On Ticking Clocks and McGuffins: Using Genre Tropes in Fiction

What’s the difference between genre conventions and genre tropes?

Genre conventions are sine qua non expectations, almost like “rules,” for the content of novels in certain publishing categories. Authors are well advised to understand genre conventions, whether or not you’re writing in what is traditionally thought of as a “genre.” 

But this is not our focus today. Our focus today is genre tropes: little useful machines or plug-ins that can be used in any kind of story. Think of them as widgets or dynamos that can be added to your fictional narrative in order to make it work more efficiently and/or give it more zoom. Careful, though. Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of a trope:  “a common or overused theme or device: cliché <the usual horror movie tropes.”

At the risk of contradicting such an esteemed authority as Merriam-Webster, it’s important for fiction writers to understand that tropes are not necessarily clichés. They can be clichés, but they can also be of great help in making stories more suspenseful or resonant. If you think of a writer as an engineer, tropes are like prefabricated factory parts; they’re like batteries or spring-lock mechanisms or carburetors or silicon chips. They’re only clichés if they’re not used in an interesting way, as part of a fresh and original story.

Here are some common genre tropes that can be useful for any kind of fiction:

The Ticking Clock

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan has three days to live, and the bridge must be blown by the third day in order to coincide with the Republican attack. In The Lord of the Rings, the ring of power must be destroyed before the lord of Mordor finds it. In the opening sequence of The Goldfinch, the protagonist has to get out of the museum with the painting before the rescue workers come back.

The “clock” in your story doesn’t necessarily have to be ticking fast; it can simply define the bounds of the narrative. Your character wakes up, and the story takes place over the course of one day. That day is the clock. Your character has to get ready for an office Christmas party. The clock is the time between the beginning of the story and the party. If you think about it this way, just about every story has a clock. But a ticking clock is great for suspense, because it adds urgency to whatever quest or problem your protagonists are trying to get through.

The McGuffin

This is an all-purpose term for a motivating element, usually a physical object, that is used to drive a plot. It need serve no further purpose nor carry any deeper meaning—it just has to be extraordinarily desirable. In some cases, the McGuffin won't even be shown. It is most commonly a mysterious package or artifact that everyone in the story is chasing. The archetypal McGuffin is the ancient falcon statuette in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Yes, the statuette is worth a lot of money, but it’s precious in more important ways than that: it’s rare and physically beautiful, and it has a great deal of fascinating history and backstory behind it.

Another example, lest you think that use of the McGuffin is limited to “genre” fiction, comes from recent Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See:

“From the molten basements of the world, two hundred miles down, it comes. One crystal in a seam of others. Pure carbon, each atom linked to four equidistant neighbors, perfectly knit, octahedral, unsurpassed in hardness. Already it is old: unfathomably so . . . Century after century. Rain, wind, cubic miles of ice. Bedrock becomes boulders, boulders become stones; the ice retreats, a lake forms, and galaxies of freshwater clams flap their million shells at the sun and close and die and the lake seeps away. Stands of prehistoric trees rise and fall and rise again in succession. Until another years, another day, another hour, when a storm claws one particular stone out of a canyon and sends it into a clattering flow of alluvium, where it eventually finds, one evening, the attention of a prince who knows what he’s looking for.”

See how the value of this McGuffin reaches far beyond the monetary? The whole story is in some way structured around the search for this incredibly valuable diamond, which is known as the Sea of Flames:

“Three replicas. Plus the real stone. Somewhere on this planet among its sextillion grains of sand.”

Do you have a McGuffin in any of your stories? Might it be helpful to insert one?

Another genre trope that’s useful as a character motivation is one I like to call Accumulating Treasure. It’s very basic: the protagonist collects things of value, and the reader roots for him or her to collect more if it. These are the riches in a “rags to riches” story. But the stuff in question doesn’t have to be gold or jewels. For example, in the Harry Potter series, there’s a system of points awarded to each of the four houses when they accomplish something worthy or admirable; it doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the context of the larger story, but it gives the reader a reason to root for Harry and his friends. Another example: the clues in the on-line game at the center of Ernest Cline’s recent novel, Ready Player One. Video games often use the Accumulating Treasure trope, but that's no reason for fiction writers to disavow it. It helps strengthen motivation, and it gives readers one more reason to root for a protagonist. We want to see him or her succeed.

Examples of other common genre tropes include The False Friend, The Red Herring, The Cliff Hanger, The Death Trap, the Band of Brothers, Play Within a Play, The Destructive Romance, Deus ex Machina, the Unreliable Narrator, The Tragic Mistake, and Wretched Excess. One could go on – there are multitudes of tropes. These tropes don’t come with copyrights. They are at your disposal. You can use them in a number of ways, including to help you outline your plot, to help you understand your characters, or, in revision, to add extra punch to lagging narrative tension. In any case, if you want to use a narrative trope, it makes sense to study how other writers have used it. Then figure out how to use it yourself in a fresh and original way.

Familiarizing yourself with a range of genre tropes can add to your power and range as a fiction writer. The more familiar you become with tools such as these, the more likely it is that you will be able to control your own creative destiny, as opposed to letting that destiny control you.


How to Build a Simple Plot: Chris Offutt’s “Out of the Woods”

A young writer recently asked me for a simple explanation of plot. In common with many novice fiction writers (and with my own younger self), she was mystified by what a plot is, exactly, and how one might go about building one. 

The fact is, plot is not something that gets a lot of attention in most writing workshops. The assumption seems to be that plot is an obvious and basic aspect of fiction, and that writers ought to know instinctively how to do it. In some high literary circles, in fact, it’s almost as if the topic, like money or defecation, is not really fit to be discussed in polite company.

The answer I gave the student, which is the simplest explanation of plot I’ve ever heard, can be encapsulated in six letters: “ABCDDE”: Action, Background, Conflict, Development, Development, Epiphany. To illustrate how this works, let’s take a look at Chris Offutt’s excellent short story, “Out of the Woods.” I recommend that you take twenty minutes to familiarize yourself with the story before reading on, although you don’t have to in order to understand where we’re going.

As “Out of the Woods” begins, Gerald Bolin gets the door and four of his wife’s brothers are there:

“It’s Ory,” the oldest one said.  “He got shot and is in the hospital.  Somebody’s got to fetch him.”  
The brothers looked at Gerald from below their eyebrows . . . he still needed to prove his worth.

This short scene accomplishes two principal things.  It is a compelling action that draws the reader into the story, and it establishes the conflict, spelling out Gerald’s main dramatic need and placing a bomb under the reader’s chair that will remain there for the whole story.  Bringing Ory back is a test for Gerald, and if he does it right it will represent a rite of passage into the family’s well-guarded inner sanctum.  Will he be able to do it?  At what cost?  The stakes are high:

The oldest brother shot him a mean look.  The rest were back to looking down, as if they were carpenters gauging the amount of linoleum needed for a job.

The dramatic need established and the action sufficiently locked in, we get some background. We learn that Gerald is thirty and has never left his backwoods county.  We learn about the way he dresses: his ill-fitting suit confirms our suspicion that he’s something of a hick.  Then we quickly move into narrative description covering his journey out of the woods into the larger world, which is a strange and backward place: he feels as if he’s “watching spring in reverse” as he comes down from the Appalachians; he sees a shooting star and realizes he’s never seen one before because the steep hills have always blocked out the sky. 

So far the causality is clear: Ory shot + Gerald wants to be accepted by brothers + brothers and wife think he should go = Gerald goes.  When he arrives as the flatlands hospital he makes a daunting discovery: Ory has died of unexpected complications from the gunshot wound.  This development is compounded by another: Ory died $1200 in debt and Gerald doesn’t have the money to pay it off. 

The developments continue.  He asks to see Ory’s girlfriend—the one who shot him accidentally in a drunken argument—and when he visits her in jail he experiences a strange attraction to her.  She is exotic with her purple half-shaven hair and tattoos and nose ring and multiple earrings that remind Gerald of “a guide for a harness,” and Gerald feels sorry for her; there are hints that Ory was abusive, irrational, an ugly drunk.  Then there is a confrontation:

“Why do you do that?” he said. 
“No. Cut your hair and stick that thing in your nose.” 
“Shut up,” she said.  She began yelling.  “I don’t need you.  Get away from me.  Get out of here!”

Gerald experiences a sense of vertigo, realizing that he’s “two days from anything familiar.”   To review the causality so far: Ory shot + Gerald wants to be accepted by brothers + brothers and wife think he should go = Gerald goes.  Ory dead + Gerald meets woman who shot him + is attracted to her + she’s strange and exotic = he expresses concern by asking about her physical appearance + she yells at him = he experiences vertigo and self-examination, initiating the movement toward the final epiphany.

Gerald tells the sheriff he doesn’t want to press charges.  The sheriff wants to get rid of the body, but Gerald doesn’t have the money for a funeral home, or to pay off the $1200 debt, and of course he needs to get Ory back to the hills, so he suggests he take the body with him.  Causality: Sheriff desires to get rid of body + Gerald lacks the money to do so conventionally + his dramatic need, unchanged by death, to get Ory back to the family + the need to pay off the $1200 debt + the question of what to do with Ory’s car = the mutually agreeable solution that the sheriff will sell the car to pay off the debts and look the other way if Gerald takes the body away.

Gerald starts for home with the body in the back of his pickup; the descriptive passages highlight the disturbing and strangely seductive beauty of the flatlands.  He thinks about Ory and purple-haired Melanie back at the jail:

A pair of redwing blackbirds sat on a power line, courting each other, and Gerald wondered how birds knew to go to their own kind.  Maybe Ory knew he was in the wrong tree and that’s why he wanted Melanie to wear a wig.  Gerald tried to imagine her with blond hair.  He suddenly understood that he wanted her, had wanted her at the jailhouse.  He couldn’t figure why.  It bothered him that he had so much desire for a woman he didn’t consider attractive.

This passage represents a partial revelation of the epiphany: The redwing blackbirds trigger the recognition that he is attracted to the strange, the foreign, the exotic.  

A man comes up to Gerald and asks casually about the decaying corpse under the dirt in the back of the truck.  The man clearly thinks it’s a farm animal (though Gerald misses this) and speaks casually of renderers, garbage bags, and maladies, as if transporting dead corpses is standard operational procedure in the flatlands.  Gerald flees the weird land, resolving not to stop again until he’s home.  He passes through more backward-seeming landscape and finally returns to the comfort of the familiar. 

The story begins to reach a resolution.  As he drives up the home hill Gerald rehearses a story in his mind, making the details acceptable.  Ory had quit drinking and found a good job and was engaged to a nice blond girl.  He was killed teaching her to shoot a pistol.  Gerald’s ordeal is over, and despite Ory’s unexpected death the mission was a success:

Later, he could tell the truth to the oldest brother, who’d tell the rest.  They’d appreciate his public lie and he’d be in with the family.

And the story concludes with the full epiphany:

He got out of the truck and waited.  Everything was the same—the house, the trees, the people.  He recognized the leaves and the outline of the branches against the sky.  He knew how the light would fall, where the shadows would go.  The smell of the woods was familiar.  It would be this way forever.  Abruptly, as if doused by water, he knew why Ory had left.

The final passage works because we’ve been prepared throughout the story for Gerald’s realization: the passages describing the beautiful backwardness of the flatlands, for example (“watching spring in reverse;” “He’d been to winter and back,” etc), the inexplicable magnetism of the unattractive but exotic Melanie.  And yet it’s credible that this would be an epiphany—i.e., that it’s a big realization of something he didn’t know before—because we’ve seen his innocence in the way he dresses, the fact that he’s reached the age of thirty without ever leaving the county, and his conversations with the sheriff, Melanie, and the man who chats casually about corpses in truck beds.

By the final paragraph the mousetrap has been carefully laid: the lines of causality are clear and inevitable-feeling; the central dramatic need met and the conflict resolved; there are no lingering questions and yet the reader does wonder about the meaning of the story.  There have been hints and partial realizations throughout, references to disorientation and wonder at the strange surroundings.  The only thing missing is the epiphany, and when it comes one is satisfied and can close the book.

ABCDDE. Simple, right? Now YOU try it.


Why Write Novels, Anyway?

Why make the supreme investment of time and effort it takes to be a novelist now, when communications are so technologically oriented –when film and television and gaming, not books, seem to be the ascendant forms of communication, art, and entertainment?

When I was a student, I read hundreds of novels: science fiction, epic fantasy, historical fiction, mainstream literature, and, later, the classics. Often these novels seemed like way to escape from the difficulties of being a young person in America. Back then I discovered – though I wouldn’t have articulated it this way – that fiction, and especially novelistic fiction, has the power to strike an almost musical chord of emotions. The result is a kind of transportation effect, in which one is swept up into the world of a story.  The novelist John Gardner referred to this effect as the “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction. It’s a special feature of good novels; it gives them the power to colonize the reader’s imagination so completely that putting them down is like parting with a beloved friend.

Don’t get me wrong: film is a wonderful art. It’s a vital and fascinating art, and one of the great things about being human in the twenty-first century is the availability of so many good movies – and, lately, so many good and even great television series. But you can’t get the same kind of transportation effect from these visual narrative media that you can from a novel. The experience of watching a movie is nowhere near as deep as that of reading a novel; the kind of enrichment film offers is different, more superficial, and less comprehensive than that offered by literature. Why? Because the less imaginative exercise required to fully construct a scene, the more passive and removed the audience. The less of oneself one puts into something, the less one gets out of it. Good novels generate a connective electrical current; they create a living interface between two minds, and in the process, they give readers a personal stake in the creative process.

The novelist Robert Stone once told me that we all have two stories: the one we’re carrying around inside, and the one we’re experiencing in the exterior, material world. Where interior and exterior meet is where viable literature happens. With literature it’s possible to find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. And that’s just it. Film can’t fully capture the interior story. The world you inhabit when you read a good novel is unique. You and the author work together to create a one of a kind, intensely vivid landscape, a landscape that is troubling and beautiful and populated by fascinating characters undergoing deeply perilous journeys, external and internal. This world bewitches your consciousness. It complicates and enlarges your perspective.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote:

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

Film can’t really do that, not in the same visceral, all-encompassing way, which is why novels are not going away any time soon. Novels meet a basic human need. They are an essential art form, because they offer a way of experiencing life not possible with any other art.

Narrative is an ancient craft. It’s one of the few aspects of consciousness that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal realm. Think about it. We evolved as a species sitting around a fire in a hostile wilderness. Unlike other animals, we had no particularly effective evolutionary tools – no armor or stinger or great speed or built-in camouflage – but we did inherit remarkably large and malleable brains. And make no mistake: storytelling became one of our best tools for survival. Telling stories about hunting, for example, allowed our early ancestors to encapsulate and remember important information. With stories, that information could be deployed repeatedly; it could be refined and perfected and applied to future hunts. Similar patterns of narrative would have been used for avoiding predators, locating new resources, and defeating rival groups. A man or a woman that could tell a good story was thus always welcome around the fire, and the ability to create compelling narratives became ingrained in our consciousness. Like any other evolutionary adaptation, this aspect of our brains was refined and elaborated over thousands of generations of natural selection, until it was capable of creating things of great beauty. Storytelling became the equivalent of a peacock’s tail, or a meadowlark’s song. The novel, of course, is just storytelling’s latest and most beautifully elaborated manifestation. 

Today, narrative is still crucial for our survival, because it helps us make sense of a universe teeming with random information. We live in a time where more knowledge is available to us than ever before. It’s an information superhighway out there. Narrative, in effect, is the molding of information into a shape that makes sense. Connecting the dots; identifying cause and effect. When things are plentiful, they’re cheap. When things are scarce, they command a higher price. Sure, there are a lot of novels being written, but these days, which is more scarce: information or narrative?

Words activate the imagination in a way pictures cannot. Viewing and hearing are relatively passive activities; reading is not. Reading, on a deep level, is communion. What writers read is like organic matter from the collective unconscious tamped down into the ground of their souls, which will bubble up in a transformed way, like crude oil, when it comes time to write their own stories. For writers and readers alike, novels increase our faculties of compassion and understanding; they allow us to imagine our way into solidarity with a greater human community. They enable us to conceive of new possibilities, to see the world or the universe in an entirely new light, and, therefore, to define the terms of our existence in a manner of our own choosing. There is a saying: Books are our grandfathers. Books are our teachers; they equip us to live independent, conscious, intentional, rich lives.  As the great Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her essay collection, The Wave in the Mind:

“We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.” 

This is the essential importance of novels in our age.