Pointers on writing an unoriginal story

The following riff on the cliches of creative writing (and science fiction writing in particular) was featured in the “Readings” section of the July issue of Harper’s.


From a list of plots and themes of stories submitted “too frequently” to Strange Horizons, an online magazine of “speculative fiction.” The document was compiled in order to provide guidance to potential contributors.

1. Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says, “I want to be at point B.” Goes to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end.

2. Creative person is having trouble creating,
a. Writer has writer’s block,
b. Painter can’t seem to paint anything good,
c. Sculptor can’t seem to sculpt anything good.

3. Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertently violates them, is punished.

4. Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.
a. It turns out it was all in virtual reality.
b. It turns out the protagonist is insane.
c. It turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we’ve seen are part of the novel.

5. The future is soulless.
a. In the future, all learning is electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
b. In the future, everything is electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who’s lived a non-electronic life.

6. Protagonist is a bad person. (We don’t object to this in a story; we merely object to it being the main point of the plot.)
a. Bad person is told he’ll get the reward that he deserves, which ends up being something bad.
b. Terrorists (especially Osama bin Laden) discover that horrible things happen to them in the afterlife (or otherwise get their come-uppance).
c. Protagonist is portrayed as really awful, but that portrayal is merely a setup for the ending, in which he sees the error of his ways and is redeemed.

7. A place is described, with no plot or characters.

8. A surprise twist ending occurs.
a. The characters are described as if they are humans, but in the end it turns out they’re not humans.
b. Creatures are described as “vermin” or “pests” or “monsters,” but in the end it turns out they’re humans.
c. Person is floating in a formless void; in the end, he’s born.

9. Someone calls technical support; wacky high jinks ensue.
a. Someone calls technical support for a magical item.
b. Someone calls technical support for a piece of advanced technology.
c. The title of the story is 1-800-SOMETHING-CUTE.

10. Scientist uses himself or herself as test subject.

11. Evil unethical doctor performs medical experiments on unsuspecting patient.

12. Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.

13. Protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.

14. In the future, criminals are punished much more harshly than they are today.
a. In the future, the punishment always fits the crime.
b. In the future, the American constitutional amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment has been repealed, or is interpreted very narrowly.

Posted by | Comments Off on Pointers on writing an unoriginal story  | August 25, 2004
Category: General

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