Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Narrative kinks

I post a lot about the things I don't like in books, so I thought today called for a bit of a change of pace. I tweeted last weekend about seeing a movie that hit my "narrative kinks," which is just an attention-getting way of saying it appealed to me and had elements I like to see in stories.

Below is a partial list of things that, in books and movies, will better engage me with the story and make me like it more. My list is not your list, I'm sure, and tastes vary from one consumer of media to another. I don't pretend to speak for anyone but myself.

It bends a trope.
The older and more stale the trope, the better I like to see it twisted and used in new ways. Once, it was a twist on the vampire trope to make them sympathetic monsters, or for people to roleplay dark elves as good guys betraying their evil kin. Now, these twists have, themselves, become tropes. Many fairy tale updates and interpretations hit this kink, as do stories that explore a subject that's been portrayed as flat or one-dimensional in the majority of recent stories. Tucker and Dale vs Evil hit this on several levels, twisting the cabin-in-the-woods horror story, the idea of residents in backwoods West Virginia as idiot hicks, and the intelligence and self-preservation of clean-cut college students. The fact that the alpha male is taken down a peg is a bonus.

World-building is thorough and fleshed out.
I love to read a story and feel like it's set in a world as real as ours. The story that I'm reading shouldn't cover every aspect of the world; I should get the idea that I'm only getting a piece of the puzzle. There are certainly novels set in our own reality where the characters experience many cultures and travel to exotic locales, but I have yet to read a book that covers everything. I wouldn't want to. I'm looking for the same thing in my fictionalized world. Are there hints of other cultures, other places, other events? If not, I won't hate the book, but it won't intrigue me, and I'm unlikely to pick up another in that setting or by that author.

There's a strong female character.
When I say "strong female character," I don't mean that she can beat up all the boys in the story. I'm talking about a female character who gets some control over her fate by the end of the book, or if a choice she makes has a positive effect on the narrative. She can be rescued within the story. She can fall in love. She can be a housewife, or decide all she wants is to have the hero's baby. But if she only exists to be rescued, to serve the main characters food, to have sex with the hero or to be killed and/or raped so he has someone to avenge, I will be less apt to recommend the story to others.

It makes me laugh.
I have a dark sense of humor, but I also like light and silly things. It's hard to pin down my sense of humor, though, because stories others have found funny, I've found childish and absurd. Humor relying on physical comedy, like people getting hit in the head or tripping to their deaths, is unlikely to get so much as a smile out of me. One-liners, snarky back-and-forth dialogue, or dry humor is more likely to earn a laugh, and therefore my esteem. I like most British humor for its dry wit, but there are American humor writers I like, as well. My favorite humor writers happen to be male, but there are several female writers who include humor in their books, and I love them for it.

There's good dialogue.
If I can tell who's speaking without dialogue tags (or with my eyes closed, if I'm watching a movie), if the dialogue flows naturally, if I can learn something about the characters beyond what they're saying from the dialogue, I enjoy the story a lot more. Dialogue is tricky, and I was going to do a future post on the pitfalls of dialogue, so I'll cut this section short.

The tone is engaging.
This is harder to put my finger on, but I mean that there's something about the author's word choice and sentence structure that seems designed to draw me in and include me as part of the narrative. Some writers adopt a very informal tone that draws me in, but I've also read books with a tone bordering on stiff. The more formal writers accomplish it with a sort of wink within the story that makes me feel like I'm in on the joke, rather than being kept at arm's length. Acknowledging that characters are acting like morons can go a long way to engaging me in one of my least favorite types of stories.

I'm sure I'll think of some other elements that I forgot, but I think that encompasses most of what makes me really like a story. What are your narrative kinks? Do you share any of mine?

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