Writing a story, building a world – part 2: WHAT

Read Part 1, WHO, last week.

Continuing –

Question 2: WHAT

You’ve heard about tropes?

There are several definitions of the word, but the one that applies here is “a common (or overused) plot or story device”.

The publishing/media world goes through trope spasms every so often – and during those waves, EVERYTHING is pirates, or EVERYTHING is vampires, or EVERYTHING is zombies – or EVERYTHING is dark dystopia. And of course the problems come when you’re reading your fifth or tenth or seventeenth story within a particular trope, and you start realising that you know exactly what is going to happen next. At that point the trope starts burning out (until the NEXT time it rises from its ashes like a phoenix) to give the next trope room to reign for a while.

This is what “the market” is, when you hear phrases like “writing to the market”. The problem with that golden goose is that you cannot possibly “write to market” in that sense because the moment you start writing something to exploit a popular trope you’re already too late to the party. By the time something has become popular enough to become a visible enough trope to be called “the market” it’s already on its way out, inevitably.

Writing to the market is essentially forever running in the ruts left behind by the wagon, in the forlorn hope that you will be fast enough one day to catch that wagon and climb aboard before it’s abandoned by the wayside in favour of the next wagon that comes along to run you over. The problem is that it takes a finite amount of time to write a decent novel – and often by the time you’ve done so the trope you’re chasing has finished its course and you’re being rejected because there’s already too many stories like that on the market.

The Were-kind are a trope, just like everything else, of course.

They aren’t, and weren’t, the IT trope in the period in which I was writing my series, so I definitely wasn’t chasing the wagon as such – but the very word, “Were”, triggered things in readers’ minds. And it shows in the reviews that have been coming up in the wake of the Were Chronicles – often they will have sentences like “I don’t really read Were books…”, and the clear implications of the immediate responses noted in those reviews were , oh, werewolves, seen that, done that, been there, worn out several T shirts already.

Except… that I turned the trope sideways and upside down, and reinvented things from the inside out, and that review sentence which is building the fence against the trope immediately has a gate opened in it by the sentences that followed – sentences like “…but this isn’t a Were book, it’s about being HUMAN”, and “…but I’ve never read anything like this before”.

I was not writing to market, to any market, to any “this is the current hot thing” urge. I was writing a story with characters which happened to fit into a known trope, happened to be Were. But I looked at my Were through a different prism, in a different light, and while they remained true to the core of the thing that they were by definition they became real people, far more real than some characters might be in some of the most obstinately realistic novels out there.

I am using trope to write about a core of emotional truth – I am using trope as a cloak, and not as the skeleton of my story.

It has always been one of my beliefs that it is possible for a story set in the fantastic to be the kind of thing that could tackle dangerous, sometimes horrifying, truths – but in a way that defanged them, so to speak, and re-made them in a fantasy realm which was safely removed from the everyday realities of the readers, thus preserving their qualities of truth and empowerment in the face of that truth while removing their sting – it becomes easy to transfer painful things, to recognize them but transfer them, to understand, perhaps, the basis on which they exist and then to use that basis back in THIS primary world to treat the troubles in the cold reality of everyday lives. I write real fantasy, if you like – fantasy that is a silver veil of transformation through which you can see and deal with real issues which are not so far removed from your own experiences.

Tropes are useful in this endeavor. Tropes are something that a reader versed in a genre will understand are metaphors, really. Readers might enjoy a story – at trope level – purely as a story, if written and presented well – but the best genre stories rooted in tropes are more than just that. They understand you. They support you. They empathise. They help you learn, and grow.

I wrote my Were stories to cast a light on the shadows of the monsters we ALL carry within us. In some ways it’s mirror land because the creatures who are usually the monsters – the Were – are here the ones who are the vulnerable, the helpless, the hopeless, discriminated against, feared, branded, labeled, bullied, distrusted and hated – and it’s us, the ordinary humans, who are really the monsters in this story.

But deeper inside the trope… there are layers which are often left unexplored. My Were creatures have unexpected strata in their society, and different kinds of Were are of higher or lower social standing within that society. And yes, I have actual Were-wolves – but here, they are known as Lycans, and they are the closest thing I have to villains…except when they’re not. They’re the best kind of villain, not the deep-dyed-in-the-wool-black-and-evil kind but grey, on the edges, all the more dangerous because they have their own closely held agenda which it makes perfect sense for them to pursue and they are single minded enough to pursue it even if you get in their way. They won’t stop for you. Your choices are to dive out of the way, to stand your ground against them, or to join them. (But not in the classic way the Were-wolf trope demands…)

So. For those readers seeking the comfort of trope but with a new edge… for those readers who know that underneath the skin we can all be monsters… for those readers who want to take a walk on the wild side of the trope garden… I present a new kind of story. You’ll recognize the map, just not the country that it will take you to.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles here.

Posts on WHERE, WHEN, WHY, HOW to follow.


About Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (www.AlmaAlexander.org), her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAlmaAlexander/), on Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlmaAlexander) or at her Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/AlmaAlexander)


Writing a story, building a world – part 2: WHAT — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: BOOK AND A TINY BED - Alma Alexander: Duchess of FantasyAlma Alexander: Duchess of Fantasy