The Fatal Flaw of High Concept Stories

This past weekend, I read Divergent. It was at the recommendation of a friend, because I wasn’t impressed with the movie. Upon reading, I was pleasantly surprised by Veronica Roth’s writing style and I found the world-building smoother than in the movie. But something bothered me about it, as has bothered me about the last few books I’ve read – a high concept that never delivers on its potential.

High concept fiction is all the rage right now and I blame Lost. People older than me could blame Twin Peaks, but I believe Lost is what brought deep mythology and perpetual puzzles to a mainstream audience. Everyone is still clamoring to copy that formula. Much like the abstract era or the postmodern era or the neoclassical era, mainstream art is now in the M. Night Shamalyan Plot Twist era. Everyone wants to read or watch stories which promise original starting concepts, twist endings, huge cliffhangers, and sudden deaths.

Often, such shocking revelations and bizarre world-building relies on mystery. Mystery isn’t new – Agatha Christie and other writers clamped onto human curiosity long ago. But instead of mystery being its own niche, mystery has now infected all genres to outrageous degrees. Who is the killer? Is it all a dream? Is he a clone? What is the monster? Why did the world end? Does this book actually take place in the past?

I like intrigue, but not the way most writers handle it. Lost itself failed on its own formula. For many series-long questions, there was no payout. There rarely can be. If you open up huge questions that have everyone speculating for YEARS, then the actual canonical answer will probably disappoint. People will say “I wish it ended like that guy on that forum said it would” or “*my* answer makes way more sense!” And that’s if you get an answer at all – half the time, high concept only works with smoke and mirrors, where they omit answers “on purpose” in order to cover up plot holes.

I’m not saying all threads must be tightened. Ambiguity can be good. But Cobb’s top spinning at the end of Inception is only fine because “Is this all a dream?” wasn’t a question you asked yourself for the entire movie. Instead, the damning question bad high concept stories pose is “What does it all mean?” That is a tremendous question that summarizes a whole novel – it should not come down to one twist.

What does this have to do with Divergent? Well, the characters are fine and there are no particularly burning questions propelling the reader through the novel. It’s not The Maze Runner, which works entirely off the manipulation of “What the heck is going on? I have to keep reading to find out!” So for that, Divergent is barely guilty of the high concept sins I’ve spoken about. But it still leaves its world so thinly sketched that the reader is left asking many questions about the origins and the villain’s motivation. And of course, those answers are promised in the sequels.

I…don’t like this. Basically, the only reason I’m reading the sequel is to get some more clarity. I want to find out if Veronica Roth has new ideas to bring to the universe she’s written. I don’t really care enough about Tris and her friends. I don’t really care about the message of the book. Divergent, like so many others, is nothing more than a carrot hanging at the end of a treadmill. From a marketing point of view, I guess it works. I’m still reading her book. But if I get my answers in book 2, who knows if I’ll bother reading book 3? And I certainly won’t bother recommending this series to friends as it currently stands.

And this wouldn’t be so bad if such stories truly used mind-blowing revelations that change how you see the world. Gone Girl is a rare and fantastic example of one that does because the twist was just the beginning. The twist was used as an artistic tool to cleverly manipulate the reader into making fun of themselves, or to manipulate the reader into realizing their own prejudices. Yes, I plowed through the first 100 pages looking for an answer. And once I got there, I kept reading because the answer was so interesting.

Don’t use mystery to bait and switch your readers, my friends. It will leave a bad taste in their mouths. You can be ambiguous and you can plant seeds for future installments, but neither of these things should be the biggest, most crucial thread of the entire book. Unless you’re doing postmodernism, ambiguity should not be the point of your book. There is nothing more unsatisfying to me than huge questions that are answered with a handwave – or never answered at all.

Especially when that question is “Why is this happening?”

What do you think, folks? Have you ever been let down when a story failed to work on concept alone? Or do you think overwhelming ambiguity and/or unexpected plot twists are usually a good thing?

Throwback Thursday #9: “Thin Air”

Sometimes I scrape the bottom of the barrel for these Throwback Thursdays. Not because the pool of old ideas/excerpts is dwindling, but I’m encroaching upon stories that I may still write one day. I try to keep my Throwback Thursdays very noncommittal. Very “well this is something I worked on as a kid and I’ll either be really vague about it so it can’t be ganked, or it’s too dumb/derivative to ever visit again.”

“Thin Air” is one of those concepts that may be worth pursuing for me, eventually. But if I’m honest with myself, I wouldn’t be terribly upset if anyone came along and stole the concept. Yes, it’s been in my prompt notebook for 10 years. Yes, it’s got that marketable YA paranormal romance thing going on. But if I was really passionate about it, it would be written by now. So what will happen will happen and I don’t mind telling you about it!

I never actually wrote this book – any of it. I never even gave the characters names. It was always just a concept, but it’s a concept that I’ve never let go of.

Basically, in the 1980’s, a depressed student publically ends his life by jumping off the roof of his high school. The small town mourns, they erect some memorials in his name, and everyone moves on. Except him. Because rather than going to some sort of afterlife, or vanishing into oblivion, he becomes a ghost tied to the school.

For the next twenty-five years, this guy haunts the hallways, invisible to all human eyes. For the first few years, he tries escaping – but the pull of the campus is magnetic. By the time the 21st century rolls around, he settles into playing pranks on bullies, maybe saving a few nerds from the mean kids. He sees everything and, in his own strange way, becomes a guardian angel for the teenage underdogs. All the while, no one can see him or know he’s there.

That all changes when, for the first time ever, someone sees him.

Of course it’s a girl. Of course she falls in love with him, and he with her. And she probably seems normal on the outside but she’s got some underlying issue that he has to help solve, and it probably ends with him being liberated from his ghost life. And then it’s sad cause they loved each other and all, but the only way it CAN end is with him moving “into the light.” And I feel like it would be important for the girl to have a life after him, you know, carrying with her the changes he helped her make. But it’s not like she defines herself by him. She has to be able to live without him unlike Bella.

I can almost guarantee this story has been written by someone at some point. Beautiful Creatures is pretty close, and I’m sure there are dozens more. And for now, I think YA paranormal romance is saturating the market to the point where an agent won’t even look at it. There’s nothing much about this concept that’s unique, but wouldn’t it have been interesting if I wrote it about 10 years ago? Maybe if I’d been older and more skilled? Something like this might have been swooped up in that craze.

The most interesting thing to take out of this is – write what you want to write and don’t censor your ideas. Your random plot bunnies could fall into the Next Big Trend. There will certainly be novels that you write which will go in drawers and can be dusted off if their concepts are relevant later.

Throwback Thursday #7 – “Beyond Boundaries”

Now that I’ve burned through most of my abandoned childhood projects, I can talk about some that still lurk in my idea box. Beyond Boundaries – which is a title that’s ultimately meaningless, but hey, I was 11 – was my first hard science fiction idea. I’m not sure what spawned it, but it was written in a similar tradition to Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert Heinlein. As far as “humans leave Earth and populate Titan or Mars with unrealistic comfort” stories go. Also, I really loved Deep Impact and Independence Day. Oh, and the television series Earth 2.

In Beyond Boundaries, the world literally slows to a stop. An asteroid hits our moon, breaking it into three large pieces that mess up Earth’s rotation on its axis (again. I WAS 11. The science wasn’t exactly sound!) After the asteroid catastrophe, NASA realizes it has about 4 years to build arks for humanity, and to find us a new home, before the Earth stops turning. There’s a fair amount of literature about why this would be a very bad thing, although impossible.

Luckily, my tween protagonist Andromeda had a NASA scientist for a dad. And Andromeda’s dad would do anything to get her safely off the planet. The story opens with a tsunami during Andromeda’s trip to the beach, which she and her friends barely manage to escape. The tsunami is one of the first signs that Earth’s time as a habitable planet is waning. Elsewhere in the world, earthquakes and radio communication suffer. I only wrote the first three chapters before abandoning it (as I usually did back then), but I intended for the first book to be a natural disaster/coming of age YA tale. Then, the second book would explain how Andromeda gets settled into her intrasteller home, including an encounter with an alien race, etc.

This is all stuff you’ve probably seen before. But despite the clichés, this story was unusually well-written for my young age. Perhaps overwritten, but the opening lines still impress me to this day. It doesn’t hold a candle to what I can do now, but I appreciate the “level up” this story symbolizes in my writing career. It was one of my first stories that 1) wasn’t a self-insert like The Flying Chameleon Clan or The Shanin Adventures, and 2) wasn’t completely derivative like The Chronicler or Agent Adrenaline. It was cliché when you look at the broader world of science fiction, but I can’t say “this is basically just X-Men or Star Wars with me in it.”

And I still keep the idea in my back pocket. It will be a very long time before I take it into serious consideration, but who knows? Maybe the idea isn’t so preposterous. There have certainly been more preposterous dystopias, utopias, and apocalyptic scenarios presented in YA.

Throwback Thursday #5: “The Flying Chameleon Clan”

As weird as this book was, it’s still not as weird as it sounds.

When I was in 4th grade, I formed a club at recess with three other kids – Lyndsey, Tiffany, and Tristan. We called ourselves “The Flying Chameleon Clan” and devoted ourselves to reptilian welfare. This came about from 1) my desire to emulate The Babysitters Club dynamic in real life and 2) I was going through a lizard phase.

Thing is, we never actually DID anything for reptilian welfare. So I wrote a book where we did. Even more, this was a book I actually finished!

In my book, I was the leader of The Flying Chameleon Clan, and we were offered a trip to Hawaii to do some lizard research. Our group traveled to Honolulu, somehow without parents (I believe it was even a private jet). From there, we traveled by ferry to a smaller land mass called Komodo Island, which was infested with lethal Komodo dragons. The head of the research group was a man named Jonathan, and he escorted my friends and I through our daily activities. Unfortunately,  the Flying Chameleons had dangerous encounters with quicksand, man-eating lizards, and…..Jonathan himself, who turned out to be the bad guy!

I honestly don’t remember why. I think he was trying to make Komodo dragons go extinct for some reason, and he lured us to our deaths because we were doing too much to help reptiles – we stood in the way of him and his poaching. If I wrote this story now, it would probably be some Fern Gully tale of “I want the unobtanium on this island and I don’t care if I have to kill every dragon! MUAHAHAHA!”

But honestly,  I kind of dig a bad guy who’d just straight up murder some harmless 4th graders. It’d get me points for originality! (jk of course. That’s probably not cool.)

Oh there was also some romance between fiction!me and fiction!Tristan…because wish fulfillment I guess :P

Throwback Thursday #4 – “The Chronicler”

You know the influx of YA books involving gods, superpowers, and fallen angels which have emerged in the past 5-8 years? Well I thought of it first, darn it!

Just kidding. A little.

When I was 11, I worked on a book called The Chronicler. This story followed five teenagers with X-Men-like nicknames – Tempus, Striker, Soyuz, Spark, Marina – who had powers granted from “the gods.” Long long ago, the various pantheons bestowed their elemental abilities upon humans, and descendents of those humans could also manifest those abilities. Tempus had Chronos’s Gift, or the ability to stop time. Spark had Hephaestus’s gift, or fire. Marina had Posieden’s gift of water, Soyuz had Hermes’ gift of flight, and Striker had two gifts – both Hades and Zeus, light and death.

The kids start in their ordinary worlds before they’re abducted to Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters  Hogwarts  a school led by women named Bakira (Bast’s gift of shapeshifting into a cat) and Leslie (a genius with Athena’s gift of wisdom). The “chronicler” was a stone slab with marbles which allowed Leslie and Bakira to find mutants kids with pantheon abilities. Basically Cerebro.

It was a fun book to write. I got about four chapters in before some other projects distracted me, then I never returned to it. It’s obviously too derivative of X-Men, and when Percy Jackson and some other “powers from the gods” books cropped up, I shelfed it forever.

I did finish an Artemis Fowl trilogy of fanfics around that time with a similar premise, though. No, I will not link those. They are really really bad!
Note: I drafted this on Thursday but never ended up posting it. Oops! Belated TBTH!


Follow Friday! – Millie Ho, YA Writer and Artist #FF

Today, I strongly recommend that you follow the friendly Millie Ho. She is near my age and both a writer and an artist, so twice as talented as me! You can learn more about her writing advice and WIP at her blog, or you can check out her cute, snarky webcomic Sorrowbacon.

Talked to Dad last night. He’s 2/3 of the way through with Paradisa now. Since it took him a month to get through the first 30 pages, I never thought he’d get this far! Some of his comments during our phone call were actually fair and will be fixed. Some are fair but will be ignored. And some are like “you obviously skipped a scene, didn’t you?”

One critique I’ve gotten across the board from my betas is that my characters have too much self-doubt. When bad things happen, they don’t always keep their chins high. I agree to an extent, but I also insist on making these people behave realistically. If you were a normal person, thrust into a world of danger and mind-blowing revelations, would you just take it in stride? Or would you worry about yourself and your loved ones? Would you worry about dying? Would you worry about being good enough to fight?

Dad says “no one wants to read that. No one is happy in this book.” In my defense, my characters are not nearly as angst-ridden, self-loathing, sad, or self-destructive as some fantasy protagonists, but they certainly have a lot of fear.  I understand that reading about a character being really scared all the time is probably no fun, and that it should be fixed. But no one wants to read about impossibly confident people either. Would it make sense for characters to be “happy” when they’re facing the apocolpyse? Would it make sense for them to be okay with killing if they’ve never killed before, or be proficient in combat if they’ve never held a weapon?

Or should we see fiction as a mere form of escapism? As a way for us, as readers, to vicariously live through a person who is stronger than we are? Are we supposed to remember and love Indiana Jones for shooting a guy dead in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark scene, and not think about how unrealistic it is for a professor of freaking archeology to nonchalantly murder a dude?

So next week, I’m going to write a post about “Expectation vs. Reality”, and the struggle to present a realistic human hero who is also confident enough to root for. It’s probably the biggest struggle I’m having with writing this book. Perhaps the companions of The Doctor will be the best mold to go by – ordinary people who make the choice to leave their mundane lives behind. It’s hard to do without a “chosen one” crutch to fall on ;)

Throwback Thursday #2: “Shanin Adventures”, or My Very First Book #TBTH

One day, when I was 6 years old, I asked my parents for some paper and a piece of cardstock. With that, I wrote my first book. My first five books, actually.

The series was called “Shanin Adventures.” It followed the travels of Tracy and Drew Shanin, twin children from Wilmington, North Carolina (where I was from) whose first adventure was to find the “biggest and most beautiful jewel in the world”…for some reason :P Along the way, they encountered a bitter anthropomorphic ice monster named Bigfoot. In later books, the kids join girls named Teresa and Trasa. Bigfoot also finds other monsters to join his side, such as Grislen, Lizard Eater, and The Devil. XD

If it sounds like Power Rangers or Big Bad Beetleborgs, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Those were my favorite TV shows at the time and they undoubtedly influenced me.

Funny enough, the actual idea for Shanin Adventures has been with me since I was 3 years old. I was so young when I came up with this story that my parents called my characters “imaginary friends.” It was a game I played with my childhood best friends, Robyn and Brandi. In the game, I was Tracy Shanin, Robyn was Teresa, and Brandi was Trasa. There was never a real counterpart for Drew. I think Drew was just my expression of how much I wanted a twin sibling. Anyway, it wasn’t until I was old enough to read and write that I bothered writing anything down.

Unlike last week’s Throwback Thursday, “The Outcasts”, which I will probably abandon as derivative and unsalvagable, Shanin Adventures has been a work in progress throughout my entire life. Some things have changed – Bigfoot is now Fri, and he’s a man reanimated from an icy grave. The world they occupy is no longer North Carolina, but a post-apocalyptic Israel. The main characters are still four siblings with (mostly) the same names. Even the “biggest and most beautiful jewel” comes into play, as the plot revolves around a mystical ruby dagger – which contains a divine shard leftover from the creation of the universe. Yes, Shanin Adventures went from a Power Rangers knockoff to a sweeping epic a la Dune that involves superpowered zombies and Kabbalah.

The original five books were written by hand when I was 6 and bound between cardstock like chapter books. I have transcribed one chapter of the first book below! For ease of reading, I have fixed the spelling and grammar (added quotations, etc). The actual story text has been unaltered.

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Throwback Thursday #1 – ‘The Outcasts’. Or, the first script I ever finished.

I’ll admit, Throwback Thursday is a segment I’ve looked forward to starting all week. Let’s all get on the nostalgia train and go waaay back in my writing ‘career’…for a bit of fun in my creative vault :P

The Outcasts was my first true labor of love.  It represents many milestones to me. My entire 7th grade year was devoted to pre-production on an Outcasts movie, and that is how I came to complete my first screenplay at the age of 12. The Outcasts is a 60 page, poorly formatted script about four teenagers at a boarding school. Each nicknamed underdog – Mick, Caramel, MD, and Wit – arrived there due to stressful life circumstances (respectively – divorce, dead parents, the mob, and abusive/criminal parents). Despite the YA melodrama, the characters have much humor and are uplifted through their friendship to each other. Most of the characters were just alter egos of my friends, and the situations were often based on real lunch time conversations.

The movie never happened, of course.  But before it was a script, I wrote The Outcasts as a novel. Despite it being incomplete, it was the farthest I got into an original WIP until I was 20 years old.

On some levels, The Outcasts has an authenticity about it – presenting tweens as they really are because it was written by one – that I can consult in later YA projects. But I will probably never revamp this project for publication, as it’s really quite derivative. The market doesn’t need any more tortured, abandoned, teen angst stories!

Still, I mined my email accounts and was happy to find the first seven chapters of that novel. Here is an unaltered excerpt, written when I was 11 years old, of chapter one.

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