in which I realize I’m too jaded

January 21, 2012

So we got around to watching the latest Doctor Who Christmas special, which played dirty pool by giving us a heartbreaking/heartwarming World War II story.  It’s like you set anything in World War II it’s automatically going to be heartbreaking/heartwarming.  Setting a story in World War II is its own spoiler, dammit!

And then the father and his bomber disappear over the English Channel.  And I turned to my friends and said, “You know, he isn’t really dead.  Because even though in real life if your plane disappeared over the English Channel you were really really dead, in stories if your plane disappears over the English Channel it means you’re going to miraculously find your way home at the last minute and everyone will cry and be happy.”

And I was right.

After doing this sort of thing a few times this week, I’m starting to think I’m too hard on stories.  But I don’t know how to turn that off — and I don’t want to, because it’s that same instinct that helps me make sure my own stories aren’t boring and predictable.  I mean, I like writing stories set during World War II — lots of us do, which is why there are so many of them — so I have to constantly ask myself how to make my stories new and different and interesting.  (I’ve done this by having my stories feature women pilots and that sort of thing that you don’t see very often.)  But right now I’m grappling with the very fine line between “trope” and “cliche.”  Can a trope be predictable and still be satisfying, storywise?  How do you do that?

And I’m still not a fan of Matt Smith.

14 Responses to “in which I realize I’m too jaded”


  1. I concur on Matt Smith. I want to like him but he’s just somehow not Doctor Who’ish enough for me. And some of the acting is tremendously over-wrought in the special.

  2. sef Says:

    Well, in real life, if your plane disappears over the Channel, you are not going to have a time traveller show up. In stories, you can.

    So that’s why it can be satisfying (and I liked this one a whole lot).


  3. The thing to remember is that tropes are just tools. It’s not what they are on their own, it’s how they’re used that matters.


  4. As for the special itself, I found it better than last year’s. When compared with the disappointing quality of last season’s arc, it confirms a theory of mine that Moffat is better at writing stand-alone episodes than he is at arcs.* As for Matt Smith, I’ve still not fully clicked with him, but I do love the line, “Fairyland? Oh, grow up! Fairyland looks completely different.”

    *My only real gripe are some of the underlying patronizing going on. So women are special because they can give birth, huh? And what exactly is so romantic about some guy following you all the way home every day until you agree to marry him?

  5. Re WIlliams Says:

    This leads me to wonder, why isn’t WWI such story fodder? Beyond the Christmas truce, I don’t think many films have been made …. but perhaps I’m wrong.

    I’m not sure that the WWII setting makes it automatically heart breaking / heart warming. To be fair, most of the films I’ve seen about it have been German / Dutch made, and they all tended to be very tragic. Off the top of my head I can think of two:

    Sophia Scholl:

    Twin sisters:

    Perhaps it is anything with ‘Christmas special’ in it’s name will have the predictable ended sans plot twists or true tragedy. Then again, perhaps it is that a story that will sell needs to have a ray of happiness. After a long week at work who wants to watch a long film that takes place mostly in a questioning room and a jail cell?

  6. Re WIlliams Says:

    I only met to post the link, not the imbedded window! Sorry about that!

  7. Diana Says:

    I have a vague memory of reading a psychology study once that compared people’s enjoyment of a short story if they didn’t know the ending when they began reading versus if they did know the ending before they began reading. If I remember correctly, the two groups enjoyed the story equally on average. Maybe it’s not about the ending, or the predictability of the story, but how you get there that matters?

  8. carriev Says:

    The recent “War Horse” is set in WWI. Very little is done about WWI, I think because it isn’t, in the end, very heroic. Much of the loss of life was over gaining or losing a few feet of ground, the first uses of heavy artillery and chemical warfare made it intensely brutal, and from a command standpoint much of it was just plain stupid. Best WWI: All Quiet on the Western Front, probably.

    And as for the mechanism…the kind of story it is predicts that as well. It’s Doctor Who, so of course time travel would save him. If it was a standard realist film, he would have used a cheap compass given to him by his wife before he left. To me, going with the obvious, emotionally manipulative solution is lazy storytelling.

  9. Annamal Says:

    There’s an awful lot of WW1 stuff but it tends to be British, Canadian,Australian or kiwi.

    I think it comes down to the population impact, such a huge percentage of able bodied men was sent from the commonwealth countries that it effectively changed entire populations.

    ANZAC day (April 25 the day of the first landing at Gallipoli) dawn services are still hugely attended and there are very people here who don’t wear poppies (and a number of young people still visit Gallipoli while on their O.E).

    The tendency here seems to be to regard the war as appalling but the young men who were fed into that meat grinder as heroes.

  10. Besa Says:

    As for the fine line between trope and cliche, I think it may be (to some extent) in the eye of the beholder. What’s predictable and boring to one person is new and exciting to another, at least for a while.

    I guess this isn’t really a plot thing, but the same principle applies: I have not been properly startled by a movie since I saw Minority Report in theaters. I always seem to sense the bad guy about to pop up, and, if I’m feeling particularly bloody-minded, I will time it carefully and poke the friend I came with just as it happens. The friend is usually quite surprised. I think some people are just better than others at matching patterns. Also, others may be so engaged in the story that it doesn’t occur to them to take it apart until afterward. It must be nice.

    Furthermore, knowing in general what’s going to happen does not always kill the experience. Granted, I like surprising twists, especially if there were little clues in the story beforehand so that I slap my forehead and wonder why I didn’t see it coming. I also really like to guess what happens next, and find it gratifying when I’m right…

    …as long as it’s not the whole entire story, like with Avatar. I told my brother exactly what would happen in Avatar after watching a 1-minute preview, and blinked at him in incomprehension when he asked me how I knew. But even after I “spoiled” it for everyone, I was the only one who didn’t enjoy it. They didn’t want deep, engaging plot; they wanted pretty, flying, blue people. In fact, I feel like a bit of a snob for failing to enjoy it. (Well, I do kinda want a pet helicopter lizard now, but other than that…)

    Even a snob like me doesn’t always want originality and excellent storytelling, either. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was terribly depressed, and unwilling to watch Dr. Who, because it would make me cry. (You know you’re in trouble when Tooth and Claw is too depressing.) We watched the Mary Martin Peter Pan from 1960 instead. Having never seen this version, I still knew exactly what would happen, and could even recite some of the lines along with the actors. It was exactly what I needed.

    And consider Dracula 2000: we meet Dr. van Helsing, and immediately know what he must be up to. We meet poor little Mary, and know who – what – must be causing her strange dreams. We meet Lucy, and know exactly how she’ll end up. There is one awesome twist about Dracula’s identity, with ample clues to help viewers figure it out, but otherwise, it’s pretty much one more Dracula film. And I loved it.

    So I guess I agree with Jared: it’s not the trope, it’s how you use it. With 7 billion people on planet earth and written records going back thousands of years, it’s pretty likely that whatever we come up with has been done before. That’s not always a bad thing, either in terms of marketability or art value. Not everything can be high art all the time, but there’s something beautiful about creating Stuff People Like.

  11. Besa Says:

    Wow, that was long and rambly…-_-;

  12. David Bowles Says:

    World War I was so horrific and mind-bending, that the return to a more “normal” situation in WWII got dubbed “Blitzkrieg”. But the reality of WWII is that the average German unit moved no faster than the average Union unit from the American Civil War. It just *seemed* fast because of WWI. Remember that most German artillery in WWII was horse-drawn.

    So kudos to the authors of “War Horse” to venture into the WWI sub-genre.

  13. George Says:

    Matt Smith – blech! Writing has a very different feel for these past couple of seasons, too. I’m no longer a regular viewer.

    I can often figure out where stories are going, so I’m rarely surprised, but since I still read & watch, I guess it’s still entertaining; just not sure how. Maybe it’s the journey, maybe it’s the subtle details?

    Must ask – haven’t read “Kitty’s Big Trouble” yet, but is that a reference to the ’80s Kurt Russell film “Big Trouble in Little China?”

  14. carriev Says:

    Besa: ramble all you want!

    George: Why, yes, it is…


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