Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Like any other artist, the writer faces the challenge of keeping his or her writing fresh. How to make the tenth or the twentieth or the fiftieth novel, short story, or screenplay interesting to increasingly jaded readers or moviegoers, especially when faced with a myriad media, thousands of narratives and dramas, and a handful of plot possibilities, that is the question.
And it is this question that I will explore in this post.
Adopt a fresh perspective. Look at your art through the eyes of another artist. That’s what the makers of Alien did, inviting a painter and sculptor, H. R. Giger, to create the images upon which the film’s extraterrestrial predator is based. The result? Giger’s contribution pumped new life into the then-faltering science fiction-horror genre, making it exciting again. (And don’t some of George Lucas’ Star Wars aliens look a bit like the demons in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights?)
Offer something for everyone. This is the Dean Koontz approach to writing. His novels contain not only horror or science fiction, but also adventure, romance, mystery, and fantasy--something for everyone.
Get inside the characters’ heads. It’s not all about blood and guts and things that go bump in the night--or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Let your readers or audience know your characters--enough to love, hate, or sympathize with them--and the thrills and chills will skyrocket when danger threatens. (A good time to get inside their heads is when they’re alone or performing mundane tasks. In fact, a character should never be alone--even when he or she is alone--because he or she should be thinking and remembering and anticipating things that have happened and things that are likely to come, placing him- or herself, of course, in the center of these things.) Stephen King is especially adept at characterization, as his sales suggest.
Add a symbolic level of meaning. A story that is exhausted at one reading is usually one that doesn’t delve below the surface; in other words, it’s literal throughout, with nary the suggestion of meaning beyond the here and the now, which is universal, lasting, and, well, poetic. My post concerning The Descent offers a good example of a symbolic film.
Introduce the unfamiliar. Maybe it’s the dreamscape inside a sleeper’s mind, or a virtual reality world, or a lost world, or a land that time forgot, or the hallucinatory consciousness of a psychotic patient, or the aesthetic theory of a sociopath, or the neighborhood (now long gone) in which you or your ancestors grew up, or. . . again, the possibilities are endless. (The unfamiliar can be informational, too: the habits of spiders, the anatomy of the marine life of one’s choice, the habitat of an extraterrestrial being, the physics of subatomic particles). Each in its own way, A Nightmare on Elm Street and King Kong employ this technique, both to great effect.
Alter reality. We take things for granted, believing that such-and-such a thing means this and nothing else and that our view of the world is more-or-less correct. Upset the metaphysical, the ontological, the epistemological, the ethical, or some other applecart; terror (and horror) may well ensue, as it does, for example, in 1408.
Adapt to a new environment. Create an imaginary world full of danger. Then, toss your protagonist (and a handful--or a horde--of other characters) into this dangerous environment so that they must adapt and survive or die. It’s evolution all over again, but in a completely different world or environment. Harry Harrison’s Deathworld Trilogy is an example of this approach.
Correct wrong assumptions. Base part of the story upon the incorrect assumptions that a character or a group of characters make concerning the significance of a person, place, or thing and then, when the time is right, redirect the story by having a character or a group of characters learn the correct meaning of this person, place, or thing. A whole series of false assumptions and corrected interpretations could advance the storyline and keep the plot interesting and fresh for readers.
In reading this post, one might think, the examples don’t show anything new. That’s true, but only because they are examples of novels and films that have already been done. You have to apply the principles I identify in your own way in order to freshen your fiction, just as the writers and works I cite did when they applied these principles. When all is said and done, the world around us (and inside us) is the source of innovation (and inspiration), but you and you alone must be the source of originality.