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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Literature Tropes #4: This is My Story

I love tvtropes.org.  I was browsing there today and found another trope that annoys me:    This is My Story.  I highly recommend clicking on the link to read their original explanation, because it brilliantly uses the trope itself, sickeningly enough that you'll probably never read one of these stories the same again. 

Personally, I think it's a weak opening:  "My name is John Smith.  My story is important because blah blah blah."  Or, "You may have heard my story, but everything you've heard is wrong."  Or, "You won't believe this story, but it's mine, and it's the truth." Or, "My name is blah blah and I'm famous for blah blah."  Sometimes this works, like in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: "My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."  It works because of the shock value.  It's not what you're expecting from a This is My Story opening.  Most of the time, however, I want you to show me that your story's interesting or important or unbelievable.  Don't tell me. 

Moby Dick famously starts this way.  "Call me Ishmael."  TV Tropes also mentions The Name of the Wind, which people raved about but which I couldn't get into.  The narrator there starts with his name and all the fantastic things he's done and why you as the reader will have heard of him.  All I could think was, "Great, another wordy braggart who just won't shut up about himself.  That's all I need in my life."  But it obviously worked for a lot of people.  Mark Twain began Huckleberry Finn thusly:  "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."  A variation on the theme, with a little added product placement.  Other classics start similarly, as if writing a boilerplate introduction paragraph to a five paragraph essay:  Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations, various others.  I've seen Asimov and Heinlein do it in third person.  It extends to kids' books too, like Because of Winn-Dixie.

I found this example on the internet, from Giles Goat-boy, a book I'd never heard of:  "George is my name; my deeds have been heard of in Tower Hall, and my childhood has been chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Psychology."  Okay, so I kind of like this one, though it doesn't just go for the "my name is" bit; it goes full on with the "why I'm interesting" bit.

The Good Soldier begins, "This is the saddest story I've ever heard."  That's like writing a query letter to an agent and saying, "This is the best book you'll ever read."  Automatic reject.  

This one's cool, but chiefly because it plays with the trope—and intrigues the reader:  "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner."  John Barth, The End of the Road.  So, in a sense you're not?  Makes me want to read.  

TV shows use This is My Story a lot, especially in the opening credits.  In fact, I was just walking past a TV in the other room and heard the beginning of Person of Interest, which did just what I'd been writing this post about.  Ringer, Desperate Housewives, Burn Notice, etc. are just a few examples.  Keep your eyes open and you'll find many others.

I would challenge you, as a writer, to never start a book this way unless you can give it a clever twist.  Even then, think twice.  Overused is…well…overused.    

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