This is sort of an expansion on my earlier essay re: Why Tolstoy Is Bullshit, and has sort of become part of an ongoing series, although it won’t be particularly regular. Despite the number of ideas that annoy me on a regular basis, only a few of them inspire essays.
And first off, just to forestall defensiveness: it’s not bullshit to enjoy novelty or experimentation in; your media, to like twists that you didn’t see coming, or to note when an artist or a work pulls all of that off well. Different experiences can be great, and “nobody’s done this before,” shouldn’t stop you from what you want to do, artistically speaking. (Just don’t depend on it for a living, but, at least in the US, I’d say you shouldn’t voluntarily depend on art for a living these days until you’ve actually started making a living from art, and have at least six months of expenses or an equivalent safety net, but that’s a different issue.)
The thing that is bullshit–which sounds like the title of a really gross 1930s pulp/1950s B-movie monster–is looking at a trope, an idea, or a plot and sniffily dismissing it because it’s been previously done a number of times that is more than some arbitrarily-determined acceptability threshold. Genre fiction gets this a lot: not because there’s anything wrong with the concepts used themselves (although sometimes there is) but because, yawn, they’ve been done, they’re so last year. Likewise, people (typically college creative writing students of the more tedious sort) will sometimes start work as an attempt to Do Something That Hasn’t Been Done Before, rather than with a character or a plot or even the notion that they haven’t seen this thing done before and would find it interesting to try.
And this is insufferable bullshit, for a number of linked reasons:
- Either nothing has been completely done or everything has. Humans have been around for millions of years, we’ve been telling stories for most if not all of that time, and most of them have covered similar themes: sex, death, and religion, with minor detours into property loss and amusing incidents with livestock. SF gets at tech concepts that haven’t per se been done before, but a lot of the issues in stories boil down to What Is Reality? and What Makes Someone A Person? and similar, which, yeah, have been around for a while. Which means…
- It’s the details, fundamentally, that distinguish stories. Some details are larger than others–a happy versus an unhappy ending and a hero versus an antihero are pretty huge, but even a couple years’ difference in the characters’ ages (all those high school AU fanfics), setting the story in a small town versus a big city, or writing in a different style or from a different point of view can make a major difference. You see this with movie adaptations a lot: the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries and the 2005 film both draw from exactly the same book, but the resulting films are different enough to inspire fairly strong partisanship on Twitter.
Also, before we started writing shit down, this was how stories worked. Homer used type scenes full of set phrases all the time. Most myths and fairy tales were expansions or variants on a few central themes, told and retold to listeners until “Cinderella” encompasses both the Disney version and a Greek variant that starts with weaving-associated cannibalism. Half of Arthurian legend is minor variants of “but what if these guys fought giants and sorcerers while making the worst romantic decisions ever?” The difference was about how well different plot elements worked, which was a function of the storyteller’s skill at knowing their audience for pacing and references, and of being able to adapt and illustrate.
- Which means: the same plot and plot elements, handled by different authors, are going to result in different stories. This isn’t to say that plagarism is okay, or that an author should rip off an entire distinct story structure, particularly without crediting the person who came up with it, and trust their style to cover for that. (“At least switch whether the main character’s a vampire or not,” is a good guideline there, evidence suggests.) But, okay, an illustrative story:
My old job had a Trivial Pursuit night once, and one of the clues was “this author wrote a series of books featuring a World War II nurse who goes back to 1700s Scotland,” or similar. For me, this was obviously Diana Gabaldon, but since I was not on the answering team, I got to hear their guesses, which were:
Obviously, this was hilarious, but I also remember thinking that all four of these books would be very different from each other, and from the original, and I would kind of love to read somewhere between one and three of them. (I myself am not into Clancy and often find Vonnegut too depressing. Lewis…depends on whether we’re talking Perelandra Lewis or Last Battle Lewis.)
Even more so, fanfic: I’ve read a fair amount in my life, and I could still probably distinguish one good “Jareth and Sarah get together because of magical shenanigans that happen when she’s in her twenties/thirties,” or “Buffy and Spike in the aftermath of him getting tortured by Glory,” or “Darcy/Lizzy wedding night,” story from another, and I still want them all around, because each one is different enough to be valuable.
- Additionally? Tropes, or familiar beats, or elements/dialogue that call back to others are assets for some people. I deliberately engineered the plot of the novel I’m writing so that it could include a Formal Event Becomes a Demon Fight scene, because those are great and I’ve always wanted to write one; it did not become an Everyone Here Is Surprisingly Well-Armed And/Or Good At Improvised Weapon Use scene, so I am damned well going to write one of those in another book, because I like what those do and I like that they remind me of other scenes.
When I read a scene and I can see Oh, Shit, It’s The Bluebeard Thing, when an act of self-sacrifice on a bridge to take an enemy with you reminds me of Gandalf and the Balrog, or the main character is the Grandma Who Does Not Take Shit From You, Zombie Lord, I love it. For me, those moments are–to make a seasonally-appropriate reference–Easter eggs: not only do they make me feel clever for seeing them, but they provide a sense of connection to a greater whole, a resonance with what came before and will come again.
And again: if you like experimenting on a broad scale, or engaging with works that to, have at it! Just…using that as an objective measure of quality to which all should aspire makes no sense from either a historic or an artistic perspective. When talking about a similar trope with food, someone–I can’t remember who, which is sad–pointed out that there’s a reason we don’t generally see mustard-flavored ice cream in the grocery store.
Speaking of things that have been done before, next week I’m going to start on Wands!