Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Best Worst Story? An Ongoing TBOE Investigation.

Did you know that Edward Bulwer-Lytton was actually an esteemed peer of Charles Dickens', as well as a beloved novelist in his day?

No, I didn't really care about that, either, but I know it now, thanks to an article I read recently, and finding out that the man whose name has become synonymous with bad writing was actually a well-respected author who had tons of readers (as well as being a politician who dabbled in the occult, proving that Victorian England had nothing on us when it comes to politics; at least we didn't elect our witch.)

I got to thinking about Edward Bulwer-Lytton this morning when Rogue Mutt -- who is an accomplished novelist -- released the first draft of what he called "perhaps the worst story ever."

That sounded like a dare to me -- and a chance to do something I haven't in a long time -- the theme month and the multi-part post.

In the past, I've had theme months, like "October Is Book Month", that one week I examined Rock and Roll by naming The Best Rock Bands, "Robot Week," The Best Worst Villain Ever, and, my favorite, "Lame/Cool" month*

*(which featured all these topics: Nonfiction books about lame/cool topics., music that was brought back by the two greatest forces for social change in the world, movies your kids make you watch but which turn out to be pretty good because of the songs in them , TV shows you wouldn't guess are so cool, guys who should be on TV more, superheroes who can't be gotten rid of, food that defies Newton's laws, this guy, places you can take the whole family and they'll actually have fun, and my ideal pet, this other guy, a song you can't live without hearing. And The Banjo.)
So I have decided to again have a THEME MONTH as well as an INVESTIGATION, and you can tell I'm serious because I capitalized those things, and that Theme Month is going to be The Best Worst Story -- which I'm going to explore by reading Rogue Mutt's work, online, and posting about it as well as using that story as a springboard to explore whether what Rogue has written really is The Worst Story Ever, (which would make it The Best Worst Story) or whether some other story holds that honor -- as well as deciding the criteria by which I'll decide that.

Confused? So am I. But it'll all make sense in the end, or at least help me avoid doing any real work. So here we go with:


I will begin where Rogue Mutt begins: his introduction to Back To Life, which is an author's note of sorts:

This story is...probably just awful.

If anyone else does ever see it, as the header says, it's the creepy story of Steve Fister, a hardboiled 50-year-old detective.

One night he gets word there's a drug company being robbed, so he goes there. In a struggle with
mob kingpin Artie "Lex" Luther, Steve gets injected with an experimental drug known as FY-1978. Steve gets shot in the head, but wakes up the next morning only to find that he's still alive.

Except that now he's an 18-year-old girl!

After convincing his partner and best friend of his identity, Steve--now Stephanie--tries to find a cure and bring Artie Luther to justice.

Meanwhile, the bright spot in all of this is that as Stephanie he can reconnect with his daughter Maddy, something he couldn't do after he and Maddy's mom got divorced. I'd say please enjoy this but it's crap so try not to puke too much, OK?

From that, we can learn that Rogue has (perhaps unwittingly?) hit on an as-yet-unheard of combination of two stories.

As everyone knows, there are only seven storylines in the whole world. Those storylines can be boiled down to:

1. The hero's quest.

2. Someone comes to town.

How hard it is to run an aquarium.

4. People trading places.

5. Cop shows.

Um... the other hero's quest.

The seventh storyline is a secret that you can only unlock if you complete the 43rd level. I'm not allowed to tell you what it is.

Every single story ever told fits somewhere into those seven storylines; stories are (as I've said before) like Taco Bell menu items: they just take the same ingredients and rearrange them in different layers.

When you consider the greatest stories ever told, you can see how right I am:

The Bible? Hero's quest.

Harry Potter? Hero's quest.

Arrested Development? How hard it is to run an aquarium.

Romeo & Juliet? People trading places.

And so on.

The problem with our society is that as of right now, we've run through all of those storylines already, ad infinitum ad nauseum. That's why nobody went to see that one movie where Green Lantern traded places with Michael Bluth; no matter how often Van Wilder and Teen Wolf 2 insisted, in interviews, that the movie was a "hard" R, people were bored by it because we've seen "people trading places" before, most effectively in Frost/Nixon.**

**I'm assuming. I didn't see that movie, but I'm about 98% sure that in it, David Frost and Richard Nixon both touched the magic tape recorder at the same time, resulting in their trading places, after which Richard Nixon went on a murderous rampage using David Frost's body so that Frost couldn't implicate him in Watergate because who'd believe a psychotic murderer? (Besides the Casey Anthony jurors, that is.)

The short-term solution to the problem of "We've heard these stories before" is to make them seem new by (as Rogue actually pointed out the other day) adding something superficial to them -- like putting a vampire into a teen romance (his example) or putting zombies into Pride & Prejudice (my example, and also an example of "How hard it is to run an aquarium" storylines.)

But that solution doesn't last long, because there's only so much distraction available in a glittery vampire.

And so the other solution is to combine storylines, something that has not (to my knowledge) ever been tried before in all of human history.

Which is to say, I can't think of a single story that combines two of the basic storylines available to humans... until Rogue Mutt broke new ground and combined the cop show with trading places.

All other trading places stories just traded places ... and stopped there. "Freaky Friday," and all the movies and books that were "Freaky Friday" but didn't want to pay royalties so they didn't admit it, just had their characters end up being each other, but beyond "being this other person and trying to live their life" they never did anything much with that premise.

There have been hints of what Rogue is attempting here before: Face/Off had kind of this theme, as John Travolta and Nicolas Cage traded faces and then Travolta had to catch Cage. Or was it Cage catching Travolta? Or was it Cage pretending to be Travolta trying to catch Travolta trying to be Cage? It doesn't matter. The movie was pretty good -- but moved too far towards cop show to really be a people trading places storyline; after a few minutes, there really wasn't any difference between Cage/Travolta and Travolta/Cage as the movie morphed into a simple cop show prem

And there was a TV series I recall hearing about, Life On Mars, which may or may not still be on the air, in which a detective went back to the 1970s and had to do his detecting without all the modern conveniences that we have today, like "cell phones" and "Google" and "DNA" and "People confessing to crimes on their Facebook pages" but, as I think about it now, I'm not sure Life On Mars was a "people changing places" storyline, because I don't think a 1970s detective came to our time to find out how amazingly easy it is to solve crimes now that people just go ahead and Google stuff like "How to kill everyone in your family and get rich off life insurance without getting caught," a search which I'm pretty sure has been done about 17 times today.

I don't know where I'm going with that.

So Rogue has combined two storylines -- and two storylines that don't seem to go together -- and two storylines that promise plenty of awkwardness ahead. Will Steve/Stephanie go on double dates with his daughter where the couples have makeout sessions in the basement of a party? Will he fall in love with his partner ? Can I ever erase the icky feeling both of those thoughts
gave me in my mind? (Probably not.)

In doing so, Rogue Mutt's intro and premise to "Back To Life" have given us the first rule to apply to determining if something is truly the worst story ever, and that is:

What's your premise?

A truly awful premise can't, of course, be based on a classic storyline -- if it's one of the seven storylines humanity has opted to rely on, it can't be the worst ever, because we've decided as a culture to accept any story based on those premises. (That's why we have 113,000,000,000 versions of Law & Order, including Law & Order: LA, Law & Order: Pet Court, and Law & Order: Hoarders, which doesn't really exist, but it should because it rhymes.)

Nor can we use the premises that humanity has decided can't be used for stories -- you never thought of those, did you? Did you think that the seven basic storylines were the only storylines that ever existed? Foolish mortals. Just like "religions," "dance styles," and "versions of democracy that didn't seek to punish the poor", storylines come and go as society changes, and we've had storylines in the past that ultimately were relegated to the ash heap of creativity. Our basic storylines have only been in existence since the 16th century (which is when everything was invented.) But prior to that, we had storylines like:

10th Century: Here There Be Dragons!

8th Century: Whatever It Was That Made Everyone Love The Canterbury Tales.

2nd Century: I found a rock.

You can see where those storylines no longer held any appeal for our society.

In short, then, you cannot write a truly awful story if you just stick to one storyline, no matter how many glittery vampires you throw into the mix.

So Rogue may be on to something here; by mixing up his storylines, he may have created a peanut butter cup... but he may have created pickles & ice cream.

We'll see.

(Next: Opening lines, and why they're always worse than you think.)


Michael Offutt said...

I don't like it when writers switch the gender of characters because I think that gender identity is really complex. Oh and that's a great pic of Sn00ki with her "bestselling" novel "A Shore Thing".

Rogue Mutt said...

Um, thanks?

Incidentally my inspiration for this was when I read "Self" by Yann Martel years ago, which was a horribly boring update of Virgina Woolf's "Orlando." It was the kind of thing where I thought, "Hey, I could probably write a more interesting story than this!" Though that was like five years ago and I never got around to it. Although I think last January or February I posted an even more terrible idea in the same vein.

And then I don't know how or why I got thinking of it again a few weeks ago and I thought that I didn't want to make the same mistake as Martel where the man/woman hardly seem any different and except for the rape scene (spoiler!) near the end it's mostly a lot of boring shit.

So then I thought you really need a contrast doing in this kind of thing. (I mean one problem with "The Change-Up" is that a douchebag with no kids and a douchebag with kids don't seem that different.) Maybe because I've been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and Lawrence Block this year I thought that a hardboiled detective would be a good starting point. I mean if I could have made him look sloppier in "The Sims 2" you'd see the contrast from old, slobby guy to perky young girl.

Then half the story is the whole, "Oh shit, now what do I do?" and then the other half rips of "Robocop," "The Crow" and other resurrection-revenge movies where the main character comes back to life and starts kicking ass on everyone who tried to kill him.

Yeah, so there's some genius at work there.

But then again no.

Briane P said...

@Michael: do you mean "switch genders" like "male writers writing female," or what Rogue did ,having the character switch?

Andrew Leon said...

Face/Off was one of the worst movies ever.

I think Life on Mars qualifies as a trading places story. The point of those stories is the people trying to cope with a new environment which is what Life on Mars is about.

You forgot the story where someone suddenly gets really rich and becomes an asshole and has to learn that he's become an asshole and then gives all the money away so as to avoid being an asshole.

Andrew Leon said...

Oh, and I just watched The Change Up and thought it was great.

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