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Friday, December 2, 2011

GUEST POST: “The Joy of Cooking Tropes” by Michael Dempsey

THE JOY OF COOKING TROPES

Tropes are tricky ingredients to handle. Even master literary chefs sometimes have problems with them. We've all experienced a meal of fiction where the trope was tough, or left a bitter aftertaste, or just plain seemed inappropriate to the dish. So when I set out to write my sci-fi noir novel Necropolis, I knew I had to be very careful in my use of them.

As most writers know, there are a wide variety of tropes. I myself prefer American-grown tropes. For instance, the crime story. Although initially cultivated by European growers like  Arthur Conan Doyle, in my opinion crime/mystery/detective stories came to full fruition in the States, with unique, new flavors developed by people like Chandler, Cain and Spillane. Connoisseurs of writers like Agatha Christie claim her tropes are more subtle and delicate, but personally I find them bland. American tropes often do have a grittier, rougher taste (like many things American), but I find these more exciting, even if sometimes they bluntly assault the palate. The same goes for science fiction tropes . . . Dick and Gibson's may come out of the ground unusually shaped, but they certainly provide a unique culinary experience.

Organic tropes are preferable. Are they just imposed onto the meal or do they arise naturally from the needs of the story? You’d better have a good reason why these characters behave the way they do, and why the plot progresses the way it does. Otherwise, tropes can overpower your other flavors. Besides being organic, the key is seasoning them in a unique way. Crime and science fiction tropes have certainly been combined in the same dish before, so my goal with Necropolis was to use them in familiar but still unique ways.

One of my first decisions with the book was to be bold with my tropes. Some authors try to hide them, to chop them up and bury them in the stew. I think this usually fails—for instance, it doesn't take an English professor to notice that there's nothing incredibly ground-breaking about a novel's vampire protagonist agonizing over whether to screw or exsanguinate his love interest. So I thought, don't try to hide them. In fact, showcase them, trumpet them, have fun with them! The trick is, as I said, to keep them organic and not become a total cliché. That would spoil the recipe.

The premise behind Necropolis is a detective solving the hardest crime there could ever be—his own murder. That gave me a great reason to put crime noir and science fiction in the same pot. After all, I had to bring him back in order to do it (well, I could have made him a ghost or a zombie, but I kept those ingredients on the shelf . . . they seem a tad overused these days, like mini hamburgers or chipotle).

The first trope that organically arose from this premise was the fish-out-of-water element. An appealing classic, it works especially well in science fiction. First, it solves all kinds of thorny exposition problems, because there's a justification to explore all the wonderful or terrible changes the world has undergone. And we can vicariously experience all the pitfalls right along with our hero, when he stumbles and falls as a result of his unfamiliarity with the new terrain. My protagonist, Paul Donner, stumbles a lot. He awakes fifty years in the future to a New York utterly transformed. A ubiquitous virus called The Shift is bringing dead DNA back to life. The city is now quarantined under a geodesic dome. The culture, completely freaked out over the laws of nature suddenly changing, has retreated into a nostalgic retro culture:  they dress and speak right out of “The Maltese Falcon,” and technology is hidden behind this noir façade. Donner suddenly finds himself a member of a hated minority—reborns. His life cycle has been thrown into reverse, so he's growing younger. And he's all alone—his friends and family are dead. As Donner says (in his first person detective narration—another trope!), “I'd survived my own death. No. Worse. I'd survived the death of my whole world. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to deal with this.”

The noir detective genre is chock-full of tropes, some of them pretty creaky at this point. It has a standard cast of characters, like the troubled, hard-drinking hero. Donner is certainly that, but I think that's justified considering the situation he's in. He was on his way to wrecking his marriage before he and his wife were murdered, and now, on top of this retrofuturistic nightmare he's in, he's consumed by survivor's guilt over his wife not coming back when he has.

Other noir character tropes include the femme fatale, the plucky sidekick and the mysterious villain manipulating things behind the scenes. The science fiction element gave me a great chance to riff on those archetypes, to explore them and play with them, maybe add a new twist.

For instance, our detective's assistant—his “Girl Friday”—is in this case a sentient hologram called a smarty. I realized that the spunky female sidekick archetype might be a little sexist and dated nowadays, so while Maggie may begin as a reluctant sidekick, she is eventually revealed to be much, much more, with a serious agenda of her own. (Sorry, no spoilers!) Also, through her, we get a window into smarty culture as well as some areas of Necropolitan society that Donner wouldn't otherwise have access to.

I could go on with other character tropes, but you get the idea. The point I'm trying to illustrate is that with this particular concoction, I was playing a tricky balancing act. I wanted to make familiar tropes fresh and fun, to allow us to relish them by winking once in a while at the reader, but still to ground them in a believable, tough and challenging world. In other words, cheese was not a flavor suitable to this meal.

The final story ingredient I have strong feelings about is reversals. I recently read a Hugo-winning novel (that shall go unnamed) where almost nothing happened for the first several hundred pages.  Many people love this book,  but while it was beautifully written, to me it was a slog. One of the reasons was the absence of reversals (or at least really big ones). My philosophy is, throw the kitchen sink at your hero! What kind of obstacles can you throw in the way of his achieving his goal?

One of the reasons I loved the TV series Lost was its reversals. The writers of that show were really courageous (at least until the finale...grrr). I could just picture them sitting in the writer's room, asking each other “what's the craziest, wildest thing we can throw at these characters,” completely without regard for how they hell they were going to justify it later or whether they were about to write themselves into a corner. They didn't eke out information to us like misers trying to prolong the change in their purse, they just threw every wild thing they could find into the pot and saw which ones rendered down properly. I may be wrong, but I really believe that they went, “Let's have this crazy metal hatch in the ground that makes absolutely no sense on a deserted island,” and then they figured out how to justify it. Some writers may find that dangerous and even irresponsible, but I think it's awesome. Sure, it makes the writer work overtime to integrate these wild changes into a cohesive story and resolve things properly, but one of the results is it gives the reader a honest-to-god roller-coaster ride.

That's how I operated when writing Necropolis—I asked myself, “what can happen now that will absolutely cut the legs out from under Donner?” or “What's the most bizarre or upsetting revelation I can introduce that makes the reader go 'Wha...??'” And then I tried to figure out how I could make it work. In a future where even death is no longer a constant, the sky is the limit, which helped a lot. So if you like your meal straight-forward and traditional, I must warn you that Necropolis is a real cornucopia of flavors: crime, mystery, horror, science fiction and romance, with plenty of humor for seasoning.

Okay, so I've worn this cooking metaphor down past all reasonable justification and likely have tried your patience something awful. So I'll stop now. I'll finish by saying that in my opinion,  there's nothing new under the sun anyway, so it's perfectly acceptable to use tropes you think are cool. But you better find an interesting, new way to integrate them into your story. Time and the critics will tell whether I've sufficiently accomplished that with Necropolis. But I must say, it was an absolute blast sweating in that hot kitchen.

Bon appétit.

ABOUT MICHAEL DEMPSEY:

Michael Dempsey is a novelist, actor, playwright and theatre director. He wrote for network television in the 90s, most notably CBS’s Cybill, and has sold and optioned screenplays & television scripts to companies such as Christopher Lloyd’s Tritone Productions and Carsey-Werner Productions (The Cosby Show, Roseanne, That 70′s Show). Necropolis is his first novel. For more information, please visit the links below:

Order “NecropolisHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE (PDF)
Watch the Book Trailer HERE

1 comments:

Michael Dempsey said...

Oops. That's right, Poe was American. My bad.

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