A Possibly Enlightening Analogy
There are a number of possibly important parallels between our behaviour as readers and writers and what we do as consumers of food.
Most of us these days go to the supermarket to get our weekly supplies as food shoppers. While there, though some of us might concentrate on the fresh food aisles, a great many of us will of necessity buy pre-packaged items - not necessarily highly processed stuff, but things that have been prepared for us in certain ways and which are recognisable and familiar to us from constant usage.
We take these home, and, in various ways, probably settle down into comfortable routines regarding our eating habits, having particular foods at certain times of the day or week, or preparing our favourite dishes according to our needs and desires. In our household, because of various tight food restrictions and preferences, for example, this means that meals tend to follow fairly strict patterns and don’t vary very much from week to week. Others may live more adventurous food lifestyles, experimenting with new foods or new styles of eating.
What has this to do with reading and writing?
As readers, I think we probably tend to follow more or less the same kind of pattern: most of us go to the bookshop (online or offline) or library to get our ‘weekly supplies’. While there, though some of us might glance at brand-new or experimental fiction, a great many of us will go for pre-packaged genres or stories the shape of which is more familiar to us. These don’t have to be the ‘highly processed’ pot-boilers of popular fiction with their intensely stereotyped characters and predictable dialogue, but because we don’t want to waste time reading something that we won’t enjoy, we do tend to drift towards books that have been prepared for us in certain ways and which are recognisable and familiar to us from our past reading.
Taking these books home, or waiting for them to be delivered, we then settle down into comfortable reading routines, perhaps perusing particular books at certain times of the day or week, or designating times to read our favourite kinds of stories according to our schedules. It took me a while before I overcame a sense of guilt regarding certain kinds of tales that I really didn’t like - I felt for many years that the ‘fault’ lay with me, and that I must be inadequate for failing to grasp the delights of particular types of fiction. It dawned on me much later that some things just weren’t to my taste - in fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that I developed a literary sense of taste. Other readers might like to experiment with new styles or sub-genres, which is of course totally fine.
What I’d like to point out by this is that stories are ‘prepared’ for us in certain ways, just as food is; and that our reading tastes guide us in a similar way to our tastes for food. I don’t mean that if we like ‘spicy’ food we must like ‘spicy’ stories - I’m trying to indicate that fiction is much more of a crafted product than we might notice at first, and that our reading behaviour is being directed by craft in various ways in the same fashion as we head for certain aisles in a supermarket.
What about writing?
This is where, for me, this gets really interesting. Many writers - perhaps even the majority of writers, it’s hard to tell - seem unaware that, in the act of writing, they are following very similar patterns of behaviour as food shoppers or readers. Most writers go to what we might call the ‘imagination supermarket’ to get a store of ideas as creators of written worlds. While there, though some might concentrate on startling and challenging new concepts, fresh and untried, the great majority will of necessity drift towards ‘pre-packaged items’ - not necessarily highly processed and stereotypical material (unless they intend to make fun of it through comic writing) but concepts, archetypes, patterns and tropes that have been prepared in certain ways by the vast heritage of the literature of the past and which are recognisable and familiar through constant usage in plays, films, novels and short stories all over the world.
We take these to heart, and, in various ways, settle down into writing what we think of as an ‘original story’, largely unaware (it seems) that we are calling upon our own needs and desires as readers, needs and desires that have been fulfilled time and time again by concepts, archetypes, patterns and tropes in fiction that we have previously read. A few writers, aware of both the heritage and the clichés that fringe it, take these concepts, archetypes, patterns and tropes and twist them, or put a new gloss on them, or try to extend them in ways that we have not previously considered. But those few are usually very much aware of the concepts, archetypes, patterns and tropes first, prior to any attempt to alter them.
A lazy writer, or someone who isn’t interested in trying to create anything original but simply wants to ride the cliché wave, tends towards the ‘fast food’ end of this spectrum, generating stories which contain about as many surprises as a McDonald’s happy meal. They take concepts, archetypes, patterns and tropes straight off the shelf and regurgitate them in work after work. Many make lots of money from doing so, just as fast food restaurant chains do from a customer base that is uninterested in freshness or originality. It is less work to ‘shop’ for ideas in this way: one’s fiction is almost so pre-prepared that it writes itself.
But for most of us, ‘fast food fiction’ isn’t what we like as readers and isn’t what we want to write either. That means that we need to become as aware of the concepts, archetypes, patterns and tropes as we can so that we can either avoid them or do something bright and new with them.
These are outlined in my book How Stories Really Work, along with a few guidelines regarding how to be original with them.