I’m sure that you’ve probably read a few cool stories. These are the kind of stories which linger in your imagination and shape it for years afterwards. The kind of stories where you still keep your first dog-eared copy of it in a special place on your bookshelf as if it is some kind of priceless sacred relic. The kind of stories which you look at and think ‘damn, I wish I’d written that.’
The amusing thing is that, although a few stories are fairly well-recognised as “cool” (eg: ‘On The Road’ by Jack Kerouac, “Neuromancer” by William Gibson etc…), everyone will have their own personal ideas of what is and isn’t a “cool” story. If we all thought that the same things were cool, we’d probably be borg drones or cylons rather than human beings.
Although I’d count “Lost Souls” and “Drawing Blood” by Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin) and “Crooked Little Vein” by Warren Ellis as being valued parts of any canon of “cool” literature, many people (with no taste) probably wouldn’t. What we consider to be cool is, by it’s very definition, extremely subjective.
Whilst this is much less of an issue with visual forms of storytelling (eg: comics, art, films etc…), telling a cool story using only the written word is a much more difficult thing to do (and it’s something I still hope to do one day). The fact is that, if you tell a cool story, it will probably be obscure for a while. It’ll be a cult classic. This is a good thing. A small number of dedicated and interested fans is a lot better than hordes of slightly more indifferent and superficial fans. Plus, to be honest, the real challenge of making something cool is to make something that will still be cool at least a couple of decades later.
Anyway, I thought I’d give you three alliterative tips about writing a seriously cool story. Your cool story must be subversive, sacred and savvy. Allow me to explain:
1)Your story must be subversive: I’m not talking about politics here. There is nothing worse than a political tract poorly-disguised as a story. But, your story should still be subversive in other ways – in other words, it should show the world from a perspective which is either ignored or derided by the mainstream.
Your protagonist and/or narrator shouldn’t be an ordinary “everyman” or “everywoman” character. They should, to use a wonderful term used a lot by Kate Bornstein, be an “outlaw” of some kind or another.
This doesn’t mean that your main character has to be a literal “outlaw” who is on the run from the authorities. However, it means that your main character has to be outside of what is currently recognised as the mainstream. Of course, there’s something of a paradox in this, since mainstream society is thankfully gradually becoming more accepting and open-minded (despite the efforts of more conservative people). This is a wonderful thing for everyone. Except writers.
After all, what was “subversive” a few decades ago usually becomes part of the mainstream. So, you have to find a way to make sure that your story will still be subversive even when some parts of it have become mainstream.
One way of doing this is to make your story so transgressive and shocking that, even years later, the mainstream will barely even want to look at it. But, the downsides of this approach are that, eventually your story will lose it’s shock value after more shocking things are made and you might even face the occasional obscenity trial too. So, I wouldn’t advise using this strategy unless you’re William Burroughs, the Marquis De Sade or Kathy Acker.
Instead, if you want to write something subversive and cool, look at yourself. Look at your worldview, your experiences, your opinions and the essential parts of who you are. Now find the unique parts of your soul, find the parts of yourself which don’t quite “fit in” with the world around you. You might only have a couple of these, you might have loads of them. Once you’ve found them, find a way to incorporate them into your story.
Yes, it will be scary (and I’m an absolute coward when it comes to this) since you will basically be “exposing yourself” in your stories. However, even if you do this in a subtle, exaggerated, altered and/or obscured way, then it will still add a lot to your story.
2) It must be sacred: A truly cool story isn’t something which you read once and then forget about. It isn’t a throwaway thriller novel or a formulaic romance novel. It isn’t “fashionable” either – yes, things that are fashionable might be “cool” for a while, but they’ll soon become laughably cliched and dated. A truly cool story is like a sacred text – it is timeless in a gloriously imperfect way and you will almost always discover something new in it every time you read it.
So, if you want to write a cool story, then it has to have depth. You have to geek out about your story and throw all of your energy into writing it. Your characters have to be so well-developed and well-written that your readers will actually end up dreaming about them if they aren’t careful. Your narration has to be gripping and unusual. Your settings have to be interesting, detailed and memorable.
The story itself doesn’t matter so much (eg: “Lost Souls” by Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin barely has a “plot” as such), but what really matters is that your story feels like it has it’s own unique soul and it feels like it is a treasured companion to your readers on their journey through life.
Now, as I said earlier, your story should include a part of you. This is what will really give your story depth. This will be what reaches out to readers who are like you and says “you are not alone in the world” or “this story will help you understand yourself and your true value in this screwed-up universe a little bit more”. If you can find a way to do this, then at least a couple of people will think that your story is the coolest thing in the world.
3) It must be savvy: Yes, I find the word “savvy” annoying and pretentious, but it’s a useful word for another quality which a cool story should have. Your story should be intelligent and it shouldn’t patronise your readers. This sounds obvious, but it needs saying. Basically, just treat your readers like intelligent mature adults (and this goes for stories which will probably be read by teenagers too. When I was a teenager, I stayed the hell away from “young adult” books since I wanted to read things which actually treated me like an adult and didn’t water everything down purely on account of my age).
For example, if there’s something unusual/strange in your story, then either make the meaning of it clear through the context and/or leave it up to the reader to do their own research. Or, if there’s a morally ambiguous or complex sitution in your story, then don’t simplify it or offer a clear “moral” at the end. Give your readers some credit, let them think for themseleves.
It’s also a good idea to be what TV Tropes calls “Genre Savvy“. In other words, know the genre that you’re writing in and try to avoid as many cliches and predictable plot elements as you can. However, never let this get in the way of your story – it’s ok to use a few cliches if they fit into your story very well and changing them for the sake of being “different” would make your story less enjoyable.
As I said earlier, not everyone will think that your story is cool. But as long as it is subversive, sacred and savvy some people will. And, to be honest, that’s all that matters.
Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂