Action Adventure Tropes and Powerful Archetypes in Stories

I love to see how tropes specific to certain genres of story telling can cross boundaries into different genres.

one author's question about story tropes
one author’s question about story tropes

One example came to my mind recently whilst watching our DVD of Tintin and the Adventure of the Unicorn again.

This story centres around “an old Sea Captain’s estate”; we learn from the villain (an unreliable source) of “a shadow of ruin over the family for generations… we’re talking years of drinking and irrational behaviour.”  A few generations back, the villain declares to the hero Tintin, Sir Frances Haddock was “a failure and a hopeless reprobate. He was doomed to fail and he bequeathed that failure to his sons.” As soon as we know this is the opinion of the villain, an expectation is set up in us that the hero will work to quash this negative scenario.

In this story there are two policemen from Interpol who are on the trail of the same thing as Tintin, but with much less insight and inspiration.. They seem like a pair of fools / clowns, but at a later stage of the story they turn up at just the right moment and save the hero’s life.

The central question of the story is: Can Captain Haddock lay his demons in order to claim his inheritance and redeem the family fortunes and lift the intergenerational curse?

I feel that all these themes, beloved of the action adventure genre, can be translated into other genres too.

Genre is a fascinating subject; I write contemporary fiction but it has something of mystery, something of suspense, something of psychological thriller too. In my new novel there is the element of the paranormal and supernatural as well. How do we determine which genre predominates? Traditionally it’s the preserve of the traditional publisher to decide that, and this then becomes the cornerstone of how the novel is marketed and promoted.

In many ways, genre is all about the psychology of the readers, and their expectations.

Successful fiction touches the spirit of the readers in some way. But we cannot ever write to please others; only to please ourselves. And so, ultimately we must write for the love of it, and leave the response of the reader in the realms of the future unknown.

Review of “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

I’ve just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

The Fault in Our Stars book cover
The Fault in Our Stars book cover

This story of two young cancer “survivors” is a story that eats into your marrow. And if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, and would like to, don’t read on, for my review contains plot spoilers!

Even though I had already seen the film, and knew what was going to happen, I found the book itself utterly compelling. Two young people facing death every day with no religious belief in a conventional sense, told through the honest, sharp, hard-hitting viewpoint of Hazel Grace, a 16-year-old girl living on borrowed time, is very strong.

To me the most interesting character, however, is Peter Van Houten, the ghastly novelist who’s written a fantastic book and won the admiration of millions, yet is destroying himself with alcohol, throwing away all the value of what he’s achieved.

And the message within that particular subplot: don’t expect an author to be like/worthy of the book he/she writes.

The Fault In Our Stars also makes me realise how profoundly annoying sentimental pious language can be to non-religious people, especially in the crises of life; and that leads me to reflect on the power of language itself, and how words can build bridges or destroy, or create wars – as we constantly see in the history and in the current state of our world.

How powerful it was for Hazel to receive Augustus’s letter at the end – and how critical it was that they were Augustus’s own words, and not Peter Van Houten’s. That at least was one decision Van Houten made that was right – even out of his alcoholic haze.

And the story also poses the question: how true is Hazel Grace’s outlook on the world, from the point of view of a young person living with imminent death every day? Her cynicism is a refuge for her, a way of dealing with the pain and the horror of her situation, when even saying things that are horrible, is comforting.

Another thought arising from the story: in our Western society, we all talk so much rubbish around death, it’s frightening. There seems to be a conspiracy of not saying what you really think and feel – especially at religious funerals for non-religious people.

One of the saddest moments for me in the book and in the film was at Augustus’s funeral when Hazel decides to say all the anodyne things she knows her audience will like to hear, instead of saying what she truly feels and thinks about Augustus and his death.

I really do think religious language used carelessly and thoughtlessly at the most critical times of our lives can be a tyranny – when we use it as a mask and a means of self-deception, instead of a way of communicating the truth.

At the end of the story, what is left is love: the love Hazel and Augustus felt for each other despite knowing they had no future. That must be the single most important message of the book – the one impossible fact of love in the face of death.

A Night When Neil Gaiman – Quirky, Subversive, Whimsical – Held Us Entranced at the Barbican Hall, London

Last Friday evening I was at the Barbican, London, to hear author Neil Gaiman read some of his  short stories plus a novelette called The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, accompanied by the Australian string quartet Four Play.

Neil Gaiman in The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains at the Carnegi Hall June 2014
Neil Gaiman in The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains at the Carnegi Hall June 2014

This production was originally commissioned by Sydney Opera House for its Graphic Festival and we saw the first of two nights at the Barbican to be followed by one night at Usher Hall in Edinburgh.

Having read and loved Neil Gaiman’s novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book I was looking forward to seeing this with my two teenage children. From his books and his tweets, I expected Neil Gaiman to be more zappy and over-the-top in person; but he isn’t; he’s gentle and laidback and low-key in his manner, with a self-deprecating humour.

Surely this is the best persona for him to adopt as he tells his tales. Anyone who knows his work expects a playfully dark twist. And this was fully realized in his novelette The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. In this he has chosen to create a Scottish tale, a grim and sombre story of revenge, written with a poetic quality appropriate for a tale from the Outer Hebrides set at the time of the Jacobite rebellion.

It was accompanied by big-screen projections of the illustrations by Eddie Campbell which were astonishingly vivid and real, by turns haunting, harsh and beautiful,  conveying the atmosphere of the terrain and the ever-darker direction of the story. We were held captivated throughout Neil Gaiman’s narration; the musicians accompanied the tale with such emotional intelligence and imagination, it was an outstanding display of creative genius.

The story of the dwarf who goes searching for the cave of gold, accompanied by the mysterious tall “border reaver”, has played on my mind ever since, as I considered the rhythm and poetry of it, the elements of darkness and horror, and the moral lesson that lay behind it.

An evening which will stay in my mind for a long time.