this movie is going down. They will practice and get better, and at the end of the movie they will go to the championship game and barely defeat the team that's won it for the past several years.

Predictably, that's how it went. But it gets better. They predictably tie the game at the end, and each team gets five tries to get a ball into the goal, and whoever gets the most in wins as a tie breaker. The last of the five they chose for their team was the runt and least likely to pull it off of the team. So I told my son, which players would miss, and that it would come down to the scrawny runt winning the game. Sure enough, it happened just that way, even those missing the goal that I predicted would miss it.

But despite that and some unbelievable moments both in action and plot, it wasn't all that bad. I watched the whole thing. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad either. It had its moments. But it had all the predictable elements of the ragtag sports team type story.

Now, if someone had never read or seen one of these type stories, they wouldn't consider it trite. I would. And there have been things I've written that I didn't think were done all that much, that I later found out was.

One such story was my flash fiction The Wheel of Curses which Everyday Fiction accepted and published back in 2008. It is a story of Josh, a young wizard in training, who gets turned into a fly and for a while it is written from the fly's perspective. While they accepted it, they did mention in the comments that "although we get many of these fly perspective stories..." I thought, "What? They get a lot of these? I'd never guessed." But they liked my take on it enough that they accepted mine.

And that is a good segue into the next point. Even if you have a trite story line, if you still can write a good story that captures people's imaginations, it won't matter that the plot line is tired and worn out. A good writer can take a tired and worn out plot line and give it life.

There are two ways to do this. One, is to have some unexpected elements in the plot line itself. This lends itself to trite plot lines because then everyone thinks they know how its going to go down, and when it doesn't go where they expect it to, then suddenly it's not trite any longer.

The other way is to make the characters and their exchanges interesting. Mainstream stories rely upon this, because in mainstream it is much harder to find an original plot line. Practically everything has been done before. Speculative fiction gives you a little more freedom to create original plots, whereas mainstream is more limited to this life in that regard.

The way that most mainstream stories keep from reading trite is the unique and interesting characters they infuse into the story. So say you take the story of the divorced man raising a kid or kids. Predictably the plot centers around one or all of the kids feeling like dad doesn't pay them enough attention. That same plot line appears frequently in marriage situations as well. "The Santa Clause" movie is a good example among many with such a plot line in it. But if you can write good dialog, provide deep characters that the reader can care about, even if they know the dad or mother will come to their senses at the end and become the best dad in the world, it can still be interesting and not so trite if the characters are compelling.

Then there is the final point: sometimes trite sells. When Anne's "Dragon Riders of Pern" came out, it was fairly fresh. It became very popular. So what do publishers do? They want to ride that wave, and so acceptances of dragon rider stories grew. Everyone wanted to write a dragon rider story. So, after a while, the plot became a little trite.

Then along comes Eragon, about a boy who finds a dragon's egg and ends up becoming a dragon rider. The book in literary circles was denounced as too trite and predictable. It had all the cliche elements of such a story in it. But yet, it became a best seller, people loved it. Why? Because it had a good story and interesting characters...even if the writing was a bit "wooden" as I recall on reviewer putting it.

Trite goes in cycles. For instance, it's not like no one had written about wizards and such, but when Harry Potter came on the screen, it was fresh. Likewise, I don't know how many times I've seen sites say they don't want anymore vampire stories. They get too many of them that are apparently pretty bad. Yet, Twilight hits the shelves and sells well. As a matter of fact, I can predict at some point we'll see another story like Lord of the Rings sell well sometime into the future.

In the end, it's much like what the judges often say on American Idol and the like: you've got to put your own stamp on it. That's what really makes it unique, even if the subject matter has been dealt with a thousand times before. If I were to write the Star Wars book, it wouldn't have the same feel as someone else might do it. If Tom Hanks had directed the first Star Wars movie, it wouldn't be the same as what we have now. In the end, if your story sounds like every other story out there, doesn't have your unique voice in it, then it will tend to sound trite.

So, keep writing, keep developing that voice, and eventually you can write the next "we need to destroy the evil object before it falls into the wrong hands so we can save the world" type story, and actually have it sell well.

Novel Preperation Presentation

That's right. Yours truly will be doing a 30 minute presentation for the Austin region National Novel Writing Month group about how to plan to write a novel. Following that I'll be moderating a panel for another hour.

It is open for anyone to attend, you don't have to participate in the National Novel Writing Month to come. Shoot, you don't even have to be a writer. If you're interested and are in the Austin, TX area, plan on being there!

Here's the info from the Austin region's NaNo calendar:

Novel Planning Presentation
When: Wed, October 21, 7:00pm – 8:30pm
Where: Pflugerville Community Library, 102 S. 10th St., Pflugerville
What: Are you a planner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Wrimo RLCopple will present a useful planning technique, and then our panel will discuss the merits of different planning - and not-planning strategies. Panelists are: ballyhoot, NicoleMD, DaShlom, and Lady Eshen.
Who: Suitable for all ages; everyone is invited!

Come if you can. Pray if you can't! Thanks.