Category Archives: Genre

Have All the Stories Been Written?

Romeo and JulietSeveral months ago, I felt inspired to collect ideas for short stories. (This step, which precedes the actual writing, is wonderful, because it isn’t the actual writing.) I tried to find scenarios that would convey concepts I found interesting. For example, I wanted to write about oneness—specifically, how the notion of oneness is difficult to comprehend because we appear to be in individual bodies.

I thought maybe I could illustrate this idea via conjoined twins. Identical twins who are physically joined seem less separate than the rest of us; there is no space between them to suggest disconnection. Indeed, to get along in life, conjoined twins must cooperate; discord would lead to suffering. Mark Twain’s 1869 comic sketch of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Thai-American conjoined brothers, humorously illustrates the nature of inseparability:

By an understanding between themselves, Chang does all the in-door work and Eng runs all the errands. This is because Eng likes to go out; Chang’s habits are sedentary. However, Chang always goes along. . . . Upon one occasion the brothers fell out about something, and Chang knocked Eng down, and then tripped and fell on him, whereupon both clinched and began to beat and gouge each other without mercy. The bystanders interfered and tried to separate them, but they could not do it, and so allowed them to fight it out. In the end both were disabled, and were carried to the hospital on one and the same shutter.

Twain may have used the Bunker brothers as a metaphor for national unity.

Around the time I was researching conjoined twins, I became aware of a writing competition calling for short stories in the categories of romance, thriller, crime, horror, science fiction, and young adult. I reasoned that the goal of entering this contest might inspire me to do the (dreaded) actual writing. I chose horror to convey my tale about conjoined twins, although any of the genres might have provided a compelling framework. I fleshed out the plot and characters.

AHSThen the fourth season of the popular TV series American Horror Story premiered, depicting a freak show in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952. Among the characters was a pair of conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler. I found numerous similarities to my prospective horror story about conjoined twins! I surmised that the show’s writers had referred to at least some of the same online sources that I did. Another parallel emerged in the second episode. The freak show’s bearded lady and strong man were portrayed as exes who had a child together. A number of years ago, I wrote a short story (in response to a Writer’s Digest prompt) about a bearded lady and a strong man who get married, and she becomes pregnant!

These coincidences got me wondering if it was possible to write a truly original story. I remembered how shocked I was to read in The Riverside Shakespeare, as a college student, that the Bard had based Romeo and Juliet very directly on earlier material—namely, a novel published by an Italian writer circa 1530 (approximately 65 years before Will wrote R&J) that included the story of “two noble lovers”:

Luigi da Porto lays the scene in Verona and names the feuding families the Montecchi and the Cappellati. . . . His Romeo goes to a Cappellati ball to see a girl whom he loves but who scorns him, and falls in love with Giulietta, as she with him. After a longer courtship than Shakespeare allows, conducted mostly on the girl’s balcony, they marry, with the aid of the Franciscan Lorenzo, who hopes that the families will thus be brought together; but Fortune, “enemy of every earthly joy,” prevents this outcome by starting up the feud again. The rest of the story is substantially as in Shakespeare.

Da Porto had been inspired by a 1476 writing by Italian poet Masuccio of Salerno.

So, what is the point of writing stories with the same subject matter, over and over? Perhaps the meaning of a story is more important than the details—and we are willing to accept the same content in slightly different forms. The essential content of most stories is the resolution of a problem. This resolution is not necessarily a happy one, but a natural outcome of how the problem is approached. For instance, I have thought of Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as having the same central issue but different outcomes. In the former, Desdemona must defy her father to be with Othello; in the latter, Hermia must defy her father to be with Lysander. The first couple dies; the second couple marries without objection. Both death and marriage are resolutions.

And because our lives are a series of problems, the resolutions found in stories provide catharsis.

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Why Do We Watch Scary Movies?

The Exorcist

I am not a big fan of horror movies. The Exorcist, which turned 40 this year, scared the Andersen’s pea soup (the actual brand used in that iconic projectile-vomiting scene) out of me when I was a little girl. Each time I approached my room, I was sure I would find Linda Blair on my bed, head spinning around. Ironically, when I do watch a scary movie, I tend to go for one about exorcism. Of all the horror ghouls, zombies frighten me the most; even the comedy Shaun of the Dead was too much for me. (Okay, even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video gave me chills.) And I will not watch a home-invasion movie, especially if the bad guys are in masks. One relatively recent film I found deliciously chilling was The Fourth Kind, about alien abduction. I wish I had the courage to see it again (although most viewers would prefer to have their 98 minutes back).

Many filmgoers regularly put themselves in the position to be shocked by the gore, violence, and supernatural activity characteristic of the horror genre. (Of course, some don’t, and they are less likely to sleep with a night light.) Here are some of the more popular theories as to why horror movies appeal to us:

  1. They demystify the unknown.
  2. They distract us from our everyday concerns.
  3. They give us the opportunity to prove that we can master something threatening.
  4. They have fantastic visual effects.
  5. They induce catharsis.
  6. They allow us to face our greatest fear, the knowledge that we are all doomed.
  7. They provide an adrenaline rush in a safe environment.
  8. They satisfy our desire to feel intense emotions.
  9. They show us things we don’t see in our daily lives.
  10. They take us on a psychological ride.

I am intrigued by two additional theories, which are based on diametrically opposed views of our normal mental state (sane or crazy):

  • Horror movies reaffirm that we are healthy and well-adjusted.
  • We are all mentally ill, and horror movies appease our insanity, keeping it in check.

I tend to favor the second explanation, especially considering its source: horror master Stephen King. I figure he should know.

Dear Prudence: Time Waster or Idea Machine?

In my first session with my writing coach, she asked me to identify things I was doing that were wasting time; eliminating these productivity killers could free me up to do some writing. Two of my distracting behaviors were being on Facebook and looking out the window. (Damn, I just stared at the trees for half a minute.) I was a bit embarrassed to reveal a third habit: reading the advice column Dear Prudence. In addition to devouring the semiweekly installments, I had been delving into the Dear Prudencearchives all the way back to 2007. At one point, I even considered writing to Prudie herself for guidance on how to overcome my obsession.

Prudence (Emily Yoffe) fields queries regarding social etiquette, relationships, family, and the workplace. So what was it about the column’s questions and answers that merited hours of my time? For one thing, I enjoyed comparing my own reactions against Prudie’s. Often, we were in agreement. Yes, a man who asks his girlfriend to get a nose job and then wants to dump her when she is disfigured by the procedure is kind of a jerk. Yes, it is bad form for a bride to ask the groom’s mother not to wear a dress with spaghetti straps because she finds the look age-inappropriate. In other cases, I was enlightened by Prudie’s point of view.

I also saw a distinct benefit to reading the column, one with a direct application to my writing: The situations people described were fantastic fodder for fiction! For example, here are some story ideas based on actual letters:

  • Relationship drama: A husband and wife are having trouble conceiving when she finds out he is having an affair with her sister. After a traumatic confrontation, the couple moves away to make a fresh start. A few weeks later, the sister announces her pregnancy.
  • Psychological: A school bully becomes a young mother. When her daughter experiences some minor bullying, she is prompted to track down and make amends to the classmates she once tormented. She finds out that one girl, who switched schools because of her, committed suicide.
  • Thriller: A couple moves to the town where the husband’s bachelor brother lives. The husband, who travels frequently, encourages his brother to watch out for his wife. She catches the guy peering in through the bedroom window. Then he lets himself into the house while she is showering.
  • Romantic comedy: A woman discovers that she and her daughter are dating a father and son. Both couples have been talking about marriage.
  • Legal: A man who works at a small company finds out there is a plot to oust the controversial CEO with a false claim of sexual harassment. The human resources department is in on it. Should the employee warn his boss? Or just hope that truth will prevail?

If you are a writer, feel free to use these scenarios as prompts! After the exercise with my coach, I decided to limit my reading of Dear Prudence to just the new ones. I have successfully stayed out of the archives, except to research this post.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check Facebook.

Caution: Genre Crossing

In a previous post, I loftily announced that I wanted to write literary, as opposed to mainstream or genre, fiction. But doesn’t all fiction, ultimately, have a genre—even if it is simply “realistic,” as opposed to, say, mystery, humor, or horror? Ray Bradbury wrote works of science fiction and fantasy, but they were also, unarguably, literature. (How else could they have ended up on so many syllabi?) Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners. Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel (though my husband would dispute its literary merit). To Kill a Mockingbird is a Bildungsroman (word-of-the-day alert!), as is Great Expectations. Catch-22 is a war novel and satire. Around the World in Eighty Days is a classic adventure novel. I could go on and on, but I haven’t read that many books.

The Scarlet LetterAfter finishing The Scarlet Letter in college, I remember feeling raw, copious admiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne. And jealousy. “This is the book I wish I had written,” was my strange thought—as if my chance to write had come and gone, or what I wanted to write had already been written. If you haven’t read the novel, or if you have seen the Demi Moore movie, The Scarlet Letter is a love story set in Puritan Boston in the seventeenth century, two hundred years before the author’s time. Not until I started writing this blog post did I realize that my seemingly random decision to pen a historical romance (I prefer romantic comedy) might have been a subconscious response to my Hawthorne envy.

At first, I wondered if a romance set during the Holocaust would be considered taboo. A search on Amazon for Holocaust romances in the category of historical fiction yielded 27 results. One such novel tells the story of a young girl in the Polish underground who develops feelings for a Nazi officer. Another portrays the love between a captured British captain and a Jewish housewife from Dresden, both sent to the same concentration camp. Perhaps the most salacious story line follows the relationship between a camp commandant and the Jewish inmate he takes as his mistress. So Holocaust romance is not uncharted territory; at the same time, the market hardly seems glutted.

Caution: Genre CrossingBut I haven’t mentioned that my plot has a twist, a metaphysical one. By “metaphysical” I mean concerned with an ethereal world beyond the material. Metaphysical fiction is its own genre, with prominent examples including The Alchemist, The Celestine Prophecy, What Dreams May Come, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and Cloud Atlas (being released this Friday as a movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry). Which brings me back to Hawthorne. Metaphysical elements recur in his works, including the “ghastly miracle” revealed at the climax of The Scarlet Letter: a red “A” (speaking of taboo) seared into Reverend Dimmesdale’s chest by a higher power. So with a metaphysical historical romance, I am still copycatting Hawthorne.

However, an Amazon search for metaphysical historical romances about the Holocaust revealed zero results. Let’s chart this territory!