Humor to “Sell” Writing Cliches

After a couple of heavy topics that were both social commentary and topical (not tropical) to authors, I think we need a little lighter topic here.  This came to mind after a recent reply in LittleFears blog.  We got joking about cliches in writing and the TV show Dallas came up.

For those too young to remember, Dallas was a massive hit TV show in the 80s about a Texas oil family.  An evening soap opera really.  People who write villains defined by the power they hold can really benefit from studying Larry Hagman’s character JR Ewing too.  That was a man who knew how to manipulate and outmaneuver at every turn.

Getting back on track though, one of the things Dallas is most infamous for though was a “RetCon” where they erased an entire season to bring a character back to life.  “It was all a dream!”.

Those who have followed my blog know I generally try to avoid reproducing cliches like that in my writing.  HOWEVER, used with humor, they can be used sparingly.  Here’s an example from almost two decades ago.  As a quick set-up, Nancy was a character of mine in City of Heroes.  She was a trick archer turned telepath / telekinetic.  Over the course of time, the character got dragged into weirder and weirder collaborative stories with my gaming guild.  At one point I got so fed up, I had the character get killed.   Convinced to give everything another chance, I brought her back to Earth as an angel on probation.  Kind of a silly option on it’s own but I was young.  When nothing changed, I decided I needed a clean break and to salvage my character concept.  I took an unusual route and actually copied Dallas’s playbook.  Oh yes, and it’s a little confusing but the other character in question was Max or Maxine who sometimes went by Sonya (her middle name IIRC).

 

NANCY’S TRIP TO DALLAS

Nancy heard a strange male voice stirring her from her sleep. She slowly pushed herself to regain consciousness and wearily opened her eyes partially. The first thing she noticed was that she ached all over.

“What the?”, she thought to herself. “I don’t remember getting hurt.” “Hell, I’m dead anyway… How do you hurt an angel, even one on probation?”

She managed to focus on the dresser and the wall across the room.

“OK, it is our room…”, she thought. “So I am at home in bed with Max.”

“No, Nancy, you’re not.”, came the same male voice that had stirred her from her sleep. “It’s time to wake up too.”

“Huh?!?”, Nancy muttered. Her mind raced as she tried to place the voice. She couldn’t though, despite it sounding vaguely familiar. Oddly enough, she couldn’t mentally detect another presence in the room either.

Her arms shot over, reaching behind her for Sonya. There was nobody there however. She rolled off her side and sat bolt upright in bed. Now wide awake, she stared across the room at a man in his late 20s impeccably dressed in an expensive dark blue suit and light grey felt Stetson cowboy hat.

“Who the hell are you, what are you doing in my room and where’s my wife!?!”, Nancy demanded in a fierce tone. Slight recognition dawned on her face & her expression turned from one of anger to one of complete confusion. “Huh… wait..”, she said sounding completely bewildered. “B… Bobby Ewing???”

The man just flashed an amused smile.

“This doesn’t make any sense…”, Nancy said, trying to collect herself. “You… You’re just a TV show character.”

Bobby Ewing laughed a bit. “You’re just a fictional character in some realities also.”, he replied amusedly. “And no, this isn’t some Arachnos trick.”

“Then how…”, Nancy asked in a puzzled tone.

“I’m just a manifestation of your subconscious.”, Bobby replied. “As for the form I took, blame your parents and all those Dallas DVDs your momma watches.” Bobby grinned and chuckled slightly. “It’s fitting though, given what you’re about to find out.”

“What are you talking about?”, Nancy asked, frustration now added to her confusion.

“You’re still asleep, girl.”, Bobby replied in a more serious tone. “It’s past time you woke up though.”

“What?”, Nancy blurted out, surprised. “No, I…”

“Do yah always sleep in your costume then?”, Bobby replied.

Nancy looked down at herself and saw she was indeed wearing not just her costume, but her older one, from when she was still a member of the All Star Teen Sentinels.

“You’ve been out for a while.”, Bobby continued in a serious tone. “It’s time to return to the real world though.” “You have people that miss you and are worried sick about you.”

“No”, Nancy objected. “This is real, I am awake.”, she insisted.

She wanted to continue, but the aches in her body grew worse and her head began to hurt terribly. She began to hear disembodied voices calling to her as well. She heard Elaine and her parents telling her to come back to her. There was an increasingly bright white light above her too. Suddenly, Nancy gasped deeply and opened her eyes…

She looked around with her eyes, not moving her head. She recognized she was in a medical center, explaining why she ached all over.

“She’s awake!”, Elaine screamed in an elated tone. She reached down and hugged Nancy fiercely, causing a groan of pain from the girl. “Ah’m sorry sugah.”, Elaine said with tears in her eyes as she released Nancy. “Ah’m just happy yah finally came back tah us.”

 

So net result; Nancy is returned to the world of the living (or awake at least) to find out she’d been in a coma for almost half a year after being led into a villain ambush and beaten near to death.  She was still a psi, never married and never an angel of any sort.  The rest of the story went into several of the nonsense plots that I was pulled into and is so embarrassing I don’t even want to reprint the rest of the story here.

The bigger point is that even an obvious cliche this big can be done if handled with a little humor and even acknowledging you’re using the cliche.  I doubt I’d be as blatant as I was in this example.  It was completely over the top, but it was meant to be AND it was a game based story that I never had any intention of publishing, so that minimized any potential copyright issues.  Remember this is another one of those tools that should be used rarely.  You kill it’s impact otherwise.

Time Travel as a Plot Device

I’ve had a really bad day or so, and it’s mucked with my creative writing muse.  However, I have been exploring possibilities with Witchfire as I mentioned before.  I bounced the ideas off of Deanna Troi, who I was collaborating with for a while.  It came up in the conversation that time travel is seen by some as a weak plot device that’s used when an author is out of ideas and wants an easy fix.  Given as this is supposed to be a writing blog, I thought we could explore the idea here.

Bruce Lee once said there’s no such thing as a bad technique, only a bad time to use it.  This is true of any tool.  Some are specialty items that will get used on rare occasion, some get used constantly.  I view time travel as one of those rarely used specialty tools.

Time travel as a plot device gets a bad rep because it’s been abused by writers, with some specific stories getting used over and over until they’ve become cliche.  I can even tell my readers where this all first started; X-Men #142 in February of 1980:

X-Men-Uncanny-142-Brooklyn-Comic-Shop

This issue was the start of the ubiquitous time traveler from the future coming back to the present to prevent their future from occurring.  In this issue, we find out Senator Robert Kelly had been assassinated by Mutants, leading to mutants being declared a public danger, hunted by the government and either killed or put into concentration camps.  Sound familiar, movie fans?

This is also where the cliche of the time traveler being the child of two current protagonists comes from.  The X-Man sent back in time was Rachel Summers; daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey.  And for once, a comic book cover didn’t lie about everybody dying also.  The time traveling child gimmick was even used in the most recent season of CW Network’s “The Flash”, with Barry and Iris’s daughter coming to the past to try to prevent Barry from disappearing in the (upcoming) Crisis on Infinite Earths.

nora-west-allen-xs-flash-season-5-jessica-parker-kennedy

History lesson aside, what’s the right way to use time travel?  First, it has to fit the genre.  If you’re writing a regular romance story (vs a paranormal or fantasy setting one), the only way “time travel” would likely work is as a dream sequence.  Something along the lines of the movie Peggy Sue Got Married.  If you’re dealing with a world with powerful magic, advanced science, or metahuman powers, time travel becomes more feasible.  It can work in other genres, but you need something very creative to establish suspension of disbelief in your readers.

Suspension of disbelief is key to ANY plot device.  Does what’s happening feel real within the context of the story and it’s reality?

Using time travel too cheaply does weaken that suspension of disbelief also.  Remember  what I said about it properly being a rarely used tool?  I think sometimes authors are afraid to make their characters work their way out of a situation or deal with consequences of actions that the author didn’t think out.  Other times, an author wants to create an “epic” storyline and tries to come up with the most dramatic situation possible.  I’ve written before about the failings of the constantly bigger villain or disaster as ongoing stories.  It’s caused Marvel and DC to reboot their universes more than once.

Long story short, think about the likely long term consequences in your story’s world for anything you write, even if you’re a wing it kind of writer.  Also, make sure you’ve got a good reason for your characters to muck with the time stream beyond “I want an epic cool story”.  If that’s your only reason, what will you do for an encore?

Use time travel as a last resort or for a well thought out story.  Readers will appreciate a well thought out solution where characters fight through a problem more than another time jump to fix this week’s mess.  The 80s cartoon Silverhawks literally got that bad too.  They introduced a team member named ‘Flashback‘ whose cybernetics let him time jump.  Every time the Silverhawks got in over their head after that…  *poof*  Mistakes corrected.

Also, if you want to add a bit of “realism” to it, consider some unintended consequences to the characters’ actions too; fallout and secondary unintended changes.  Aside from the old problem of parallel universes, there’s a Taoist theory that the universe seeks balance.  Heroes rise to challenge villains, and attempts to change the time stream may result it the universe seeking to rebalance itself in interesting ways.

The last problem with time travel is the cliche factor.  You want your readers to be on the edge of their seat.  If they yawn and say been there, done that… you’re doing it wrong.  Star Trek, for example, has done a pretty good job with it’s time travel stories over the decades.  The only ones I found grating were the trapped in a time loop episodes.  Don’t do the time traveling child trying to change the future thing unless you can put such a unique spin on it that it’s barely recognized as copying the X-Men template.  Instead, think more along the lines of Star Trek 4 or Star Trek: First Contact.

Retroactive Continuity Fun & Games

I’ve mentioned the concept of Retroactive Continuity a few times in the past.  It’s when something gets changed in a story’s or character’s past.  The usual idea is to make the past fit better with a turn the story has has taken.  It could be as simple as the writer came up with what they think is a better idea also.  Since you can’t go back and change the whole story, particularly if it’s part of a published prequel, you have to get creative.

“RetCons” as they’re called for short, are very common in soap operas and comic books.  Fiction writers of all types can benefit from learning to work with them though.  A RetCon can be as simple as a flashback that includes new information that changes the dynamic of a character’s past, or relationship with another character.  Suddenly, there’s a bit more origin for that heinous antagonist, and they used to be a trusted ally.  That one’s been done so much it’s cliche to be honest.  Easy example though.

Shondra Rhimes uses this gimmick so often in “How to Get Away With Murder” that the show is impossible to watch in my opinion.  If she didn’t have a few previous hit shows, I doubt she would have gotten a pilot episode for this one.  The lesson here is use RetCons and flashbacks sparingly and with forethought.  If you’re constantly changing the story, readers or viewers will just think you don’t know how to plot a story properly.

Then there’s the world’s most famous RetCon; The “Dallas” plot twist to bring Bobby Ewing back from the dead after being gone a season.  It was all just a dream.  The show and network caught a good deal of flack for that one back in the day.  Primarily because it erased an entire season of the show’s continuity, and that just felt too unbelievable there.  “It was just a dream” can work for smaller events though.  Heck, I’ve even used it very tongue in cheek to undo years of a character’s game history in City of Heroes and reduced it to dreams while in a coma for five months.

Nancy’s Trip to Dallas

Just keep in mind, it has to be a bit campy or very clever if you’re doing a Dallas level wipe of events.

On the soap opera side of things, there’s the evil twin, or the spy with plastic surgery to look like a character while said character is otherwise occupied (lost, imprisoned, etc…).

RetCons can be as simple as a character misspoke or outright lied (maybe they were forced to), all the way up to something as fantastic as DC Comics’ “Flashpoint” reset that unleashed the New 52 (titles) continuity on us.  That one has become as infamous as the Dallas event, and even used on CW’s Flash show.  There’s all kinds of possibilities in between also, such as incorrect or altered scientific test or lab results.

Here’s one example I’ve done very recently; readers will recall the drama my Champions character ‘Liberty Gold’ had with her old guild.  I gave the character a fresh start by bringing in a clone of her that’s still at her younger 17 year old age.  That trick works in comic books, sci-fi, and to a lesser extent fantasy if there are powerful enough mages in the world.

My personal rules for RetCons is keep them as plausible as your story’s reality allows, use them sparingly, and think about the long term implications for your story’s character and world.  My biggest gripe with Marvel and DC is that they never think about the long term consequences of their stories anymore.  Thus they paint themselves into a corner of never ending reboots.  More on that and other things we can learn from comics tomorrow.

I’ve made a game out of watching TV and movies, and reading books, and trying to decide how I would have told the story.  I figure out what I would have RetConned to get there also.  So, I’m going to put out a little challenge here.  Fun for me and maybe it’ll help inspire some creativity in readers as well.  Toss me a scenario and what you’d want it changed to, and I’ll see if I can come up with a RetCon path to get you there.  Doesn’t matter the genre, even erotica.

MY Sharp & Edgy Humor…

Gawd, so many bad jokes from using Lilarcor in Baldur’s Gate 2 now coming back to me, LOL…

Anyhoo, I got the honor to guest author a piece for LittleFears on his blog.  Here is the original at his site:

Knife Skills

And here it is reproduced, minus LittleFears’ great video work (give his blog a look for that).

Knife Skills Large

knife Skills story

 

And there you have it…  My cutting edge humor.  😀

Thanks again to LittleFears for letting me guest author.. 🙂

Character Inspiration

I decided to show once again that you can find inspiration for characters (or stories) almost anywhere.  I constantly run through things I’ve read and watched for ideas…  How can I put a unique twist on something and change it enough to make it original?

Often times, it just ends up being the general idea.  My most well received City of Heroes story was based on a cartoon where one character went undercover in the villain organization but only one other person knew and they got put into a coma by an attack from the villains.

One of my most quirky characters was actually a near complete borrowing of a cartoon character.  She was a video game character in Champions Online.  Meet C.S.I. Gadget:

Penny Flying

For those who didn’t guess…  She’s a tribute character based on Inspector Gadget’s niece Penny.  I made her origin vague enough so that neither I nor the game got in trouble for copyright violation.  The origin being that she was the neice of the city’s now retired most famous cyborg detective.  A natural genius, she covertly helped her uncle, and when she graduated school a few years early, she went on to college and got dual degrees in engineering and criminology, then became a CSI for the Department.  She carries several devices and a portable crime lab, and has a small army of robotic pets that help her fight crime.  And yes, as the picture indicates, she rides around on a small circular flying platform.

I got several compliments on her look, with people saying the look was perfect for an adult Penny.  Here’s her street clothes “costume”.  The shirt is supposed to be a Millennium City PD T-Shirt.  Being an older game, Champions Online didn’t allow for a super high level of detail.

Penny Off Duty

So, I hope that help you writers see that an open eye and a little imagination can find creative inspiration anywhere.

She had a virtual army of pets in the game and it was a joke among my friends that turning her loose, the bad guy would scream in terror as a sea of pets washed over them, LOL.  That was before the game nerfed the pet summoning powers though.  *grumble*