Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time the world was all bright and shiny and wonderful, and then we humans arrived… oh, wait. That’s the PC version of the story. The real story is more along the lines of “it was a dark and stormy night…”

And no, I’m actually not talking about beginnings. I’m talking about cues. Mental short-cuts. The things that turn cliches into cliches as it were, which is of course the fodder of writers good, bad, and everything in between (as well as those who live in different universes because some things tend to hold true everywhere).

When a story starts with “once upon a time” it sets up the expectation of a particular kind of story (namely something suitable for small children but with darker undertones and probably a history that if you trace back will end up involving a lot of sex and violence because that’s the way these things evolve). If the start is “It was a dark and stormy night”, the expectation is different. Of course, back when Bulwer-Lytton started a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night”, it was a fresh, original thing to do (we’ll leave the rest of that goat-gagging opening sentence of his for posterio…er… posterity). And of course, there’s always the twist on the familiar, like Pratchett (or Gaiman, or just possibly Good Omens itself, since both authors insist there are sections in that book that neither one of them wrote. Self-aware manuscripts… scary) did: “It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It should have been, but it wasn’t.” Naturally, with a cue like that you know to expect unusual twists on the familiar, and Good Omens doesn’t disappoint.

Why it doesn’t is related to how we remember things. Memory isn’t like a set of little self-contained filmlets. It’s more like a vast, sprawling database where you need to look up fifty different linked things before the one you’re actually checking makes sense. Our brains do all that looking automatically, and they optimize to grab all the related stuff that seems likely to be wanted. So, you’re driving on the weekend and you’ll head to your place of work if you’re not thinking about where you’re actually wanting to go. Or you read about ruins and your mind fills in all the blanks with everything you know about ruins, building up a picture that might be vine-covered decaying stone with picturesque oozing from every crack – or it might be stark white stone work in the Greek hills. Whatever you think of as being quintessentially ruins, your brain will load when you see the word “ruins”.

Since children’s fairy tales often start with “once upon a time”, that phrase says that what follows will be some kind of fairy-tale-like offering. And so it goes.

Loving descriptions of a man with words like “virile” are as good as setting off a flashing neon sign that says “love interest”. Shadows and blank windows have people looking around nervously and making sure the lights are turned up high because things are about to get scary. And so it goes. If you take a tour through TVTropes you’ll see thousands of examples (please allow plenty of time – that site is the most amazing time sink), including a whole bunch that you didn’t realize your brain uses as a shortcut because they’re so pervasive (ever wondered why a certain kind of film/TV villain always has a cultured accent? Imagine Lusciou…. er, Lucius Malfoy with a cockney accent and you have your answer).

Where PC short-circuits this process is by making certain shortcuts “bad”. The problem with that is that cliches often get to be that way because there’s a seed of truth buried in there. The trick is to use the cliche to illuminate other truths – which can’t be done if certain words and phrases aren’t permitted. From not allowing certain phrases or words, it’s a short short step to blocking certain thoughts, and once you’ve done that you’ve blocked off all those links inside our heads – and made it a whole lot more difficult for us to make any judgment. The links happen for a reason – our ancestors survived by being able to make snap decisions and mostly get them right.

Gosh. I wonder if the powers that be are intentionally trying to short-circuit the ability to think? Nah… the ones I’m thinking of couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag. It must just be sappy romantic fluffy-bunny-ness.

 

33 comments

    1. I second that… very fond of Snoopy, so it’s a nice feeling. I’m running into the whole cliche thing, or at least the attempt to evoke a feeling, with the current WIP. My MC wants to be noir… It’s an interesting style to write.

        1. Does it count to have read rather a lot of it, but not recently? I’m almost afraid to read some “now” while I am writing, lest it overly influence me. Also, done twisted. He’s a pixie, hardboiled.

    2. Mercedes Lackey used “it was a dark and stormy night” in a story within one of her Herald novels. The story was sort of a “shaggy dog tail”. [Smile]

      1. The shaggy dog tale twist was part of what made it work in that setting, too.

      1. One of my favorite songs growing up. I still have it on vinyl somewhere, but nothing to play it on.

        1. YouTube to the Rescue!

          (I sing this to my girls. While shopping, sometimes. I need to get my rip of “Ikki Tikki Tambo”– the monkey, not the rip-off kid’s book– up some time. I also sing the Christmas version, and “Rusty Chevrolet” by Da Yoopers. Badly, but I sing!)

  1. After reading “The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land,” I began counting tropes in a certain novel. I had to stop because my giggles were disturbing my family. However, it certainly changed certain things about my WIP. Certain cliche’s are still there, because humans are human, no matter where we go, but others have gone sailing. My MC is too darn pragmatic for me to get away with a lot of handwavium and wink-wink-nudge.

    1. “Tough Guide” is an excellent vaccination against Book-Shaped-Object fantasy writing. I recommended it once on a con panel in such glowing terms the dealer’s room sold out of it 😉

    2. Heh. The Tough Guide is indispensable – and can be used as a way to take the piss

  2. Tropes (and memes, and rules, etc, ad nauseum) are to be learned so they can be used – and more importantly broken – with malice aforethought. The thugs should sound like thugs, unless they aren’t really. Ponda Baba, who shoved Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina was a low class thug, but Dr. Evazan – Mr. “I hold the death sentence in twelve systems,” and who boasts about such a thing? – could actually claim medical training. Not quite as base, though infinitely more cruel for his sophistication. Your Magnificent Bastard should be grudgingly appreciated – if not outright loved – by pretty much everybody. Even if he does die – tragically? heroically? up to you, really – a few pages from the end saving the heroine from the genuine villain of the piece. Redemption occasionally happens through the fire, and you’re found to have been mostly dross. It happens, and can provide a bittersweet poignance to the dénouement.

    Incidentally, ordered a copy of Tough Guide this morning. Also a copy of A Few Good Men, because I like creeping up behind my favorite writers and forcing money into their pockets . . .

    1. Oh yes. Over and over, the things people think horses are capable of!

      But of course, my intelligent, magic, genetically engineered super horses can do them. If they feel like it.

      1. And if they’re the size of David Weber’s Coursers, you really don’t want to annoy them. [Wink]

      2. That’s one reason the MC in my WIP prefers mules. Mules, then geldings, stallions (they’re predictable!), and mares only if someone forces her to ride a mare. And the mule gets in trouble not when they’re being chased, but when you’d expect it to get into trouble. The MC is also quite fond of warm, thick socks. 😉

      3. Oy. Yes. I don’t know horses that well, so in the one book where horses were important, the research I did to make sure that what my main character did was actually kind of possible…

      4. Or of what is possible on a horse, I was reading a book a while back and as far as I got was the scene where the main characters were having sex, WHILE GALLOPING DOWN THE GRAND CANYON, ON A HORSE!

        1. I regret to say that I could see this as a totally over the top comedy. The woman screaming and grabbing anything available to avoid falling off into the abyss, the horse bolting because there’s a screaming woman on his back. I’m not at all sure how the man got out of his pants while astride the horse . . .

          1. Trained circus riders? On a dare? (I so could do it – no way – well, I’d need a partner who is as good as I am – hah! – *fumes* I’ll show you! – goes and proposes the idea to a fellow performer who has been trying to get into her pants for a while. They start already naked. Might end tragically. Possibly at least penile fracture.)

          2. Just what do you think she grabbed? And now you know why he is screaming, too! And the folks on the South Rim are applauding.

    2. Absolutely – know thy cliches so you can set up the expectations then twist. I have so much fun doing that.

    3. Oh, by the way, how can I get to be one of your favorite writers? Just asking.

            1. Ok, got the Con stories (Take my money!). It’s a good thing fiction is a tax write-off. I think I’d be doomed otherwise. Yay, for professional research!

              1. I highly recommend the Impaler books, just to make a bigger hole in your pocketbook. I liked the Con books, and don’t usually go in for humor novels, so Kate is doing something write 😉 on the other hand I REALLY like the Impaler stories and found them humorous at times. But then my tastes in humor (especially in a novel or movie) run from gallows humor down to really dark.

        1. Thank you 🙂 You will no doubt be pleased to hear that progress continues on the third book in the series.

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