Sorry it’s been a while, but I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks with work, some important life decisions that had to be made, and the new book I’ve been working on. I won’t talk much of the last two now (I’ve mentioned one of the characters, Kraven, recently), but I will say that I’ve been learning oodles and oodles about writing as a result of the last one. Specifically, I’d like to call to attention a phenomenon I’ve been coming to know as story instinct, not in the positive sense of the instinct storytellers develop over time of what elements and plot points will and will not work with their characters, story, etc., but rather the insidious sense we develop over time of how stories simply and sometimes unquestionably are or should be written. In particular, I’d like to discuss what that instinct looks like, how we experience it, and for the sake of potentially better and more diverse stories, how to fight it. For clarity now, I will say that the specific instinct I am referring to here applies to the genres I most frequently write in or experience, which is to say modern YA, science fiction, fantasy, action and adventure, that other genres certainly can have other instincts or tropes, and that despite as much as I may hammer it home here, there are definitely stories out there in these genres that do not follow these arcs.
So, that being said, what is this instinct? What, in general, do we expect a story in these genres to look like?
Easy, the typical Hollywood story. Boy meets girl (or the rising trend, *insert love interest* meets *insert love interest*), boy loses girl, boy gets girl. It’s the sense we have that regardless of how implausible their relationship is, no matter how unlikely it is for their relationship to last, no matter how shoe-horned in the relationship seems (because there must be a romance, right?), barring the tragic and/or self-sacrificial death of one of them at the hands of disease, the *insert evil entity* controlling everything, or the villain, if they don’t wind up together, we wind up feeling cheated. Now I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad formula in of itself, just as the roguish anti-hero, cold business woman or *insert character trope* aren’t necessarily bad characters. I certainly think it’s an important story to tell, that there are many reasons that it’s so popular, and have most definitely used it myself, but I also think it’s not the only story we can (or should) tell, and that by recognizing it for what it is–not necessarily the best or only way to tell stories, but merely the most popular–we can begin to open our eyes to the other stories that are open to us, both as creators and observers.
First, a few modern examples to show the prevalence: Ant-Man, Jurassic World, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, It’s Kind of Funny Story, Divergent, Van Helsing, The Iron King. All movies or books from different popular genres that I’ve seen or read that feature a romance that generally follows that arc. I’m not saying any of these examples are necessarily bad stories (many of them are quite good in fact) for following that arc, or that romance is the only element in any of them, but I am mentioning them so we can begin to see how common the story is. To take the point farther, how surprised or even cheated would you feel if say, at the end of the movie Ant-Man (spoiler alerts in the next few paragraphs, fyi), Scott Lang and Hope Pym weren’t kissing? If Owen and Claire didn’t wind up together in Jurassic World, despite how logical that would be? How clear it is their relationship doesn’t have legs?
And it’s not even that it would necessarily be a bad surprise in some cases. I would have been perfectly happy if Owen and Claire didn’t get together, if they had been able to maintain their opposing tensions and save the kids. I think the story would have even been better for it, but that’s just not what’s expected, which is exactly my point.
As both observers and storytellers, at what point does what we expect start to become what we create (and a further question I won’t go into today, at what point does what we expect begin to be what we allow)? I think of a personal example, in the story I’m writing now. Two main characters Mira and Atlan are blood enemies, or at the very least should be, and yet so many times I’ve had to stop myself from adding in reconciling moments between them (at least before their time), scenes which, as soon as I start to write them, seem to scream falsity. Mira has to remind me again and again that no, she does not like Atlan. She is not the altruistic heroine, she does not forgive, she is willing to be deceitful, and she does want him dead. More surprising still (despite the fact I know her character and should not be surprised by any of this), is the fact that on several occasions she has had to remind me that Atlan is not a love interest. Atlan is in essence a giant humanoid dog and by nature of his family, a slaver. Mira is a dwarf, and by nature of her family, a slave. She wants to kill him, is determined to kill him. Given all else that I know of their characters to say nothing of anatomical differences, I should not have to be reminded that they are not compatible love interests, and yet when I write about them, the instinct to produce emotionally heavy scenes and images instead of true and real stories, to produce harmonious or attractive relationships and romances instead of realistic ones, is so strong that I find myself in sometimes desperate need of just such warnings.
As a storyteller, this is concerning. To simply fall back on those instinctive plot points, moments, and characterizations (to say nothing of the implications having some kind of weird, sexy good-hearted slaver/slave thing going on would have) is not good storytelling. Not only that, it is also lazy and unproductive. Art should challenge us, invite us to think and feel, to consider our own opinions. Too many times I have read stories that cast off good character development for the sake of form-fitting, seen real, relationship-ending issues swept under the carpet for dopey love and the brush of lips, and to fall into these ruts without even realizing it is a danger not only to our art form (how many different, might I even say diverse stories and questions have we lost or missed because of this?) but to our society on the whole. Yes, romance is important and it is indeed an important part of the human experience, but what of friendship? Familial love? Community? Culture? Faith? What of the relation of an artist to art? A stamp collector to his stamps? Are these not equally valid stories? What of morality? Murder? Politics?
I know that there are a lot of gatekeepers. I know getting your story out there at all is hard, but please, writers, actors, directors, storytellers at large, be aware that the pull is out there. The undertow is hungry and the current strong, ready to rip you away. Pay attention to your characters. Talk to them, explore their whole world, challenge yourself and the others around you. Ask their opinions, share yours, and let us all grow together.