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Story Shutdowns

This may be unfair, but some themes, phrases, or single words in story descriptions make me instantly shut down.

(Note: the Resurrection series will resume next week with the final part, Resurrection, part 4: Creation Will Rise.)

Some themes, phrases, or single words in story descriptions make me instantly shut down.

This happens regardless of author, length, publication, or pleasing cover images. All those can be great or the story by itself wonderfully written. In fact, it’s arguably unfair for me to have these kinds of shutdown standards. With such stigmas, I could miss a great story.

bluescreenofdeathYet I still have story shutdowns, and so do you.

Here I’m summarizing some, not to complain, but to challenge you to challenge me. Maybe some of these are unfair shutdowns. Tell me if you think so. Or maybe you’d agree and have more of your own shutdowns to offer, also to be respectfully challenged. Let’s begin now:

  • Satan.

I am sick enough of Satan in real life. In fiction he’s almost as rampant. In fact, one can make a strong Biblical case for Beelzebub’s physical limitations in real life, yet in fiction he has attained seeming omnipresence. He broods in Hell, he fathers children, he possesses people, he’s altogether not nice. But consider this, Satan-exploring folks: not even Frank Peretti, kingpin of the original spiritual-warfare thriller, thought to involve the Horned Prince of Horror in his stories. Maybe we should resist those Devil tropes.

  • Lost orphan princes.

One day I hope to read a story in which the foundling Chosen One child turns out to be the long-lost son or daughter of — a middle-aged couple from the village across the kingdom. And that lost child, in a stunning plot twist, turns out to be the long-lost heir of — a small farm with two adjunct barns and a blacksmith shop. Any author who can make that into a great and God-exalting story would have my respect.

To me, this author simply "got there" first.

To me, this author simply “got there” first.

  • Nephilim.

Once upon a time your columnist had an inspiring idea: why not attempt an epic fantasy series set in the pre-Flood age, when mankind — contrary to perception — had all kinds of amazing Biblical-steampunk-style devices, plus dinosaurs? This is a very cool concept, yes, but several great storytellers have already done it. But I did not know that until one day my sister found and withdrew Flight to Eden by Douglas Hirt from a Christian-store shelf. (Later I enjoyed this Biblical fantasy romp and its two followups.)

So I can’t fault that concept. Rather Christian fantasy’s near-constant emphasis of the Nephilim makes me shut down. Folks, delving into highly speculative possibilities such as human/demon sexual relations, giant hybrid creatures, and ultimately seeming to blame Satan for human sin just doesn’t do it for me. Not since Flight to Eden, anyway.

Especially when the Nephilim mentioned in Gen. 6:4 could be nothing more than a name for the equivalent of the Mafia — a human group with great physical strength and fame.

historychannelguy_aliensEvil demons having relations with victim humans is Biblically questionable, based more on myths about incubi than actual Scripture. Second, it makes Christians sound like little more than guests on late-night conspiracy-centered radio, or potential targets of a meme that mocks a certain History Channel program host. We can get our “whooo, it’s supernatural X-Files-fashion jollies in other ways.

  • (Related) Aliens are actually demons(!).

Been there, speculated on this. Yes, this is vital to know; yes, Christians must be armed with apologetics to take on the occult and religious nature of many aliens-and-UFO cults and personal religions. But enough with the copious amounts of fiction designed to prove this possibility. Let’s move on.

  • “… In the tradition of C.S. Lewis.”

There is only one C.S. Lewis, and he does not share power. If he did, a modern Christian novelist would be the last to know. So perhaps we ought not put that boast atop books. It’s like saying, “Here is an actual Christian fantasy novel! Very rare in these parts!” Currently more than 500 such novels are listed in the Speculative Faith Library. Rumors of these stories’ rarity have been greatly exaggerated.

  • Dragons.

I really hate having to include this one, particularly because as of this writing the Speculative Faith Library includes approximately 47,000 titles with the BookTag dragons. But what can I say? Books that include dragons are fine — that’s almost a staple of fantasy genres — but I’m not attracted to books whose central selling point seems to be “Look! Dragons!” Of course, many of them aren’t intended for me. Plenty of middle-grade or even teen readers may still be attracted by “Look! Dragons!”

  • Really horrible front covers.

Sure, I might read a self-published novel. But if the cover is made of a generic stock-image photo that’s been un-proportionately enlarged to the point of pixelation, underneath the novel’s title in an orange ultra-beveled PowerPoint 97 font face, then I’m sorry, I’m already sure an author/reader relationship won’t work.

What shutdown factors, fairly or unfairly, put you off reading a particular book or author?

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Rebecca P. Minor
Member

Awww, I was doing so well until we got to dragons. 😉
 
But as for me, I have to agree that the orphaned outcast who discovers his unlikely parentage (parentage which has become quite likely, in fact, due to the trope’s abuse) is so shopworn I don’t think I can read another book that utilizes the convention. There are many ways to utilize the resonant structure of the hero’s journey without following the formula so exactly that the world ends up with hundreds of versions of the same stories with the names swapped out.
My unfair shutdown factor is, as weird as this sounds, word repetition…especially if the words being abused are dead weight in any quantity. As far as I’m concerned, large, small, long, tall, looked, dark, and walked are words that have lost any meaning they may have once conveyed by their sloppy usage. In this age where adjectives are maligned with almost as much fervor as are adverbs, an author had better choose the most heart-wrenching adjectives they can find to describe the objects of their prose,  or else leave them out altogether. Maybe I sound overly passionate about this, but it’s the bee in my bonnet this week.
And I also agree about bad cover art. There’s just no excuse for this. Yes, a good cover costs money. But a poorly photoshopped, hokey cover costs money in the opposite way. Heaven forbid a reader never open your book because they look at the cover and say, “Wow, this looks completely lame.”

Aaron DeMott
Guest

Slavery. It’s been done to death. In almost every fantasy novel, someone either is a slave, gets sold as a slave, gets captured and becomes a slave… and on and on.
At this point, a book has to be really good to get me to read it despite having a focus on slavery.
One of my projects I have on the back burner is a comedy/fantasy/steampunk. In it, I’m going to mock a bunch of tropes and such, but I can’t even think of a way to make slavery funny, it’s that boring. (and it’s a shame, as it does illustrate the worst of mankind. Which is probably why everyone uses it….)

Paul Lee
Member

I’ve known a number of lost orphan princes in fantasy, but I’m still willing to forgive them for their author’s sin of cliche.  I don’t think that cliche is actually as completely ubiquitous as a lot of fantasy critics think.  I’m pretty sure that it’s not a requirement in the monomyth outline that too many screenwriters and fantasy novelists adhere to.  Neither Frodo nor Bilbo nor the Pevensie children are lost orphan heroes.  Even Aragorn doesn’t really qualify; Tolkien did something much more interesting with the concept of Aragorn being a “lost” king.
 
But there certainly are a lot of stories with the premise.  Harry Potter.  The Wheel of Time.  Eragon.  Star Wars.  (Maybe the cliche status of the trope comes from Lucas.)  In some ways, the lost orphan prince is a cheap way for the protagonist to be both a noble hero and a commoner hero at the same time.  However, that lost orphan is not without precedent.  The carpenter Heir of David is essentially a lost orphan prince, after all.

Austin Gunderson
Member

I think a lot of novels “in the tradition of C.S. Lewis” aren’t actually claiming to be that good; I think they’re just attempting, for marketing purposes, to tie themselves to a name with powers of near-universally-positive recognition.  What’s sad about this is that, apparently, Christian spec-fic hasn’t produced anything comparable to the works of Lewis for over fifty years.  I mean … what other Christian-author name is there to slap on the back jacket of your fantasy book?

Margaret
Guest

Yes, we all have our personal shut-downs list. From yours, I agree with the dragon theme. It has been drawn out and overdone, and the vampire and zombie themes are nearing the same fate.
As a fan of YA literature (among others), I will share that I am beyond weary of the whole 17 year-old heroine torn between two love interests, one of whom is always the raven-haired rebel who comes into her life from a place far away and wild, and one of whom is always the blond-haired faithful fellow who’s been in her life since childhood. And the three of them must save the devastated apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic world they’ve inherited from their predecessors, all the while juggling the new-found romantic triangle and trying to decide who to spend a redeemed future with.
That said, I still have quite a few of these books on my TBR list, so I’m not completely burned out yet. But I will say that my tolerance level for this story line is such that if the writing isn’t skillful enough and the storyline isn’t intriguing enough by page 50, the book ends up in my FAF pile (Forget About Finishing).

Galadriel
Guest

Vampires/zombies/werewolves
must choose between her lovers
especially if the two are combined. And then I have a whole nother set of drop-tags for  Doctor Who fanfiction, mostly revolving around OCs and Doctor/River shipping.  

Galadriel
Guest

er, I meant Doctor/Rose. 

R. J. Anderson
Member

I was going to say… 😀

Kaci Hill
Member

I think I’ve gotten pickier about *how* the supernatural is conveyed.
 
Nephilim, aliens, and aliens-as-demons are definitely on the list (Nephilim mostly because I disagree with how the text is traditionally interpreted). 

Gender-bashing, womanizing (or the mannizing, I suppose, for the female equivalent), slapstick, bathroom humor,  sexual humor;

“romance arcs” that offer nothing to the story; characters that cannot focus on the problem in front of them (ex: introspection during a high-intensity scene, too much talking during a fight scene, etc; the fake romantic arcs fit here too);

characters I lose sympathy for; characters who are callous to very real scenarios; neanderthal male leads and shrewish female leads; needlessly rebellious teenagers;

overuse of foul language (I can tolerate *some* when well-placed); exposition that goes on too long (usually includes a ton of info dump that leaves me not having a clue what the important part is, and my brain immediately skips to the next bit of dialogue;

stories that devolve into blatant  “let’s bash this religion/philosophy/theology/poltical stance that I don’t agree with” – even if I agree this is a turn off;

anytime I am saying a line before a character does repeatedly; bad attempts to scare me; manipulating my emotions;

stories that hop from “real world” to “other world” (I can get over it, but I typically want to skip the “real world” parts); zombies.

Just…I haven’t seen a good zombie story. I can’t stand mindless drone bad guys who have no actual purpose for what they’re doing.

Ewoks. Just…no.

Oddly, I don’t like Tolkien’s Elves. I hear the world “elf” and I kinda just go “No.”
 

And overly long paragraphs, which means I now am stopping to break my block paragraph up. 0=)

Kaci Hill
Member

Addendum: Oddly, I’ll take a good, tried-and-true “cliche” plotline that’s well written and entertaining over….a lot of things.

Literaturelady
Guest
Literaturelady

Great post!  Some of my pet peeves are:
1. Warrior women.  Actually, I’ve read only two novels (and a handful of fairy tales) that have them, but the concept is maddening to me.  Just curious: do any of you male readers find these ‘warrior women’ attractive?
2. Vegetarian elves.  Okay, maybe this isn’t rampant in fantasy, but it annoyed me in Eldest and in a brief scene of The Hobbit movie.
3. Christian Fiction.  Yep, the whole genre tends to turn me off.  I’ve read at least 26 novels of Christian fiction, and only  nine of them made me excited about me faith (and didn’t induce eye-rolling or a desire to chuck the book across the room.  🙂 )
4. Book covers with scenes that have nothing to do with the title.  My copy of The Black Cauldron features Eilonwy escaping from a mass of warriors.  It happened, but it doesn’t have much to do with the cauldron.  And the dust jacket for The Fellowship of the Ring features the Shire.  I would have preferred a picture of the Fellowship itself.
I could probably think of more, but those are some high-ranking annoyances.  🙂
Blessings,
Literaturelady
 

Kaci Hill
Member

An aside yall can yell at me for, on Christian Fiction….I do have to say that after a year of deciding not to review a book because, honestly, it was horrible, I don’t think anyone is going to convince me Christian Fiction is subpar – writing-wise – to  non-Christian fiction.  (There was plenty of examples in college I could cite, but since I’m not a fan of  “the classics” anyway we’ll just toss those out for the modern examples.)

Literaturelady
Guest
Literaturelady

You’re right; there’s good and bad on both sides…The Last Sin Eater is head and shoulders above the other 25 CF novels I read, but G. A. Henty’s historical fiction novels tend to follow a somewhat boring pattern (boy–usually aged 15 and relative to some general or commander in the given time period–gets involved in the struggle of that period, gains fame for his brave deeds, gets a sidekick, and at the end of the book marries a girl he met earlier in the story).  You have a good point.
 
But please tell me you liked Fahrenheit 451!  🙂

Kaci Hill
Member

I haven’t read it. 😛

Teddi Deppner
Guest

So… May I take this up a notch and question the purpose of this post? What are you hoping to achieve by listing the things you don’t want to read? Hoping to keep people from writing more of it? Seeking a sense of camaraderie with others of like mind over your pet peeves? A warning to those who might ask you to critique their story?
 
We all realize, don’t we, that our personal preferences are not indicative of objective reality? Just because I tire of a genre or a trope does not mean it does not delight others. It doesn’t mean that story won’t touch someone with a hint of the Truth. It doesn’t mean it won’t entertain. It simply doesn’t entertain me. 
 
I enjoy your posts, Stephen, and love how you are always holding things up to the light of scripture. Which is why I want to (with some trepidation in regards to offending you) suggest that meditating on the things that piss us off hardly fits with the admonition of Philippians 4:8:
 
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things arenoble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”
 
Overall, while I have a few items that cause me to roll my eyes, there is no storyline that I feel is totally played out or used up. If the story is told well, if the characters engage me, even the most common tropes work. For someone. Somewhere. 🙂
 
P.S. Of course, this is your blog. Therefore, if you feel like ranting about something, you can. As often as you like. I respect that, too. 

Austin Gunderson
Member

To riff off your comment, Teddi, I’d like to point out that there really isn’t anything new under the sun. After all, all stories are based at least in part on that story crafted by the Ultimate Storyteller. And though storytelling tropes are neither good nor bad, they are necessary. I think the trouble comes when writers confuse “necessary” with “awesome.” Just ’cause your favoritest fantasy epic ever featured an arduous quest for a magical MacGuffin doesn’t mean your version of said quest will have a similarly transcendant effect on anyone else. Tropes are bones of a skeleton: they give recognizable shape to the structure of a story. But that story can have all its bones in joint and still be emaciated and diseased. Vitality flows from a story’s execution.
 
I think a lot of speculative writers populate their stories with dragons – or elves, dwarves, wizards, or fairies – because they think dragons are awesome. No, they’re not. In homeostasis, dragons can be just as mundane as any other entity – more so, since they have greater-than-average potential. It’s what they do that makes them awesome, same as any other character. No writer can afford to treat fantasy tropes like magical, awesomeness-imparting gimmicks. Doing so devalues the entire genre.
 
Never introduce a dragon for its own sake. If it’s not gonna move the story forward, give that golden-goblet-strewn cave a wide berth.

Mirtika Schultz
Member

Bad covers, for certain, but I still read the first paragraph/page, because I was told a long time ago not to judge a book by its cover, even if I really, really, really wanna.
Dragons, generally, but not an obstacle I cannot overcome.
If the title/blurb/cover make me think, “Retelling the Jesus/Messiah story in fantasy terms”, I’m outta there.
Zombie Apocalypse. Vampire romance. Werewolf anything.
But the truth is that in a good storyteller’s hand, nothing is off the table. I’ll read a book about a Lost Orphaned Prince who Dies to Save his kingdom and comes Back From the Dead to Ride a Dragon into the Climactic Battle, said dragon turns out to be Satan himself, in a cunning plan of upheaval that will require a tetralogy to sort out, and said prince wars against another Orphaned Prince with gigantic Nephilim Mercenaries, while the Zombie Apocalypse looms and Vampires stalk by night AND this time the werewolves sparkle…if it’s really, really imaginative and well-done. The cover would be a non-issue, as I prefer to read on my Kindle Fire these days. But in a perfect world, all SF artwork would be sublime and Mir-cheering.

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

I dislike all of the above except dragons, which I love passionately and can’t get enough of. I think all of the above made it into my tropes list, actually.
 
i do get tired of Satan as the bad guy. C’mon, there’s a whole stable of principalities and powers out there. There’s room for more than one villain. :-p Right now in YA, the big thing is angels. I’m not quite sick of angels as I am vampires, but give it another year. My hubby and I were writing mortal angels before it was cool.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I have my personal preferences, but I want to avoid shutting down because of certain fantasy tropes. I have made that mistake before–reacting to a book that had “witch” in the title. I was wrong, wrong, completely wrong. And I’ve been an apologist for the Harry Potter books against those who shut down at the mention of wizards, so I don’t think I can justify having my own personal shut down list. 😉

I tend to think that some of the proliferation of Nephilim stories or lost/orphaned prince stories (I started one of those myself) is a result of writers not reading in their genre. They think they are writing something new and fresh simply because they aren’t reading the latest Christian fantasy.

But now I want titles. What lost/orphaned prince stories are out there?

For that matter, from one of the commenters, what stories with slavery are out there?

Becky

Paul Lee
Member

But now I want titles. What lost/orphaned prince stories are out there?

By Darkness Hid and the rest of the Blood of Kings trilogy comes to mind.
 

For that matter, from one of the commenters, what stories with slavery are out there?

Bid the Gods Arise comes to mind for me, but that’s not surprising, since I’m currently reading it.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Going off the top of my head, Light of Eidon has the hero get sold into slavery. Is he a slave in A Star Curiously Singing? Bid the Gods Arise is mostly about slavery to various things, as is The Duke’s Handmaid and its sequels.
 
As for the lost heir/orphan, I know I’ve seen them in the Spec Faith library, but I’ll be darned if I can find them now.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Also, one may throw out the Nephilim as too weird, but giants are observable science. http://s8int.com/giants1.html

Austin Gunderson
Member

And I must say that, though it’s a YA book, Frank Peretti’s The Tombs of Anak is one of his best novels.  It doesn’t feature an antediluvian setting or an obsession with demonic intercourse, but it contains giants and quickly turns into a taut thriller laced with genuinely frightening moments.

Kessie Carroll
Member

I loved his first four kids’ novels! Well, all except Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea, which I disliked because of the oddball conflict between Lila and Dr. Cooper. Of the new four he wrote later, the only one I loved was The Deadly Curse of Toco Rey, because the flying slugs were so clever.

Austin Gunderson
Member

My long-term to-do list includes turning The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey into a full-length film script on spec before Robby Henson gets his hands on it.

Mark Carver
Editor

I’ve written the first two books in a trilogy set in a world dominated by Satanism, but Satan himself only appears for a couple of lines in the first book. I agree that Satan has become trite and overly-humanized in entertainment (as have demons and angels). I recently finished The Exorcist, and questionable theology aside, it was the most intense spiritual warfare thriller I’ve ever read.
I’ve never been big into fantasy, since the structures are usually similar (epic quests, hero saves kingdom, average dude becomes hero, dragons, etc). Sci-fi has a bit more room to play around, and it’s nice when the two genres collide (I’m enjoying Bid the Gods Arise right now).
At the end of the day, people usually know what they’re getting when they pick up a fantasy, horror, or sci-fi book. There are surprises now and then, but stories in these genres work best when they give readers what they want with a few challenging elements sprinkled in for flavor. There doesn’t seem to be much groundbreaking going on these days.

Kessie Carroll
Member

I’ve written the first two books in a trilogy set in a world dominated by Satanism, but Satan himself only appears for a couple of lines in the first book.

 
So, basically, the entire Old Testament world? 😀

Mark Carver
Editor

Haha, a little more explicit than that, but I draw a lot of parallels with OT descriptions of paganism. Satan doesn’t require that we worship him; he just wants us to not worship God.

Kaci Hill
Member

Yeah, I really think the problem isn’t in being cliche. Most of those are archetypes. I think where we can lose interest is when they’re not executed satisfactorily. 
 

Kessie Carroll
Member

I wish more Christians would read/comment on Diana Wynne Jones’s books. Most of her books are MG/YA modern fantasy, often set in an alternate world very close to our own. But she mixes “occult” things in her magic (usually just the word “occult” and sometimes a pentacle).
 
I’d love to hear Christian reactions to her books. Like the deconstruction of karma in Conrad’s Fate, or the shades-of-gray morality in The Lives of Christopher Chant (which don’t even come clear to the hero until the last couple of chapters). Or even the dealings with supernatural beings in The Merlin Conspiracy or the Dalemark Quartet. Every library I’ve been in has a nice slice of her books. (Most people know her for Howl’s Moving Castle.)
 
If more Christians tried to emulate her writing, I think we’d see a jump in original ideas. Instead everybody’s writing high fantasy.

Zac Totah
Editor

So what if I told you that the fantasy series I’m outlining right now includes a teenage boy who is a prince (he may or may not know it, I’m not decided on that point yet), but the plot of the story isn’t for him to become king? Would that be cliche?

Kessie Carroll
Member

It depends on what he’s prince _of_. The prince of magic? The prince of dragons? The prince of demons? Just because he’s a prince doesn’t mean he has to be that of the tired old monarchy trope.

Kaci Hill
Member

Did you read the Star Wars book with a sort of Amazon/tribal matriarchy? Now that was…..weird.
 
Actually, I think that book made me dislike the concept of matriarchal societies.

Kaci Hill
Member

Prince of the Nephilim!
 
Actually, I think I’d kinda find that one fun….