Thursday, May 31, 2012

Black on Three Deadly Words

On his blog Plot to Punctuation, freelance editor Jason Black talks about the three words that will stop your story's momentum faster than a concrete wall halts a speeding semi. Excerpt:
This morning I asked Twitter what the three worst words in fiction are. I got answers like suddenly, something happened, tall, dark, and handsome, ... and my favorite of those submitted, only a dream.

Those are good answers. I mean really, I would hope an author can be more specific about what happened than "something," and when it does happen, I certainly hope it doesn't turn out to be a dream. But for my money, the three worst words in fiction are:

The chosen one.
Read the whole thing. Black's supposition here got me nodding in agreement, although not primarily for the reasons he states. Sure, I believe that smiting a protagonist with the writerly wand of foreordained success imposes an external motivation, fails the verisimilitude test, and almost always gives away one's ending. But there's another reason: "The chosen one" has been done to death. It's beyond a trope, beyond a cliché. Want to offer up a "chosen" character to your readers? Then you'd better be darn sure it contains some kind of unique twist.

(Picture: CC 2009 by D.Reichardt; Hat Tip: @JRVogt)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I nearly spewed coke when I visited the original website, and noticed the three words indicated by your subtle elipsis.

This is why my laptop has a splash-resistant keyboard cover.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, those words. I debated about leaving them in. But, darn it, even though I like horror and noir, I want to keep this blog roughly PG-13 in rating.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Regarding the original article, though, I think he misses one exception. (Yes, it's been done a lot--but so has the plot "someone dies and we try to figure out who it was," and that doesn't kill its appeal.)

In a word (or three) J.K. Rowling.

Yes, she had a hero named The Chosen One, who was forced by fate to fight the evil Dark Lord to the death. But within that trope, she shows that there is ample room for play. Harry at times took advantage of his Chosen status to lord it over his colleagues (and got slapped down for his pains). He had people who were jealous of his status, wanted to use his fame, or were intimidated about him. At times he wished he could be more normal, though at times of course he didn't. Once, it meant that he got to experience massive survivor's guilt when his erstwhile romantic rival bit it in a trap meant for him.

He even had his "Chosen" status questioned, and sometimes questioned it himself.

In short, the "Chosenness" of Harry Potter was not his defining attribute, or even the defining attribute of his series as a whole. It was another aspect of who he is, yes, and it was extrinsic, but so is having one arm, or being press-ganged into the army, or being born in place X, or any of a number of things that may be "extrinsic" to a character yet change the choices available to them.

The problem with most "Chosen Ones" isn't that they are chosen; it's that the *only thing* important about them is the fact that they are Chosen.

Loren Eaton said...

He even had his "Chosen" status questioned, and sometimes questioned it himself.

Perhaps that would factor in to the "unique twist" I mentioned in the last sentence. Although, honestly, I was so tired of the series by the end of The Half-Blood Prince that I never picked up Deadly Hallows.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think you are either immensely amused by Rowling's characters and stylized dialog...or you just won't like Harry Potter. But the rest of the series is, imo, at least more thought-through than average.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I think the series is better than average, but I also think Rowling got a touch of Stephen King Syndrome after the third book. "I am a successful author, one who brings in loads of cash to this publishing house, and you shall not edit me!" Serious book bloat by the last few installments.

Unknown said...

Podcastle had an interesting twist on the chosen one that I enjoyed lately. I don't think I'd enjoy this done longer, but the short-story form allowed it to be a fun take.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, I remember that one! Quite funny in a genre-subsersive sort of way. A great example, too, of that needed twist.