I’ve been thinking about cliches lately, and how prevalent it seems they are in books. I’m not talking just the various phrases we’ve all been firmly instructed not to use, but the repetitive story lines, the stock characters and their rote habits, etc. Sometimes the things I read on the Internet make it sound like it’s essentially impossible to tell a new story because its ALL been done ad nauseum.
So how can you and I and our little baby manuscripts find a way to survive?
Say we start with a basic romance line- girl meets boy, boy and girl don’t like each other, boy and girl are forced to work with each other in some way, shape or form. Boy and girl find they do like each other…actually they love each other!
If at this moment you’re choking on your pudding and wanting to run, rest assured: we’re not leaving it at that.
This might be the story we really want to tell: after all, just because its been told for other characters does not mean this story is less true and needed. But what we have right now is clearly not going to work, so (say it with me) layering.
Lets say the boy has a sister- maybe a sister who is the head of a drug trafficking ring. Then maybe the girl’s dad is a cop, and closing in on the boy’s sister. Will the boy be loyal to family or new love? When the girl finds out what his sister does, can she still love the boy? Maybe on top of this, the boy and girl are both excellent students- that’s why they didn’t like each other, because they’re rivals for top grades. But then the boy’s grades start slipping because of the mess with his sister…and the girl doesn’t know what to do to help him, and if she gets distracted her own grades are going to suffer and the plan she has to go to medical school at Johns Hopkins will fall apart. Finally, maybe the boy’s sister convinces him he needs to do something to the girl- or help her do it, to get the dad off her back. Now we have some serious questions about love and loyalty, family ties, secrets, and a very complicated youth.
Okay, so the example is very rough- what can I say, I made it up for you as I went along. (This gives you insight into my slipshod brainstorming process. That’s all it is right there, just lots of maybes.) But in any event, the formulaic boy-meets-girl we started with now has at least two additional characters, requires both the boy and girl to make very difficult choices, raises the stakes, and gives them reasons for everything they do. Maybe the story we came up with wouldn’t be your thing, but it sounds an awful lot more fun than it did.
So the next time nothing is happening in your book, or you are staring at a blank page, ask what layers you can wrap around that story,what events and people you can warm up the bare story bones with. You know what, that process I made fun of: it’s not so bad after all. The next time you don’t know how to make something new, just toss in a few maybes. Great things will happen.