A few years back, a dear friend told me that he and his girlfriend had spent a night in a cabin with limited entertainment: VHS copies of Road House, and Ghost.
“Awesome, so you watched Road House?”
“No, she chose Ghost.”
Ah. Of course.
I’ve always leaned toward the action flicks, myself, and although my partiality still lies with the martial-arts, dystopic, mob, and monster-fighting varieties, I also enjoy the allure of the international intrigues. When I was kid, Sean Connery taught me that brushing up on new languages could mean many things. As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the Mission: Impossible movies more (Tom Cruise always irritated me), but it’s the Fast & the Furious and John Wick franchises that will always have my heart.
What I’ve loved most about these productions, as a writer, is the wide range of variation within familiar beats. Mystery TV shows are similar: both genres boast all kinds of wild asides in specific storylines, but always within some fairly rigid and reliable narrative structures.
When I’m writing, I love turning to these kinds of predictable filmic and TV storylines precisely because of their obvious reliance on tropes. My writing often goes in unusual directions, when it comes to plotting and narrative elements; and so, between writing sessions, I find it quite comforting to “listen” for all the traditional plot beats in entertaining visual media. It reminds me that I do in fact know all the formal rules of the game, even while I’m committed to breaking them.
In Third Planet Fall Down, the first novella in my Menagerie Mysteries series, I’ve gone one further, by incorporating well-travelled action-film tropes within a core plot that also adheres to fairly traditional mystery structure. The story of Pax Murillo, an AI rendered by humanity’s killers from a private-eye movie franchise from the 2040s, therefore develops on two narrative levels:
On the first, we’re watching Murillo gradually gain awareness of his situation, of himself as an AI, and of the horrors that have befallen humanity — all while trying to solve a puzzle for his handlers.
But on the second, Murillo is also still an AI going through repeated run-throughs of the storyline these aliens have turned into an amusement-park attraction. He still has to relive, time and again, the longing and the loss, the hard-won triumphs and the close calls, of his big-screen equivalent. (Yes, yes, “like” the TV series Westworld — but hopefully more coherently than later seasons.)
And that made for a fun narrative challenge, because while the first-level plotline has to progress in a chronological fashion… the filmic elements not only can’t, but also to a large degree shouldn’t. Why? Because they’re not serving a traditional narrative function: they’re not centrally propelling the story forward, so much as serving as settings where the main story happens.
As such, while my reader follows Murillo on his path to self-awareness in this alien universe, they also get bits and pieces of the theme-park’s movie-plot all out of order: starting with the opening scene, but then leaping to the closing scene, and then to a chase scene from the middle, and so on.
And yet, on an emotional level, even those filmic elements need to cohere to some extent, to amplify our protagonist’s personal growth throughout the main story. For this reason, the reveal of movie plot points is not actually random: I give the first and last scene back-to-back, for instance, precisely to establish the rules of my universe — to prepare the reader, that is, for all kinds of jumping about in movie elements for the rest of the novella — but I also withhold a key detail behind the film’s closing tragedy until much later in the plot.
This allows Murillo’s character arc to progress in both storytelling levels at the same time, even though one narrative component is supposed to appear far more chaotic than the other.
And so this also speaks, I think, to the importance of remembering that we are bound to tropes even when we like to believe that we’re subverting them.
Is this a “bad” thing? Does being bound to seasoned tropes mean that any art we make can’t help but be derivative?
I reframe it differently in the novella, when Murillo’s alien associate, Zin, explains that Murillo is similar to members of its species, because both can be regrown from the same base “genetic splotch” at any time: Murillo, for future franchise iterations; Zin, by being literally reverted to its genetic baseline and made to grow a new life from scratch.
Put another way still: narrative tropes are no more intrinsically derivative than any other language that we use to connect and to communicate with one another. Even these words, right here on this “page”, are variations on a theme that many of you have encountered often before.
When we call attention to tropes by playing around with them in our writing, then, we’re simply calling attention to the fact that these tropes are a binding cultural vocabulary for us. Which means that we absolutely should play around with them — because in so doing, we’re telling our audience that we trust their intelligence; that we’re hoping, furthermore, to tell a story that’s in dialogue with their narrative expectations, coming in.
But we can also go horribly astray, when trying to spoof such tropes, if we pretend that we can both use them and rise above them. That approach makes the work come off as insincere — and the creator, as insecure.
When swimming in familiar waters, then, we need to embrace the fact that they’ve carried us this far as creators — and then, in seeking to make new waves, worry less about trying to reinvent the whole waveform.
You can read the first three chapters here!
M L Clark talks about the joy of playing with narrative tropes, specifically from action and mystery franchiesTweet