We are steeped in story. From birth to death, story forms our lives. For some people — writers, quasi-hermits, employees of the publishing, movie, and television industries — story is their life. More stories are available to us in more media than ever before in history, including the stories we share with each other and ourselves. What is a daydream if not a story of the future we tell ourselves? And at night, while sleeping, our dreams tell us other stories. No wonder we have such a hard time finding a story that is not clichéd.
But they do exist. In fact, anyone can write a non-clichéd story if he or she does the work to find the truth of the story, but all too often writers with nothing to say look to books and movies for the truth and end up with rehashed forgeries.
Stories of pattern killers (serial killers by another name) became clichéd very quickly. How many times have we heard or read that same bit about the killer being a white male between the ages of . . . Never mind. You probably know it better than I do. Because so many writers borrowed their truths from previous stories about pattern killers, the only thing new they had to add was the grisly murder pattern, each one more gruesome than the last. The way to tell a non-clichéd serial killer story is to find the truth: in a bizarre sort of way, a pattern killer story is romance between the killer and the hunter. Their relationship forms the story, not the murders. And, on a deeper level, it is the story of the hunter finding the killer within himself. Thomas Harris portrayed this brilliantly in The Red Dragon, but when he wrote Hannibal, he chose grisliness over truth. You may not agree with me about the truth of the pattern killer story, but that is my truth. It is up to you to find your own truth.
So how do we do we find the truth for our stories, not just pattern killer stories? By going small, by knowing everything possible about our characters, the streets they walk, the way they think, the places and people that make up their world. David Morrell traveled to get the feel of his settings, and he took survival courses to find out what his characters would experience in wild, but not all of us have the time, money, or inclination to travel to distant places or to take physically taxing courses. Nor is it necessary. We can find the truth in our own neighborhoods. We can walk the streets and take note of everything we see. How do those streets differ from any other we have traveled? By being true to character and place, we find the small bits of action that tell the story’s truth. We are used to thinking of action scenes as car chases, fights, and other horrifying events, but an action scene can be as subtle as a look or a touch of a hand. That is where the truth lies, in the unexpected details.
A story, when set in a particular place with a particular character, will have a truth that no other story has. If we have the patience and skill to find the story’s truth, our truth, we can tell it without reducing it to cliché.