cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

'Clichés and the id: a map to fictional seduction' by cupidsbow

Those of you who have been reading my meta for a while will know that I've been on a long journey in terms of figuring out what makes fiction work. Something I've been mulling over for many years now, is how the lizard brain influences writing. Over the last few months several things have fallen into place, and I can finally express my ideas about the power of clichés and the importance of the id.

The short version is that tapping into primal story patterns (clichés) and emotions (satisfying the id) makes fiction more powerful.

That sounds like a ridiculous "duh!" kind of statement, doesn't it? Yeah, I figured. So I'm going to start this essay with a quick discussion of what led me astray -- why I didn't always know this -- and then go on to discuss how I go about turning clichés to my own ends and consulting my id when writing fiction.

The Myth of Originality Strikes Again
The single most influential, and wrong-headed, myth about writing to effect me was the one inculcated at university, which I call The Myth of Originality. You will all be familiar. It goes like this: "original" writing is more valuable than "popular" and "amateur" forms.

When you break it down, there are a lot of problems with this ideology. I'm going to touch on just a three, so you can see how interwoven it is with so much else that interests me as a remix artist:

  • Prestige (both academic and monetary) is earned through traditional means of publication, and current IP and copyright laws mean you must produce "original" work to be published.

    Prestige, in other words, is linked to the status-quo capitalist underpinnings of production, rather than to the actual cultural or practical value of what is produced. I've talked about this a lot in terms of how opensource movements conflict with that ideology, and how the Long Tail Economy is revealing the flaws in the paradigm of hit-based production.

  • In the academy, there's this unwritten schema based around the value of texts and their originality. It goes like this, from most valuable to least: the canon; "original" contemporary fiction; experimental fiction; the "hard" (read: masculine) popular genres; the "soft" (feminine) popular genres; amateur fiction.

    Even now, the academy tends to enshrine this as an obvious truth, but scratch the surface and it all falls apart. My first question is: what the hell is "originality" anyway? Take Shakespeare, whose works are a foundation-stone of canon -- it's nearly all remix. The Arthurian Cycle and stories of the Greek pantheon are remix, too, and a lot of Big Names wrote them. What about all those poets whose works are endless nests of allusion? Why is T.S. Eliot awesomely "original"? Why are these remixes more valuable than, say, the remix of the popular genres? Why are all the people creating the meta-text of the science fiction genre lesser artists? How can that actually be so, given how many writers are working in the field? When you ask that question within the academy, why is the response nearly always an unthinking, knee-jerk, "Oh, but that artist doesn't count -- they're too good to be a science fiction writer." Bah! It makes me tetchy.

  • Clichés should be "avoided like the plague."

    This last one is the trickiest aspect of the Myth of Originality that I've mulled over, because in many ways it is quite right. However, the thing that is glossed over in the unthinking dismissal of clichés is this: a cliché becomes a cliché because it has an especially powerful effect on readers. Writers recognise the power of the idea when it's first used, and take it up themselves. In the process, it gets used, re-used, over-used, until all the gloss has worn off and its power has been lost. But here's the thing: whatever it was about the cliché that made people respond in the first place is still there, it's just been made ineffective by familiarity. So clichés should not be unthinkingly dismissed as unoriginal, but rather looked at as potential powerhouses of the id.

Anyway, I absorbed all these myths about originality during my undergraduate degree, and then I had to unlearn them again when I started to engage with remix culture. It took a while.

What can I say? I never claimed to be a fast thinker. :)

Why Emotions Are Suspect
Apart from absorbing the Myth of Originality, the other big thing that I took on board during my formative years was this: emotional stories are suspect.

In short, small "r" romances are for women and a lesser literature (if they can be said to be a literature at all).

Anything too emotional is "purple prose."

And most importantly of all, even though you should always "write what you know," if you write too closely about your own emotions, you are writing a Mary Sue, and that is the worst kind of fiction.

In a lot of ways, this was far more insidious than the Myth of Originality. The MoO can be exposed by the judicious use of logic, but the idea that Emotions Are Suspect cuts straight to gender, and all the subtle workings of cultural sexism, and that is much, much harder to fight.

As a direct result of Emotions Are Suspect, I found myself doing the following things in response to the stories I read and loved. First, I would carefully consider the story to see where it fitted on the Originality spectrum... Oh, a popular female genre? Hmm. Then, I would look to see how it fared in the Emotions stakes... Oh, it's a romance with people actually falling in love as a major plot point. Uh-oh. Finally, I would contort myself in one of the following ways:

  • I didn't really like it anyway
  • I did like it, but I'm not going to admit I liked it!
  • I did like it, and I can justify it: "Oh, but that artist doesn't count -- they're too good to be a science fiction writer!"

I'm sure you can see why all of these responses suck. In the end I came to that conclusion myself, and I decided I'd rather say, "Fuck off! I like it, and that's just fine. It's all of you who are warped by cultural programming, and I don't really care what you think of my taste anymore."

Turning a Cliché, Channelling the Id
Once I had finally arrived at this happy moment of putting away other people's expectations about good taste, I was faced with a problem: what exactly do I like? I'd spent so long all twisted up that sometimes it was hard to tell.

So I started seriously thinking about what aspects of stories made me gleeful, and I started taking note of the secret stories I told myself, which in the past I had dismissed as "not worth writing."

Guess what I found? Number one: I adore certain elements of clichés. Number two: I love it most of all when a crucial and clever plot point climaxes with a high or low point in a character's emotional arc, and in particular, their romantic arc.

So what does this actually translate to in terms of writing technique? It means that I have been learning to write what I love to read, by playing with cliches and how they map to the emotional arcs in stories. Basically, I'm more honest in my writing than I have ever been, but I'm also technically proficient enough to hide it better than I ever have. "Honest" by the way, does not mean that everything one of my characters says or does is something I condone. It means the characters feel more like real people, with real motivations.

Let me give you an example. At Swancon recently, I was on a panel with [info]sarren, and one of the questions from the audience was, "Are Mary Sue's every okay in porn?"

Both [info]sarren and I gave the stock answer at first: "Most readers will be turned off by that, because it ruins the illusion of the fiction."

But then, after a moment of thought, I decided to be honest and went on to say: Actually, some of my most popular stories started out as Mary Sues. They were the secret stories I told myself, never intending to write and share them. And then I'd have this moment in which I'd think, "Hey, that character played by me could actually be John Sheppard! I'd only need to change X and Y, and turn the other character into Rodney!"

Needless to say, people gave me the hairy-eyeball for saying such a thing. That doesn't make it any less true, however, and I think the reason those stories are popular is because they channel my id -- I have successfully translated the shadowy wish-fulfilment scenarios that really get me going into plot points in the stories. And because the id is so closely related to physical appetites and survival instincts, my wish-fulfilment fantasies have some chance of overlapping with other people's.

One such story is Happily Ever After (the Pegasus remix), which is a retelling of Cinderella, with John as the Prince and Rodney as Cinderella. I told myself versions of that story for quite a while, sometimes with "me" as the lead, and sometimes with John as the lead. It had knife fights and things in some versions. In my head, I am quite the ninja! :)

"Happily Ever After" is a good example of the techniques I want to talk about: Turning a Cliché, and Channelling the Id.

Turning a Cliché
Let's consider Cinderella for a moment, because if ever there was a clichéd plot, this is it. Kurt Vonnegut did research on the shape of fairy tales, and his conclusion was that tales like Cinderella are so effective for the Western mind because the plots have the same shape as an orgasm. We are biologically programmed to respond to that shape: increasing tension and then release and afterglow. So when a story has the same shape, we are more likely to find it satisfying.

So that's thing one: Plot clichés are powerful because it's like we have ready made grooves in our brain, worn in by language and culture and our own biology, and stories which use those clichés match the grooves in our brains like the wheels of a cart in the ruts in a road. "Turning" a cliché is my way of looking at how to make those story structures feel new again, so that I can make use of that power and hit my readers' grooves.

Channelling the Id
Here's thing two: Once I really thought about my fascination with Cinderella, and I mean really thought about it with my gut and not just my head, I realised that the bit that gets me hot every time is not the ball or the romantic encounter or the declarations or the disguise or the fairy godmother or the seeming tragedy of it all falling apart. No. What stabs me right in the lizard brain is the public moment in which Cinderella is unexpectedly revealed as special, and in the process showing up her step-mother and step-sisters and everyone who looked down on her. Yeah, not feminist, etc, but that's the bit my lizard brain rolls over and begs for. It may be different for you. But for me, the rest is just stuff that happens.

So the one consistent thing in my secret retelling in my head was that somehow there had to be a Big Revelation, and it had to have weight -- there had to be consequences to people realising that Rodney/Cinderella was special.

If you go and have another look at "Happily Ever After," you will be able to see that it uses the orgasm shape of the Cinderella plot to build up expectation, and then hits the reader right between the eyes -- BAM -- with the id-moment of John coming out publicly in order to save Rodney's hand.

Ta da! Cliché and id, wrapped up in a shiny new dress uniform.

Mixing Id and Cliché
Turning a Cliché, then, is exactly this effect of pinpointing the "magic bullet" aspect of a cliché, pulling it out of the story it's part of and remixing it for your own ends. By doing this, you uncover the original power of the clichéd idea -- the thing that made it popular and over-used in the first place -- and you give it a new lease of life by making it shiny again.

The essential tool you need to pull off this trick is your id, the raw response you have to stories. And that's scary sometimes, because our lizard brain likes weird shit, and it's also hard to hear over our cultural conditioning. But it's only the raw id that really works as a divining rod when you're searching for the power of a cliché. If this is something you want to be able to do, it's worth taking the time and tuning your inner ear to your id's responses.

Looking back at what I've written here, I can't quite believe how simple it all sounds. Because what I've basically said is: listen to your gut, and figure out what makes you react, then use it in your story in a way that fits the characters.

The really difficult part of this, and quite likely the reason I'm suffering from performance anxiety at the moment, is that putting your id on display, even when tastefully and effectively disguised as fiction, is nerve-wracking. I find it hugely ironic that I'm okay with posting meta about it, but freaked out about posting the fiction.

Seriously, the id likes weird shit! The power dynamics are primal and scary! But whoa! What a rush to be able to press those buttons!

The question I'm currently wrestling with is whether that kind of honesty is worth the anxiety. But you know what? The thing I have always, right from the start, wanted to achieve with my fiction is to take the reader into that magical mental space in which they are momentarily transformed, and all their senses are totally engaged by the textual seduction happening to them.

It's always hard to be objective about your own stories, but I think the stories I've written that turn a cliché and channel my id do that better than any other stories I've written.

I'd be interested to know what you think about this kind of process, especially if you write this way yourselves.
Tags: discussion, essay, writing

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