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.

A Look at the Comics Book Code

A post at LuaraVent69’s blog got me thinking about the role of the entertainment media in the violent, scary state of modern life.  I advocated in a reply that maybe the media needed to dial things back just a bit.  THAT, in turn, got me thinking about the ever present conundrum of “where do we draw the line”.  People rightfully have some concerns about restrictions of any sort of rights being a gateway to a total denial of said right.  It happens all the time in totalitarian systems.

Before I wander off into a tangent though… one past option came to mind and I began wondering if it would work today.  That being the now defunct “Comic Books Code”.

Approved_by_the_Comics_Code_Authority

Now, for those who aren’t familiar with it, I’ll start with a little background.  I’m running from memory, so if I goof a fact, it’s not intentional.  The code got it’s start in the the 1950s.  1954 if I’m not mistaken.  Some grown ups were concerned that comic books were becoming an increasingly bad influence on kids.  More adult content, etc…  Back then, kids were the only buyers too.  Anyway, the outrage got to the point that the major comic publishers were worried that Congress was going to take some heavy handed actions to regulate them.  Their alternative to head this off was a self-imposed code of conduct about what would appear in comic books.

The code essentially established that comics wouldn’t have any overtly sexual material, that the good guys would always win in the end, criminals wouldn’t be glorified in any way, and that things like drug use would be avoided also.  Gory violence was to be avoided, etc…   Well, heck, here’s the whole code for those who are interested:

The Comics Code of 1954

Some of it gets a bit silly, like the prohibition against vampires and werewolves.  ANYWAY… the code was enforced by a review board called the “Comics Code Authority”.  The whole thing came crashing down when rebellious comics writers wanted to do stories related to the drug trade.  They planned on portraying the effects of drugs in a negative manner, etc… but that didn’t matter to the Authority.  Net result; one by one the publishers pulled out and did their own thing.  If I recall correctly it started with a story Marvel wanted to run in Spider-Man comics but I might be wrong.

NOW, everything but hardcore porn seems to go in comic books.  How much of that is a good thing is open for a bit of debate.  For example, we wouldn’t have Power Girl’s massive mammaries if the code was still in effect.  Boys and lesbians love them, some women scream objectification and unrealistic body standards.

OK, let’s state the obvious…  Some of the code is silly in the modern world:

Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority

Really??  Is there a single reader out there that thinks all government officials are above reproach?

But in terms of some of the rest of it… Are we really in a better place in the world for books, films and TV shows that do glorify crime and criminals?  Is excessive gore in movies REALLY anything more than a crutch for poor story telling?  Alfred Hitchcock is considered a master of suspense and early horror, but never had to show anyone getting mutilated.  Is all the violence and glorification of gunplay as a way to resolve the plot really necessary?  Yes, I could by a hypocrite and ask the same questions about sex scenes also.

My personal opinion here?  Going back to something as restrictive as the Code probably isn’t a real answer.  Maybe taking a voluntary step back in that general direction wouldn’t hurt though.  There’s something wrong when a show like Breaking Bad that glorifies a man selling meth and ruining peoples’ lives, is a huge hit.  Before anyone argues that with me, they should google up pictures of what meth does to people.

methface

That’s what the poison Walter White was selling to people did.

Would the alternative work?  Just look at the original Star Wars trilogy.

Maybe if we quit glorifying all the darkest elements of society, we’ll get less of them in real life.

 

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.

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*