Un-Stories

Back when I started watching Star Trek (professionally, so about fifteen years ago), I had a long talk with OB-Wan about how it would be fun if there was an episode where nothing happened. The warp core didn’t fluctuate. Nothing got its polarity reversed. The turbolifts operated perfectly. The holodecks didn’t malfunction. No one discovered anything new. No one made first contact. No one had a deep and meaningful conversation wherein they redefined the meaning of life. Nothing.

The closest they ever got (on purpose) was the episode LOWER DECKS, where it feels like nothing is happening because for a long time the characters can’t talk about it with each other. But there’s still a WHOLE lot going on*. As a thought experiment, though, it has really stuck with me, and there are elements of it in most of the stories I’ve written. What do you write about if nothing happens? Where does drama stop being manufactured and start being real.

I have to say, it’s freaking hard. In the first draft of THE STORY OF OWEN everyone was a completely reasonable human being all the time. No one fought. No one missed their homework. Everyone ate their vegetables. It was kind of dull.

It drives me crazy in fiction when TRAUMA happens just to move the story forward. Women in Refrigerators are the most obvious example of this, and nothing, NOTHING** will get me angry faster than a poorly written fridging. There’s a lot of talk about MANPAIN*** on the internet. It’s the one and only reason I broke up with Supernatural mid-season (mid-episode, actually. I was really angry), but it happens all the time. The Poor Hero is Stricken With Woe because one of the (usually female) people in his Woeful Life has been killed or kidnapped or something, and now he has All The Pain.

Drives. Me. Bonkers.

Oh, poor Arthur Pendragon! His mother is (often) dead! That must really be hard for him. And not, you know, HER. I’m sure dying in childbirth is a piece of cake. Oh, poor Luke Skywalker! His uncle and aunt got burned up by Storm Troopers. I BET THAT DIDN’T SUCK AT ALL FOR THEM! Oh, poor poor poor Sam and Dean Winchester*****. Don’t even get me STARTED.

But how do you tell the difference? What sets apart something like Buffy episode THE BODY? Or the West Wing episode TWO CATHEDRALS? How could Game of Thrones been less ludicrous? At what point does a story cross from “edgy and dark” to ridiculous?

(Confession: I cut female characters a lot more slack than I cut male ones, in terms of motivation-by-grief, mostly because I’m just so thrilled to SEE them. What turns me off a female character is too much time spent worrying about her looks, endless descriptions of how pretty The Boy is, and negative views of other women. But my point is that I am EXCEPTIONALLY biased. And I’m okay with that.)

Obviously, everyone is going to have a different answer to that question, but for me, paying attention to the Un-Stories makes all the difference, and if your (often male) character is motivated solely by the death of a tertiary (often female) character, we are going to have problems.

It’s challenging to write a YA novel with good parents. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. YA novels rely almost entirely on kids making their own choices and decisions, while finding and/or making their own families. It makes sense that orphans, neglected waifs and rebels make up the bulk of the protagonists. Grown-ups have this distressing tendency to SOLVE PROBLEMS, or at least drive you where you need to go. And maybe pack a lunch for the road.

What I like to see is an author who really digs for it. In SERAPHINA, by Rachel Hartman (which you should all read), there is a Step-Mother and several Step-Siblings. They have exactly one scene with the protagonist, and in that scene, Rachel fought to use every inch of space for character development. I was very, very impressed. The family dynamics in Kristen Cashore’s books, especially FIRE, are nothing short of disastrous, and yet everything about them feels earned.

I guess what I’m saying is that I have trouble buying easy motivations. I bounce off of characters like Spike (Buffy), Logan Echolls (Veronica Mars) and Regina (Once Upon A Time), because they had so many opportunities to right their lives and took NONE of them (for draaaaama!). I prefer emotional depths to be plumbed and developments to be unraveled. That’s why I managed to read four versions of Cinderella, almost back to back in January without hitting Evil Step-Mother Overload: every one of them was real, and that made Cinderella’s reaction real too.

I really struggled hard with the characters in THE STORY OF OWEN, because I wanted them to like one another, but I didn’t want the story to be boring. Two of them in particular almost killed me, but focusing on the stories we don’t get to see, the stories that aren’t interesting enough to get published, got me through. I was able to play up the “boring” parts enough to keep them real, and not get sucked into the vortex of Disney Moms and Refrigerators.

How do you feel about draaaaaaaaama in stories? Do you love angst for angst’s sake? Would you prefer a quieter, slightly less turbulent string of developments? Do you prefer romance or family tension? Or something else?

 

 

 

 

*The Buffy episodes FLOODED and LIFE SERIAL don’t count because they’re making a point, and DOUBLEMEAT PALACE doesn’t count because it’s just awful TV.
**Few things.
***Watch this video. ****And then read all the notes.
****Careful, though. It might lead to the most inappropriate laughs you’ll have all day.
*****Seriously, there was ONE PERSON on that WHOLE SHOW who Hunted because it was the Right Thing To Do. And he was already dead so that his wife and daughter could be all We Too Have Suffered about it!

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