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07/02/2007: Listing Your House with Entry 21
You might have seen this list before, but they keep adding onto it, so it's worth looking at it again periodically. Also, it will probably make you laugh, and possibly make you blush with recognition. (I know I did.) This is, of course, the list maintained by Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine: Stories We've Seen Too Often
Notice that while lots of the entries are specific to speculative fiction (which I still informally call sci-fi), others apply across genre. Also, most of them can be applied to scripts as easily as they can to prose fiction.
The authors of the list are careful to point out that some of the entries actually apply to famously successful stories, or that they could work if executed with extreme skill, or that they might work well if they weren't the only point of the story. It's with this in mind that I point out their entry 21:
21. Person A tells a story to person B (or to a room full of people) about person C.
--1. In the end, it turns out that person B is really person C (or from the same organization).
--2. In the end, it turns out that person A is really person C (or has the same goals).
--3. In the end, there's some other ironic but predictable twist that would cast the whole story in a different light if the reader hadn't guessed the ending early on.
Recognize this? It's "Three Stories," that episode of House that I adore. In one of the best hours of television ever, House (person A) tells a room full of people (B) about person C, who turns out to be House himself. Entry 21! Entry 21! Run away!
So why does it work? First off, care is taken to make sure that the audience doesn't get ahead of the story. House talks about more than one patient, which keeps us from anticipating the reveal. Also, the reveal is neither the end of the episode nor the point of the episode. The device is merely an entertaining way into a story about House's past that could have been told without it. In other words, it fits Entry 21, but avoids all the pitfalls that earned Entry 21 a place on the list.
So don't read this as a list of "bad stories." Rather, I'd call them, um, tempting stories. There's a reason these stories have such appeal to authors that they find themselves drawn to them over and over. These stories probably say something deep about our psyches. Certainly, taken together, they seem to speak to our need to use writing to work through our personal frustrations. The trick is to separate yourself from other writers by going deeper, probably by telling stories that aren't on the list, but, just possibly by taking one that is here and saying something new and special with it, like a good chef revitalizing an overused ingredient. (Personally, entries 23 and 30 don't smell too bad to me.)
Don't get me wrong. It's best to avoid these, even if only because your reader might have read the list, but as always, if you simply know you've got something brilliant, trust that before you trust any rule.
Lunch: "Spaghetti Fresca" called in to the studio from a local restaurant... loaded with fresh cherry tomatoes and spinach. I tried to get it served with an actual Fresca, but it didn't happen.