Book Recipes: How to Write a YA Paranormal Romance

Time for another book recipe – the last one of 2017. This time I’ll be looking at YA paranormal romances, so grab the nearest mythological creature and get ready to fall in love.

 

Ingredients:

  • One aggressively average teenage girl
  • A totally mysterious hottie
  • A handful of bastardised folk beliefs and legends
  • High school
  • A slightly-less-hot third wheel
  • An incompetent, sneery villain
  • One spooky but still cool setting
  • Assorted mix of high school students, mythological creatures and authority figures, all to be ignored

 

Method:

  1. Introduce your aggressively average main character to the rest of the cast, and to the reader. She’s new in town, like always.
  2. Mention the bastardised folk beliefs/legends you’ll be ripping off inspired by, but do it quickly because –
  3. It’s time to meet our hottie! Make sure the reader knows how dreamy he is by describing him with the most over-the-top language you can muster, having literally everybody fancy him, and by having one mysterious yet still-totally-hot feature.
  4. Ooh, he’s so mysterious!
  5. Oh, and the third wheel is here.
  6. But never mind that! The hottie has finally noticed the main character! Talk about his eyes some more. He’s so tall…
  7. One of the background characters mentions the spooky legends some more. Maybe you should pay attention, once you’ve finished deciphering the hottie’s latest text.
  8. The main character and the hottie are getting closer, but something is mysteriously coming between them! Oh no, what could it be? Definitely not those legends we’re ignoring!
  9. Angst.
giphy angst
No-one understands. (image: giphy.com)
    1. The hottie is so mysterious. The main character just wants to be with him, but he’s dangerous. But he’s also hot. But he’s dangerous! But he’s hot! Go and cry about it on the third wheel’s shoulder.
    2. Spooky happenings are in the background, but they’re not quite interesting enough to distract the main character from the thought of abs.
    3. The hottie’s terrible secret is finally revealed! Turns out all those glaringly obvious clues about supernatural creatures were pointing to him all along! Oh, but how could any girl love such a hideously attractive monster? Surely the main character shall faint now she knows the awful truth!
    4. She doesn’t. They make out.
    5. More spooky stuff is going on the background, but the main character understands it now. Feel superior to all the normies for a bit.
    6. Well we’ve still got five more steps to go and the last third of the book hasn’t been written. Time to add a pointless villain into the mix.
    7. The villain emerges, sneeringly. In a shocking display of competence he kidnaps the main character, probably because of a prophecy or something. This is the only time he ever does anything right.
    8. The main character is about to die. Oh no. Who will rescue her from this terrible predicament.
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I’m really cut up about this. (reactiongifs.com)
  1. It’s the hottie, of course! They have a fight, during which he is attractively but not seriously wounded, and the sneery villain is defeated…
  2. …just in time for the big dance! High school sure is fun now we know that paranormal beings are real.
  3. Drop a spooky hint at the end that lets you spin this out into a series.

THE END. Serve on a bed of shirtless, supernatural hotties.

 

Tips:

  • Even though your main character is in high school, she must never have any actual learning or homework to do. Lessons should be reserved for moping, significant stares, and summarising stuff that’s already happened in the character’s internal monologue.
  • Make sure you have a really good aesthetic. It doesn’t matter what actually happens as long as you could make a Pinterest board out of it.
  • Always use first-person, but make sure to say as little about the main character as possible. It’s not like we’re here to read a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a teenage girl, don’t be silly!
  • Include shirtless scenes. These are entirely necessary to the plot and your readers will thank you.
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It is. (image: giphy.com)
  • Don’t worry about accurate representations of the myths and legends you’re ripping off inspired by. No-one’s going to care about that when there are hotties nearby!
  • Everyone over the age of twenty-five is wrong, stupid or dead.
  • Never, ever, ever resolve the inevitable conflict of a human dating a supernatural being. You want this to be a series, don’t you?
  • Don’t forget the stupid names! Make sure they are the least subtle names you can possibly come up with. If you think Wolfgang Wolfson might be a bit on-the-nose for a werewolf, you need to lower your standards.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

The clifftop hotel had obviously been abandoned for a while now. I knew that just by looking at it – the big stone steps leading up to the front door were chipped, and all the windows were stained – but I still went inside. Bay had asked me to meet him here, and I didn’t want to seem like a baby in front of him.

Inside was just as bad. The big front desk was all dusty and all the plaster was flaking off the walls. I dinged the brass bell on the counter and it cracked apart under my hand. Behind the receptionist’s desk was a dusty grid of pigeonholes, some with yellowing envelopes still inside them, and an old wall phone with a cone-shaped mouthpiece.

How could Bay – Bay Waterford Vodianoy, the hottest boy in school – be living here?

I shivered and pulled my jacket a little closer. Across the lobby was a wide staircase, carpeted in threadbare red, and a chandelier hung above it. It tinkled gently in the sea breeze, coming in sharp and salty through the broken windows. I could hear the crash of the waves on the rocks below.

“I didn’t think you’d make it this far,” said a voice.

I whirled around. Standing in a doorway was Bay, looking totally dark and mysterious in a black leather jacket. His obsidian eyes flashed like burning coals, and his brilliant, diamond-white hair caught the light as he walked towards me, attractively. I could see why every girl in school – even the head cheerleader, Angie, who was always so mean to me – wanted him so badly.

“I got your note. Do you really live here?”

He smouldered at me. “It suits my needs. I like to be close to the water.”

“But isn’t this where all those people who died in that terrible shipwreck were staying?”

Sam, my best friend, had told me all about it. Seventy years ago a group of guests staying at Coldwater’s best and most expensive hotel took their yacht out to sea, got caught in a mysterious storm and never came back. I was kind of interested in the town’s history, so he’d hunted down an incredibly rare first-edition volume of Coldwater’s local legends, had it professionally gift-wrapped, and gave it to me as a Tuesday gift. He’s such a good friend.

Bay shrugged, in a way that showed off all his muscles. “Doesn’t bother me. I like living in a place with secrets.”

“Secrets?”

He took my hand. I immediately lost all feeling in my legs and almost collapsed, but Bay held me upright. He’s so strong. And tall. But also mysterious, with the secret tattoo he always tries to hide…

“I’ll show you.”

Still holding hands, we went through a door tucked behind the front desk and down a rickety wooden staircase. I almost tripped three times, but Bay stopped me from falling. Eventually he just picked me up, bridal style, and carried me down the staircase, wheezing a bit. I didn’t mind. It was still really hot. The staircase was lit by candles all along the walls, and by their light I could see the tip of his tattoo – green wavy lines just touching the end of his collarbones. It sort of looked a bit like seaweed, but I don’t know why anyone would get that tattooed on them.

Eventually we came to an old stone passage, which opened up into a cave. There were candles everywhere and natural rock pools, and the sea rushed in and out somewhere at the other end of the tunnel. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen – apart from Bay’s face, of course. Or his arms. Or his abs. I hadn’t seen those, but I bet they were great.

Bay put me down, rubbing his arms a bit. He leaned against the wall and looked away, his floppy hair hiding his face.

“How much do you know about the history of this place, Aurora?” he asked.

It was the first time he’s ever said my name. I wished I’d taped it.

“I know about the hotel guests, if that’s what you mean?”

“And before that?”

Sam had told me about some of that stuff too. Apparently there was this old local legend that Coldwater had first been founded when a shipwrecked family had been saved by a mysterious water-spirit. Sam had got his old grandmother to tell me all about it, and then taken me out for fresh lobster because it was Wednesday. He’s such a good friend.

“I’ve heard the stories.”

I was shivering. Bay took off his leather jacket and put it around my shoulders, his expression unreadable. It smelled like the sea. I stared into his dark eyes and for a second, he almost looked scared.

“Then it’s time for me to show you what I am.”

He stepped into the water. There was a bright light, a vaguely tinkling sound, and then Bay was standing in a rock pool, shirtless and wet. His abs were everything I had dreamed of and now, I knew I could die happy. I could finally see his tattoo clearly as well – it was of long, twisting ropes of seaweed going all the way up his arm. The bits on his bicep were very intricate and complicated, so I stared at them just to make sure I could picture it properly. Y’know, for later on.

Then, he went blue, took a great heaving breath and collapsed into the water.

“Bay!” I yelled, running forward. I tripped, and his hands shot out of the rock pool and caught me before I hit the floor.

“Sorry,” he said, still up to his neck in the water. “It’s a bit touch and go when the gills come in.”

I stared. He did have gills, and I was pretty sure that his hands and feet were webbed, too.

“I don’t understand.”

Bay took my face in his hands and stared into my eyes. “I’m saying that the legends are true, Aurora. Everything you’ve heard about the water-spirits is real. Until we turn twenty-one we take a human form, but when we’re in the water – we turn into this hideous monster!”

I took a good look at him. The webbed hands and feet were a bit distracting, but the gills were hardly noticeable. Aside from that he looked exactly the same, and more importantly, his transformation had somehow got rid of his shirt.

“I don’t think you’re a monster.”

“You don’t understand. At La Laguna Negra we’re told there’s only one way to escape becoming gross, scaly fish-monsters and that is to earn the love of a human before we turn twenty-one. You’ve no idea what that can do to someone! My brother, Gill – well, he’s definitely not showing up in the last three chapters, there’s no point talking about him. But – Aurora, I love you. I can’t keep this secret from you any longer. I…I just wanted you to know the truth before I say goodbye.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Well, yeah.” He held up his webbed hands and waggled them at me. “Y’know, gross fish-monster. I couldn’t put you through that.”

“Do you still need to breathe through your mouth when you’ve got gills?”

“No, but –”

I kissed him. I was lying on a cave floor, my head dangling over a rock pool, but it was still the best kiss anyone has ever had ever.

“You might be a fish-monster,” I said, “but I don’t think you’re gross at all. Unless – you don’t have any tentacles, do you?”

He pulled a face. “No! It’s fish-monster, not octopus-monster.”

“Okay, we’re cool. Budge up, I’m coming in.”

 

And that’s it for 2017! Normal service will resume in the New Year. My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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Mary Sue: So Bad It’s Good

Quick roundup of what we’ve learned so far. We’ve talked about what a Sue is and how to recognise one, including a short list of the different types. We’ve also discussed why Sues as character types are problems: a potted summary is that their lack of characterisation distorts the story around them and glosses over serious issues. But last time I raised the issue of gender criticisms of Mary Sues – namely, that a lot of the flak they get tends to be couched in all these weird gender connotations. From a purely literary perspective, some of the criticism is justified: Mary Sues are bad characters. But some of it isn’t, and that’s usually where the gender stuff comes into play.

Which leads me to ask the question: can Mary Sues ever be a good thing?

giphy no
Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)

Everybody loves to make fun of Mary Sues. They’re silly, over-the-top sparkly little messes, and pointing out just how stupid they can get is certainly this nerd’s idea of a good time. But the thing that everybody tends to forget is that Mary Sues are often the hallmark of young or inexperienced writers. The kind of mistakes that Sues embody – such as a lack of flaws, a lack of consequences for their actions, or a 360-degree panorama of adoration from every other character – are the sort of things you tend to see from writers who haven’t quite got to grips with their craft yet. They’re not exactly a finished product.

For me, this is where Sues come into their own. They’re a problem that a writer tends to encounter at the beginning of their journey, much like one-dimensional villains, or scene-setting which makes the reader think all the action happens in a plain, white room. The more you write, the easier it becomes to avoid this kind of pitfall. A solid awareness of what constitutes a well-written character is one of the best tools a new writer can have, and being aware of Sues as a potential writing problem is a part of that. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.

giphy paddington
That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

Here’s a short list of questions you can ask to see if your main character is a Mary Sue:

  • Does everyone love her?
  • Does she ever find anything difficult?
  • Do other characters care about stuff that doesn’t directly relate to her?
  • How much time are you spending talking about her appearance, her heritage, or her incredibly cool powers?
  • Does she change over the course of the story? How?

The ideal answers should be: no, yes, yes, not much, yes + explanation. But this is a very brief guide: there are plenty of excellent resources out there which will help with character building. There’s an extremely comprehensive Mary Sue litmus test floating around, plenty of writers’ resources, and there’s also my own ten-question test I used in the Strong Female Characters series. The bottom line is once you’ve identified your Sue it’s not the end of the world. There are plenty of tools to help you fix it, and in doing so you’ll become a better writer.

But Sues are still useful in their own right. Aside from being a test of skill for every writer they can also help writers bridge the gap between fanfiction and original fiction. It’s not uncommon for people to start out writing fanfiction, develop some confidence, and then start trying out some of their own original ideas and characters. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing.

anastasia-steele-profile
NAMING NO NAMES. (image: coolspotters.com)

But that’s not the only benefit of Mary Sues. They can actually be pretty empowering, particularly for young girls. Even though we have been getting more stories where women can actually do stuff instead of waiting to be rescued, there’s still a strong cultural narrative that places women firmly in a passive position. Films like Wonder Woman and books like The Hunger Games help, but they’re a drop in the ocean. Writing a Mary Sues in fanfiction can be a way for teenage girls to make their mark on a story that they already love.

Picture this. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl feeling overlooked. There’s a lot of big and important things going on around you but you don’t feel ready to meet any of them. You’ve got advertisements on all sides telling you to look a certain way, and maybe there’s people in positions of power telling you to act a certain way, too. Things which once seemed simple are suddenly incredibly complicated – sex, growing up, and all the weird expectations that come along with them. And you really love Harry Potter.

love-magic
I mean, who doesn’t? (image: justanotheranimefan.wordpress.com)

This is really where we can see the appeal of Mary Sues. In that situation, why wouldn’t you want to make a space for yourself in a fictional world you already love? And, to make things better, it’s a world where you can look the way you want, where you can be the most important person in the universe, where you can do whatever you want and where all the messy parts about growing up and falling in love will unfold in exactly the way you want them to.

Frankly, I’m the last person to judge teenage girls for writing Mary Sues. I’ve done it myself and I can understand why they do it. It’s escapism, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s safe – I completely get it. It can be a very positive force for the people who actually write them.

Confession time: I wrote several Mary Sues throughout my teenage years and every single one of them was jaw-droppingly bad. I actually found a brief snippet of something I wrote when I was thirteen on my computer and it was so awful I could feel myself shrivelling up. It was about this girl called Sofia who went to Hogwarts, had a mysterious past and was really good at drawing, and if I remember right there was a love triangle with Harry and Draco and then Voldemort wanted to steal her soul for some reason? The point is, it was terrible. Like, really, really bad. And that wasn’t the only one: I also wrote some Phantom of the Opera stuff, more Harry Potter but this time with the Marauders, and possibly also some Pirates of the Caribbean stuff as well. I really can’t remember. Fortunately for me, Quizilla, which was where it was all posted (for some reason, not really sure why I put fanfiction on a quiz site) got taken down a while ago. Hopefully they’re dead and buried.

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No no no NO NO NO NO (image: tumblr.com)

But it was what got me interested in writing as a whole – not just actually making stuff but the mechanics of how it all works together. I got feedback, which admittedly wasn’t always helpful, but it encouraged me to go and get more. Once I got bored of fanfiction I had more confidence to move into writing my own stuff, because I’d tried out a lot of the basics in an environment I was comfortable in. And once I was getting proper criticism that got me interested in the mechanics of writing, which led to editorial gigs at university and eventually working in publishing. Now, I can look back on all the stuff I wrote in my teens and cringe-laugh, but I can also look at the stuff I’m working on now and see a tangible improvement. Writing is something I’ve really had to work at and without my legions of terrible Mary Sues I definitely wouldn’t have developed half the critical skills I have now.

So there you have it: my long-winded, slightly-TMI view of Mary Sues. There’s no denying that they are bad characters. They’re poorly written, poorly plotted and warp everything else to fit themselves. But a lot of the criticism they get isn’t justified, particularly when it starts straying into some of the weird gendered stuff. And they do actually have some benefits: learning to navigate characterisation is an important part of any writer’s journey, and they can provide an important outlet for teenage girls.

Are Sues stupid? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses. It’s like putting stabilisers on a bike. They’re there when you need them, but sooner or later they have to come off.

anigif_sub-buzz-6142-1494949441-1
You’ll get there eventually. (image: buzzfeed.com)

Book Recipes: How to Write a Space Opera

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at space opera. Grab your laser sword and let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • The Chosen One
  • An assorted band of noble heroes. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The wise old sage
    • The gullible, bumbling innocent
    • Space princess
    • A loveable rogue who may or may not betray you later on
    • Team mascot
  • The Most Evil Villain Ever
  • Several unnecessary planets
  • Space war
  • A sweeping, epic romance
  • Vats full of DRAMA

 

Method:

  1. The Most Evil Villain Ever is threatening the galaxy. Oh no! If only there was a hero who could stop them!
  2. Enter the Chosen One, who almost never twigs that they’ve actually been chosen. They sit around doing nothing much important until…
  3. …the band of noble heroes arrive! The Chosen One dithers, but eventually gets in their spaceship.
tenor shopping
Much like this. (image: tenor.com)
  1. Time to dodge the villain’s henchmen and deliver some exposition! Bonus points if you can do so mid-laser battle.
  2. Kickstart the romance. There is a spark but alas, they cannot be together because reasons.
  3. Go to a different planet. Make sure your readers get a look at how weird it is.
  4. The Chosen One is doing pretty well! Have a little skirmish with some of the baddies so we can see how far they’ve come.
  5. But uh-oh, the villain has found out about them! Time for a sinister monologue.
  6. Go to another planet which is different from the other one. Don’t worry, it’s still weird.
  7. A trap!
  8. Kill off your wise old sage. It’s nothing personal, this is just what always happens to fictional mentors.
  9. Go to a different but still weird planet to do some soul-searching and maybe have a training montage.
  10. The romance is getting interesting! If only those pesky reasons weren’t in the way.
  11. But then A BETRAYAL! The Chosen One barely escapes, but everyone else is captured. Captured, not dead, because even villains know you don’t kill off the hostages when we’re heading for the third act.
giphy burgundy
It is. (image: giphy.com)
  1. The Chosen One flails a bit, but decides to accept their destiny. Time for THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN.
  2. Enter the villain’s lair (on a different and creepy planet). You won’t get shot when you walk in; the villain’s passed around the memo about the third act.
  3. Confront the Most Evil Villain Ever. Everyone else is tied up and dangling over a pit of lava, probably, but you’ve still got time for a chat. Get ready for a deep, dark secret to be revealed, but don’t take it to heart – we’ve got to wrap things up.
  4. FIGHTING.
  5. The villain presents you with an impossible choice: save your friends or thwart their evil plans. Oh no! HOW CAN YOU CHOOSE???
  6. You don’t. The Chosen One uses their powers, saves their friends, thwarts the villain’s plan, and hits the button which says ‘Disassemble Evil Empire’. The romance is resolved and everyone goes home for tea and medals.

 

THE END. Serve in SPAAAAAAAACE.

 

Tips:

  • Don’t forget the ‘opera’ part of the equation. Singing is optional but all your plots, characters and backstory should be needlessly melodramatic.
  • Stuck on the planets? Don’t bother making them all as geographically and biologically diverse as Earth, that would take ages! Just pick a thing and make a planet of it, like so: ‘ice planet’, ‘bug planet’, ‘cheese planet’, etc.
  • Don’t worry about explaining how stuff actually works. We’re here for spaceships and laser battles, not for physics.
  • Aliens are great for background characters, but never include them in your main group of heroes. How will your readers be able to tell if they’re good or evil if they’re slimy?
michelle-obama-ew-gif
Yes. (image: community.ew.com)
  • Forbidden romances are your new best friends. But don’t make them too forbidden. No-one’s going to want to read about a romance between a beautiful space princess and a giant floating nostril.
  • Don’t forget your future prefixes: ‘cyber-’, ‘holo-’, and ‘laser-’. Put them everywhere.
  • Only your villain and background aliens really need to have weird names. Alice and Bob are fine names for your band of heroes, but no-one will take the Dark Lord Billy seriously.

 

And here’s one I made earlier…

 

The moon of Frostilia glittered like a diamond. From her vantage point in the cockpit, Rin could see the vast blue surface of the planet. Below, the infamous trull-beasts would be stalking out of their snowy caves, searching for mukda fish in the nitrogen lakes and eating anyone foolish enough to disturb them. Not that they would. They had enough to contend with, what with Lord Qryk’akjuk’s spies.

Then, it exploded.

“Well that’s just great,” snapped Kai Aban. “Now how will we get paid? Gage, check the holo-stabilisers.”

Gage Sparx adjusted his goggles, tripped, picked himself up and went to check a thing that beeped and flashed. It was very important. “Cyber-drive capacity is at fifteen percent, Captain.”

Kai swore. “Fix it!”

Rin tore herself away from the glittery bits of planet. “I don’t understand,” she said, “who could do such a thing?”

“That’s the kind of thing we’re up against, kid,” Kai said, poking at the holo-dashboard. Something beeped, but in a bad way. “These guys ain’t playing around.”

“I got that, they just blew up a planet.”

Kai glared at her. “Leave the sarcasm to the professionals, kid. You just concentrate on your training.”

Gage fiddled about with some wires. There was a spark, a bang, and he went flying across the ship. Rin ignored him and sat down in a huff.

“But I don’t understand,” she said. “How in all the galaxy could I be the one to defeat Lord Qryk’akjuk? Three days ago I was just a simple miner on my home planet of Quarri-27. Then, suddenly, Lord Qryk’akjuk’s troops invaded the mining colony, imprisoned my childhood sweetheart and told us all that unless we revealed the location of the –”

“Yes, we know,” yelled Gage over the buzz of a power saw, “we were there.”

Rin ignored him and put a dramatic hand to her forehead. “– and suddenly I began to glow, and felt a strange magnetic kind of feeling, and also I levitated off the ground for a little while. But surely that can’t mean –”

There was a puff of smoke. Kai flipped a switch and it snapped off. “Yeah, we know,” he growled, “we saw.”

“– and now, I find myself at the centre of a galactic intrigue, caught between the mysterious Princess Ashara and the evil Lord Qryk’akjuk, with nary a soul I can trust, and I don’t know when I shall see my childhood sweetheart again but I swear, my love, I shall return!”

She finished, dramatically gesturing at the ceiling.

“It’s no good, Kai,” Gage said, “we need supplies. Our laser-ports are at thirteen point four.”

Kai smacked the dashboard and swore again, because he was a maverick. “We’re going to have to make a pit stop. What’s the closest space-port?”

Gage pulled up the holo-map. “Formaggio? No, wait, Ellenidor. But we’d have to pass through the Brugdefsel Asteroid Belt. It’s risky, Kai.”

Kai grinned. “Risky is my middle name.”

“No it’s not,” said Gage, “it’s Roger.”

“Well I’m going to change it to Risky and then you’ll have to shut up, won’t you?”

Rin glared at them both. “Have you been listening to a word I said?”

“Oh, sure,” Kai lied, while Gage hid behind a cyber-spanner. “You raised some really good points.”

Rin beamed. “Great! I wanted to get your advice on something, though. As you know, growing up I was always an outsider. I never knew my father, who all said mysteriously disappeared the night I was born and has never been discussed since. But just last week, I found a secret stash of –”

Kai put the spaceship in gear and drove off. He would have to try very, very hard not to aim straight for the asteroids.

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Mary Sue: It’s a Girl Thing

It’s time for more Mary Sues. So far we’ve talked about what Sues are and why they’re bad. Feel free to refresh your memory of the previous two posts, but it boils down to this: Mary Sues are disgustingly perfect characters who, because of their own perfection, tend to ruin the stories around them. Most of the time you can’t really have a well-written story with believable characters if there’s a Sue involved, and it can also lead to dismissing some very serious real-life problems.

As you might have guessed, most Mary Sues are female. The character is set up to be female by default – if you want to talk about the male equivalent you have to be more specific and talk about Gary Stus instead. But from the moment the term was first used, it was set up specifically to talk about female characters. It was first used in the 1970s to parody a particular trend in fanfiction: a female (often teenage) original character falling in love with an established male character from an already published work. Paula Smith, who came up with the name, used it to talk about Star Trek self-inserts and unrealistic characters, but the fact that she chose ‘Mary Sue’ is significant. It explicitly signals that this is a problem seen with female characters. The clue is in the name.

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I feel like I really shouldn’t have to explain this one. (image: giphy.com)

The most notorious Mary Sues are female characters. Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, Jenna Silverblade, Atlantiana Rebekah Loren – these are all young female characters who were created to fall in love with male characters from Harry Potter, the Zelda games and Twilight respectively. A quick websearch will show you that most readers believe Mary Sues are female as well. All the artwork, fiction and writer resources relating to Mary Sues assume that the character in question is female.

But is this really fair? Perfection is hardly something that women have a monopoly on, no matter what the poets say. Part of the definition of a Mary Sue is that they are perfect, attractive, powerful and loved by all. These are not uniquely female traits and never have been. The other part is that their lack of flaws and central position in the story warp other characters’ reactions to them and, in the worst cases, the setting and plot as well. These aren’t uniquely female traits either. So why is it that Mary Sues are seen as a female phenomenon?

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We don’t have a monopoly on sparkling, either. (image: tumblr.com)

Let’s take a brief moment to look at Gary Stus. Gary Stu, sometimes called Marty Stu, is the male version of his character. That’s what defines him. Other Mary Sues are defined by what they do: Villain Sues, Twagic Sues, Jerk Sues are all identified by their actions, appearance and the way they treat other characters. Gary Stu is identified by his gender alone. They’re much less common but there do tend to be a few differences: Gary Stus tend to be a lot more active and less prone to getting kidnapped.

But these are surface differences. When you get right down to it, there’s no real difference between the male and female counterparts. Both Mary Sues and Gary Stus are disgustingly attractive, practically perfect in every way, and warp the plot around them just by their presence. Much like Mary Sues, the antecedents go back much longer than you might think: if Mary Sue is Cinderella, then Gary Stu is Prince Charming. We’ve seen archetypes of perfect male characters since storytelling became a thing, just as we have with women. What we haven’t seen is male characters getting called out on this.

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Oh I wonder why that could be?? (image: giphy.com)

Part of this is probably down to the differing ideals of male and female perfection. Bear with me, because I’m about to make several sweeping generalisations. Broadly speaking, the ‘ideal man’ in historical storytelling is strong, decisive and heroic. He’s a problem-solver who wins battles and can make great speeches. Contrast this with the ‘ideal woman’ in historical storytelling, who is passive, pretty and quiet. She doesn’t make speeches; you’ll be lucky if she says anything at all. In recent years women’s roles, both in fiction and in real life, have moved away from this. Unfortunately men haven’t been so lucky. In some areas we still expect the same things from masculinity as we did decades ago and as you might suspect, this can be really damaging. It could be that part of the reason we don’t see as much backlash against Gary Stus is because they still fit with predominant ideas about what a man should be.

Allow me to illustrate my point. There’s this character you’ve all heard of. She’s so unbelievably cool and always has the latest tech. She always looks good no matter what she’s doing. She speaks several languages, drives amazing cars, is trained in more weapons than you can even name and she’s a total badass who could kick the Incredible Hulk into next week. She can get with any guy she wants, and they all want her. She’s been all over the world and has saved it more than once. She knows about fine wine, poker, and always has a quip handy even if she’s just jumped out of a plane. She can talk her way into anything and fight her way back out again, never lets the bad guys get away with it, and does it all for Queen and Country.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s James Bond.

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IT COULD HAPPEN LET ME HAVE THIS (image: Radio Times)

James Bond is one of the most popular characters in fiction. Millions of people turn out to see the Bond films whenever a new one is released. But when you get right down to it, Bond falls into a lot of the same characters as a Mary Sue does. He’s unrealistically cool, can have any woman he wants and doesn’t have any flaws that hold him back. He’s not an exception, either. Tarzan, Batman, Luke Skywalker and Zorro have all been described as Stus too, but on them this isn’t really a label that sticks.

So why have Mary Sues manifested themselves as a female problem? I expect that part of it is because of the rise of fanfiction, which is often written by women rather than men. Obviously it’s difficult to dig up statistics confirming this, but those we have available (which are, of course, limited by online anonymity) suggest that this is the case. According to this survey, three-quarters of all users on fanfiction.net are listed as female when their gender has been made public. The vast majority are also in the 13-17 age bracket. So if the vast majority of fanfic is written by teenage girls, we can expect to see a lot of fanfic about teenage girls. This may also account for some issues with characterisation and quality, too. I know the stuff I was writing when I was a teenager was really awful, at any rate.

But if Mary Sues aren’t a uniquely female problem, they certainly aren’t one that’s unique to fanfic either. There have been Mary Sues since storytelling began. Unrealistically perfect women have been cropping up in stories since the Dark Ages, and they don’t show many signs of stopping. Two of the most notorious Mary Sues of recent years are Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele – both of whom are characters from original fiction.

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Fun fact: they’re also my nemeses. (image: fanpop.com)

So why is this ‘a girl thing’? Is it just that more women write Mary Sues, or that more female characters tend to get called Mary Sues? I’m not sure. Getting into why people write Mary Sues is always going to be a tricky question. It could just be that more women are into reading and writing as a hobby. This has some basis in fact: most surveys agree that women read more than men, something which appears to have its roots in childhood. It could be that more women write Mary Sues because they don’t see enough characters they want to emulate in already published fiction. It could be escapism. We’ll probably never know for sure.

What we can confirm is that there does tend to be a much stronger backlash against female characters than male. Look at the Ghostbusters remake, whose stars were harassed online. Look at Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy, who’s been called a Mary Sue when she’s actually following Luke Skywalker’s role pretty closely. Look at Twilight. Bella is a Mary Sue, there’s no question of that, but the sheer amount of hate the series generated was astounding. The one thing these have in common is that they’re are all female characters at the forefront of their stories. I can’t remember the last time I saw backlash on that scale against a male character. Perhaps the reason why Mary Sues are so exclusively seen as ‘a girl thing’ is that there’s still a lot of underlying sexism in the way we talk about fiction, and what’s seen as a problem for female characters is glossed over when talking about male ones.

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DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)

So is Mary Sue an explicitly gendered term? I think so. The male equivalent doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention or backlash, and I think people’s attitudes to women definitely play a part in that. Mary Sues do cause problems, but it’s not because they’re female characters. Gary Stus cause problems too, but far less people talk about it.

But despite all the problems that Mary Sues can cause, are they really all that bad? Next time, I’ll talk about that despite all their drawbacks, Mary Sues can actually be…a good thing.

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Dun dun DUUUUHHHH. (image: giphy.com)

Book Recipes: How to Write a Teen Horror

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at teen horror. Let’s head up to the creepy old mansion and get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • An assorted group of expendable teenage victims
  • One spooky location
  • Dire warnings that everybody ignores
  • Ghooooooooosts
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Feel the fear. (image: knowyourmeme.com)
  • A series of graphic and horrible deaths
  • A generous dollop of sheer stupidity
  • Creepy shadows
  • Screaming

 

Method:

  1. Drench your spooky location in creepy legends. It doesn’t matter what they are, or if they make no sense. You’ve just got to make it clear that no-one in their right mind would ever go there, ever.
  2. Let’s go there!
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YES BRUV (image: giphy.com)
  1. Nerd Teen tells us all about the creepy legends. It includes a detail which is quite obviously Very Important. Everyone ignores them.
  2. The teens are walking around the spooky place. There are mildly spooky noises, but they all assume that they are the work of the Worst Teen, who is probably called Brad.
  3. Doors mysteriously close. The words LEAVE NOW write themselves on the walls. Random objects start to bleed. Ignore them – it’s probably just Brad.
  4. Someone is separated from the group! They’re definitely dead. Better stick together and quietly and respectfully leave while everyone’s still alive.
  5. Screw that, let’s split up! And make jokes about the ghosts! That couldn’t possibly backfire.
  6. Spooky things are picking off the teens one by one! Instead of leaving like sensible people, they scream ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?!?!?’ and knock things over.
  7. Time for the first extravagantly silly and disgusting death. It’s gross.
  8. Blonde Teen starts screaming.
  9. More horrific and gross deaths! Make sure to bring a sick bag.
  10. Worst Teen takes advantage of everyone being isolated and scared to do something really awful. He dies, and people are just so sad.
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I’m really cut up about this. (reactiongifs.com)
  1. Time to consult those creepy legends! We’re about two-thirds of the way through now, so we need a Get Out of Jail Free card.
  2. Wait a minute. What if that Very Important Detail actually…matters?
  3. Try and regroup. Armed with knowledge they should have listened to earlier, the teens can now defeat the monster!
  4. But first they need a thing. Go and find it!
  5. They find the thing, hooray! But oh no, some more of them have died, gross-ly.
  6. Quick! Time to use the thing to defeat the monster before the last stroke of midnight or whatever!
  7. Hooray, you did it! Limp home in the sunlight and hope no-one asks about all your dead friends. Everything’s fine.
  8. OR IS IT???

THE END. Serve on a mysterious tome that you should never, ever open.

 

Tips:

  • Stuck on a location? Traditionalists go for abandoned mansions, disused asylums and any kind of burial ground. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s dark, isolated and makes weird noises.
  • Always set it at night. Daytime is not spooky.

  • Include a wide range of teens, but don’t bother giving them actual personalities because they’re just going to die. Football Teen, Nerd Teen, Blonde Teen and Prank Teen are all solid choices, but why stop there? There’s only one thing you need to remember: all of them must be as dumb as a bag of rocks.
  • Never, ever, ever include any responsible adults.
  • Always leave a loophole in your creepy legends, but feel free to ignore it if you want a great cliffhanger ending.
  • The ghosts’ behaviour doesn’t need to make sense. They’re ghosts! All they need to do is drift about spookily, smash stuff, and occasionally tear people into pieces. Logic is for the living!
  • Don’t call the police. Don’t leave the spooky place. Don’t stick together in a quiet, respectful group and slowly back away. That would be sensible and we can’t have that.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

The moon was high over the old Darkmore place. Leaves skittered across the ground. Bats shrieked in the trees. As the five friends stared up at the old house, a cloud drifted over the moon, and Janey caught a glimpse of something moving at the window. A knife? No. It was probably just Brad.

“Are you guys sure this is a good idea?”

Lauren, who was blonde, rolled her eyes. “Come on, Janey, don’t be lame. Everyone knows Darkmore Mansion is the best place for a Halloween party.”

Something screamed in the woods. Janey flinched.

Russell, who had glasses, cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, the history of the house is fascinating. It was built on an ancient burial ground which was later used to execute seventeenth-century witches. The house was only built in 1846, when Hugo von Darkmore, a mysterious landowner, fled his native Bulgaria after being accused of committing unspeakable acts with –”

“Are you dorks still hanging around?”

Brad came out of the house, wearing a beer hat and a football jersey. Behind him, the front door creaked slowly shut.

“Did anyone see that?” Janey said, “that door just closed by itself.”

“Be cool, Janey!” Lauren hissed. “You better not ruin this for me with Brad!”

She went over to him. Kyle and Cole followed, high-fiving and exchanging fist bumps, and Janey wondered why they had both chosen to wear T-shirts with enormous targets printed right over their hearts. There was a strange howl from the woods. It sounded like someone – or something – was yelling “Goooooooo!”

Janey shrugged. It was probably nothing.

“Anyway,” Russell continued, “after the mysterious fire, which no-one survived, the house became an asylum specialising in the most murderous inmates, which was mysteriously closed down after…”

The wind rustled through the trees. For a second Janey thought she saw a face at one of the windows, but she blinked and it was gone. What she did see was a viscous dark liquid oozing out from one of the windowsills.

“Russell,” she said, trying to keep calm, “I think that window is bleeding.”

“…and of course after they found the altar…oh, that? That’s nothing to worry about. It’s a common household problem for these big old places.”

“Is it?”

“Oh yes. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the big pile of skulls. The really interesting thing was that none of them quite seemed to match a human head…”

There was that noise again. “Gooooooo!”, it seemed to say. But that couldn’t be right. A door slammed and Janey jumped again.

“Brad! Cut it out!” Lauren laughed.

The wind rustled through the trees again, and this time, it almost sounded like a very irritated sigh. Janey looked up. The face at the window was back, but this time, it had no eyes.

“…but really all of these unexplained apparitions are just, you know, ball lightning, unusual acoustics, and the restless dead. There’s really nothing to worry about.”

“Russell, I really think there’s someone in there.”

“Oh, it’s probably just Brad.”

“Brad’s outside!”

“Yes, but you know what he’s like. D’you want a beer?”

Now, the wind rustling in the trees sounded a lot like ghostly swearing. All the windows started to bleed at once, and smoke spontaneously curled out of every chimney.

“Sweet, brah! Party tricks!” yelled Kyle, fist-bumping Brad.

Janey stared up at the smoke. It had begun to form strange shapes – skulls, pentagrams, and the words ‘JUST GO’ in big scary letters.

“Maybe this is a bad idea,” she said.

‘YES IT IS’, spelled the smoke.

Cole and Kyle just booed her. Lauren glared. “God, Janey! Don’t be such a baby!”

Janey hesitated. There was that howl again – but this time, it almost sounded like the words “What do I have to do to make you leeeeeeeave?”

Brad shrugged. “Hey, it’s cool, brah. You can go home if you’re too chicken.”

Janey froze. Then she marched into the house – past the creepy woods, the graveyard filled with eerie tombstones, and the inexplicably screaming statue – dragging Russell in after her. The rest of them all went inside, exchanging high fives.

There was a moment of silence.

Then, a ghostly voice said “Goddammit,”, and everything went black.

 

Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Mary Sue: B-B-Bad to the Bone

So! Before I got distracted by the Game of Thrones finale, I was ranting on about Mary Sues. Quick recap: a Mary Sue is a character (usually female) who stands at the centre of the fictional universe. Their flaws never cause them problems, they’re multi-talented, they always get the guy (or girl) of their choice, and they’re disgustingly attractive. They’re more of an ideal than an actual character, and this is usually what causes the bulk of the problems. Feel free to refresh your memory in the previous post.

I’m slightly late to the party when it comes to ranting about Mary Sues. A quick Google will tell you that I’m not the only one who sees an issue with them. There’s countless articles listing the worst Mary Sues in fiction, cartoons showing them being defeated in cartoonishly bloody ways, and tests to show writers how to avoid them. It’s an entertaining rabbit hole to go down.

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Wheeeeeeeee! (image: giphy.com)

Mary Sues are characters whose reputations precede them. The label is enough to cast serious doubt on any character it’s applied to. One of the most common criticisms about Ginny Weasley, for example, is that she’s a Mary Sue, and this is something that’s often said by people who wish Harry and Hermione had got together. The label was also hastily applied to Rey, the mysterious ingénue at the centre of the new Star Wars trilogy, but whether she is one or not still remains to be seen. (Come on guys, at least wait until her character arc is finished before you judge.) Mary Sues have become so reviled that labelling a character as such can be quite an insult – and no wonder, when it puts the work in the same category as My Immortal.

Let’s be real. While the term can just be used as an insult, Mary Sues are badly written characters, and the term is a useful piece of shorthand for summing up the flaws in both a character and a work that this kind of writing can lead to. In my last post I talked briefly about the kind of problems that Mary Sues can cause, but I’ll go into more detail here.

First, let’s look at character. A Mary Sue’s biggest problem is that they do not have flaws – or if they do, they never actually have consequences for the character in the way that real flaws do. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue has a hot temper – she can say whatever she likes to Professor Snape and she won’t get in trouble for it. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is clumsy – she can stumble off the edge of a ravine and Edward Cullen will be there to catch her. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is shy – this won’t affect her ability to date Draco Malfoy, the Phantom of the Opera, or that one hot dwarf from The Hobbit.

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He’s just so pretty. (image: hollywood.com)

There are two ways that this lack of flaws can go. The first is the demonstration of informed attributes. I talked about this a bit in my Strong Female Characters series, so I’ll ty to be brief. Essentially, this is when readers are told that a character is angry, blunt or cowardly without seeing them exhibit any anger, bluntness or cowardice. In this instance, characters will talk about how angry our Mary Sue is, but she won’t actually express any anger. The second is the opposite. Our Mary Sue will demonstrate anger, bluntness or cowardice, but none of the other characters will act as if that’s what she’s done. Her flaws, if she demonstrates them, do not have consequences.

Effectively, this means that a Mary Sue doesn’t have flaws – if a tree falls in a forest, etc. She cannot be described as clumsy if we don’t see her fall over. She cannot be said to have anger issues if they don’t cause problems for her. She cannot be treated as a being with flaws, because flawed characters fail, and get spots, and grow old and eewwww, who wants to read about that?

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Yes. (image: community.ew.com)

This leads me nicely into the second issue I want to talk about: how Mary Sues affect the world around them. Mary Sues are not only flawless, perfect characters. Everyone else has to acknowledge that they are perfect and flawless, including the author. Mary Sues are by definition perfect, and that means they are also the best, most important, attractivest and greatest character evah, you guys!

What this means is that Mary Sues are essentially black holes. It’s not that they exist in all their perfection – that’s not the problem. The problem is that their perfection bends the rest of the universe around them, until they are at the centre of the story. Everything is warped to fit around them, including setting, mythology and other characters. This is where the other side of a Mary Sue’s flawlessness comes into play. If she does actually demonstrate something that could be construed as a flaw, other characters will not change their perception of her because of that. The classic example of this is Anastasia Steele. She’s actually an incredibly bitchy character, and both her internal monologue and the things she actually says are peppered with extremely nasty comments about women. However, nobody ever calls her out on this. She doesn’t even get a raised eyebrow. No-one, literally no-one, thinks that anything she says is unkind. Throughout the series all the other characters treat her as if she’s the kindest, most precious little darling that you ever did see – even if what she actually says or does directly contradicts that.

This is where people really get irritated at Mary Sues, particularly in fanfiction. At their very worst, Mary Sues can completely change the fabric of a story just by existing in it. Take, for example, the popular Harry Potter fanfiction cliché – Harry Potter’s secret (and better) sibling. If you’ve read any fanfiction it’s likely that you’ve come across this before, but the basic premise is this. Harry Potter has a sibling (usually a sister) who also got a lightning scar from Voldemort. They were then separated and only re-united when she arrives at Hogwarts, where she proceeds to live out the entire series but just, you know, better. This premise completely undermines the basic plot of the series. Pretty much everything Harry went through was affected by the fact that he was the only one to survive the killing curse. Having more than one person survive smashes all that to pieces. And it’s not just Harry that plotline affects – the entire wizarding world was also affected by Harry’s survival, and developed accordingly. Having another survivor doesn’t just ruin Harry’s backstory, it also disassembles a huge amount of worldbuilding. The idea of there being a ‘Chosen One’ doesn’t really work when you’ve got a spare handy.

But this isn’t the only reason why Mary Sues should be avoided. Let’s look at another hallmark of the Mary Sue: the tragic past.

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I feel like I’m going to get a lot of use out of this gif. (image: giphy.com)

Not all Sues have a tragic backstory, but the vast majority do. This comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be anything – from being catapulted into space as a baby and being stranded on Earth, or at the darker end of the scale, child abuse, rape and murder.

These are serious subjects that should be handled with tact and care. But that’s not what happens with Mary Sues. A Mary Sue’s tragic past does not function in the same way as it would for another character. It does not leave claw marks in her personality; there are no scars in her psyche. A Mary Sue’s tragic past exists for her to share it, tearfully, with her love interest, and then never talk about it again.

It goes without saying that this is incredibly disrespectful. While being blasted into space as a child isn’t exactly common, unfortunately abuse is. According to the NSPCC, one in fourteen children were subjected to physical abuse in 2016 – a rate that was three times higher for disabled children. And it’s likely that the real number is much higher, because a substantial amount of abuse cases go unreported. It goes without saying that something like this cannot be brushed aside as easily as the Mary Sues make it look: it’s something that will affect everything about a person for the rest of their life.

Personally, I’d like to believe that the reason why Mary Sues gloss over their terrible pasts in favour of making out is because most of them are written by authors who might not understand the full implications of what they’re saying. This could be for any number of reasons, including age and inexperience, but it rarely comes from a bad place. It is hard to write tactfully and thoughtfully about subjects as difficult as these at the best of times, but a lack of understanding is only ever going to make it worse.

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That was hard to write. Let’s have kittens LOOK AT HIS FACE (image: pinterest.com)

But good intentions aside, I worry about how this kind of portrayal would affect people dealing with such issues in real life. Take My Immortal – the infamous Harry Potter fanfic drenched in black eyeliner. The main character, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way (no, I’m not making that up) is one of the most ridiculous characters in fiction. She is a self-proclaimed goth who dresses like a music video and gives all her friends stupid nicknames: Ron Weasley becomes Diablo, Hermione Granger becomes B’loody Mary Smith. She also self-harms. As you might expect, this isn’t treated as gently as it should be, and it becomes another thing for readers to laugh at. I’m in no position to comment about how this might have made self-harmers feel, but I don’t think it would’ve helped.

The term Mary Sue covers a multitude of sins. I’ve touched on some of them, but not all. A poorly-written Mary Sue isn’t just a bad character: she can completely derail an entire fictional universe, and trivialise the effects of a whole host of problems with a stroke of the pen. I hope I’ve given a decent summary of the kind of problems that a Mary Sue can cause.

But have you noticed how all through this post, I’ve been talking about girls? For the next post, I’ll be talking about gender. Bring lipstick.

Book Recipes: How to Write a Noir Detective Thriller

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at Noir fiction. Put on your trench coats and fedoras and let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • One hard-boiled, alcoholic private eye
  • One dame who done him wrong
  • A spectacularly grimy city, with skyscrapers
  • Entire vats of cynicism
  • An informant named either ‘Jimmy’ or ‘Benny’
  • Guns named after women
  • A sinister crime boss
  • Absolutely no happy endings
  • Trenchcoats

 

Method:

  1. Put your PI in a grimy office and have him monologue about things. It can’t be about anything happy or banal, and must be filled with questionable metaphors.
  2. In walks our femme fatale for the evening! They flirt.
  3. She wants him to investigate a murder, for reasons that are slightly dodgy.
  4. Our PI investigates the scene of the crime. There are Clues. All the important ones have been missed by the police, who are incompetent, corrupt, or both.
  5. Time to visit the informant and find out what he knows. He’ll tell you, because he’s a coward.
  6. Oh no! A Clue has led you to a place where criminals hang out! Time to treat your life with utter disdain and sneak in in the most brazen way possible. Hi-jinks ensue.

  1. The boss wants to see you. This is never good. You should monologue some more so the reader gets it.
  2. The sinister crime boss warns the PI to drop the case, stay away from the femme fatale, or similar. It’s a very tense conversation, and always done in front of hired goons.
  3. Ignore him! There’s still eleven steps to go.
  4. Meet up with the femme fatale again and flirt some more. Something she says doesn’t quite add up, but she’s hot, so it doesn’t matter.
  5. A gunfight! Join in.
  6. You have a Clue that contradicts the evidence of the first Clue, in a way that is too intricate and complex to articulate in a sarcastic twenty-step overview! WHAT CAN IT MEEEEAN?
  7. Something bad happens to slow down the investigation! It could be a break-in, a beat-up informant, or maybe even another murder. Monologue about it.
  8. The femme fatale and the PI have a tender/romantic/sexy moment together. Allow a brief sliver of hope, but get ready to crush it later.
  9. So close to finding out the truth! The PI just needs one more edge piece and the puzzle will be solved…
  10. …but oh no, he’s arrested! It’s highly suspicious.
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Hmmm… (image: gifimage.net)
  1. The crime boss appears again, and offers the PI one last chance. Ignore him, he’s not the protagonist.
  2. Break out of jail! Have a chase scene! Punch a guy! Cram the last few pages with action.
  3. Turns out the femme fatale was behind it all along! What an absolute shocker.
  4. Finish off with a big gunfight. The PI survives, but the femme fatale, the crime boss, and that last sliver of hope definitely don’t. Walk off into the rain, bitterly.

THE END. Serve with plenty of liquor.

 

Tips:

  • Always write in first person. If it doesn’t sound like a bitter drunk is telling you the story while slumped over a barstool, start again.
  • Not sure where to set it? It doesn’t really matter. Near future dystopia, Roaring Twenties, nursery rhymes – anywhere can be a noir setting if you put a depressing enough spin on it!
  • Never ever call women ‘women’. Only ever refer to them as dames, broads, doll, toots, or tomatoes. (That last one is not made up.)
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What hath science wrought?? (image: annoyingorangefanon.wikia.com)
  • All your gangsters need to have nicknames. They don’t have to make sense, though.
  • Always make sure your main character has a cool name. He’s got to beat up bad guys and solve murders, and he can’t really do that if he’s got a name like Gerald.
  • Cram it full of questionable metaphors. If you get stuck, elaborate, and then put ‘if ya know what I mean’ on the end of the sentence. Readers will assume you are wise-cracking and witty, instead of thinking that you fell down the rabbit hole with a thesaurus in your hand. If ya know what I mean.
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YEAH YOU DO. (image: giphy.com)
  • Contractions and slang make your main character sound tough. ‘You’ is always ‘ya’, don’t hesitate to use no double negative, and always go for ‘gotta’ over ‘got to’. Proper grammar is for wusses.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

They say this city used to be the kinda town where everyone knew each other. A guy couldn’t go a block without seein’ someone he knew. A little old lady with an apple pie. Maybe some kids, playin’ on the sidewalk. Musta been nice.

These days, it ain’t so pretty. Sure, there’s a few familiar faces. But they ain’t exactly friendly. Ya see ’em steppin’ out of alleys with a gat pointed at your belly and ya think ‘Gee, didn’t ya rob me last week?’

Not me, though. Nobody robs Mac Hunter. Even in this city, where sleepin’ in the gutter is a step up, nobody’s dumb enough to rob the best PI in town. Besides, they all know I’m broke.

Feet on the desk, I pour myself another glass of hooch. Business is slow, slower than a snail with a gammy leg. I oughtta be drummin’ up a case, but to hell with that. It’s rainin’. Always rains in this godforsaken city.

I light up a Camel. Yellow light stripes through the Venetian blinds, like a zebra, only one with really straight stripes that’s been turned ass over teakettle. Electricity broke two weeks ago and the landlord won’t do a damn thing about it. Says I oughtta be grateful for a place of my own. Hell. He oughtta be grateful he answers to Jimmy “Spoonface” Giuliani. If ol’ Spoonface wasn’t in the picture, he wouldn’t be so quick to run his mouth off.

There’s a knock at the door. Hell. Landlord, again.

“Velma! Get the door!” I yell, before I remember that Velma walked out last week. Said a secretary wanted payin’ in more’n just stale whiskey. She’ll be back. She sticks to me like gum that’s been covered in glue, and then dunked in molasses, and then glue, again. Never could say no to a man with a pack a day habit and a gun in his pocket.

But then the door opens, and trouble walks in. Turns out, trouble is a redhead.

Legs for days and all the way up to her waist, if ya know what I mean. Poured into a dress as black as a black cat in a coal cellar at midnight and with all the lights off. Curls like spiral staircases twirling up to the top of her head, and I couldn’t think of a man who wouldn’t slug a guy to climb ’em. Fur coat. Shiny gloves. A ring that coulda bought half the city, but that ain’t sayin’ much.

“Well?” she says, in a voice like November, “aren’t you going to give me a seat, Mr Hunter?”

Aw, hell. I tip an ashtray and a few empty bottles of hooch off of a chair. She shakes her head, mutters ‘November?’ and sits herself down. It’s like watching a bottle of oak-cask whiskey uncork itself and wriggle towards your hand.

She frowns. “Oak-cask whiskey?”

“Never mind. What can I do you for, Miss…”

“Valentine.”

“I betcha are.”

Mrs Lola Valentine.”

“He’s a lucky fella.”

She fits a cigarette into a long holder. Before I know it I’m lightin’ it for her, like some chubby little drone buzzin’ after the queen bee. Only, with cigarettes and a lighter in my fuzzy bee paws. Note to self: do bees have paws? Probably oughtta look that one up.

She gives me a strange look and takes a drag. “He’s a dead fella, Mr Hunter.”

Damn. Now I remember. Her dear departed husband musta been Frank “Steps” Valentine. Rich. Old. In the Mayor’s pocket and not the one at the back, if ya know what I mean. Shot in the back of the head not two weeks gone. Coroner ruled it a suicide. They always do.

“I know my husband’s death wasn’t a suicide,” she says, fixin’ me with a look that pinned me like a butterfly on a collector’s board. Only, a manly butterfly, with trenchcoat wings, a fedora, and a gat named Ginger in his hand. Antenna.

“Now, Mrs Valentine…”

“You know it too. I heard the tone of your monologue. I want you to find out who killed him. I’ll pay you well, of course.”

She knew I could do with the money. But “Steps” Valentine played a dangerous game, and I don’t mean no game that could be played with the lovely Lola. All kindsa scum had muscled in on Valentine’s racket and his body was barely cold. Eddie “Llama” McMurphy had his slice of the rum-runners. Vincenzo “Beaker” Gorlami was movin’ in on the girlie shows. And worst of all, Boris “the Holly Bush” Krazinsky was havin’ dinner with the Mayor every night, and you betcha he was gettin’ two scoops of ice cream with desert, if ya know what I mean.

But ‘danger’ is my middle name. No, really. It says ‘Mac Danger Hunter’ on my birth certificate.

“And if I don’t take the case?”

“Then, Mr Hunter,” she says, givin’ me a smile that drains all the metaphors right outta me, “I’ll take it to a gumshoe that doesn’t monologue out loud.”

 

Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)