Some of what I'm reading is brilliant. It's amazing. It's astonishing, and it's powerful. It deserves its status as a contemporary classic.
But some of it is less so, even within works by the same author. Some pieces are amazing, and others seem more like a bag of tricks.
- Maybe you were told to write down striking images in your Moleskine and to save them up to use later. Maybe you were told to use figurative language like alliteration, too, to make the language memorable. But please use these sparingly, because reading some of these works is like sitting down to eat a big cereal bowl of chunky rocks. The words can barely make sense because the reader has to work so hard to find a verb. I'm not asking for easy, but it's possible to be literary, powerful, complex, and still enjoyable.
- A few really powerful and well-developed characters in a short story can work more magic than fifteen characters all competing for airtime.
- This goes double if all the characters have been given highly eccentric names.
- If you put a character in a novel or story purely to illustrate a point--the Evils of Capitalism, say--the reader is likely to recognize that right away, say, "Got it, thanks," and be longing to skip some of the character's speeches.
- There's an old rule in screenwriting that every scene has to do two out of three essential things: develop character and relationships, advance the plot, or articulate/deepen the themes. Fiction probably has to do more than this with each of its scenes, but it's not a bad rule to bear in mind.
- Death, dismemberment, torture, loss, repression, and violence are not the only things that can evoke powerful emotions or make a good story, although they make a lot of good ones.
- And when does a conventional trope become a cliche? I know that all animals in a contemporary story will die, and I'm ready for that. (TVTropes hilariously calls this "death by Newbery Medal," but it happens in literary fiction, too.)
I recall from the Steinbeck East of Eden diaries that Steinbeck wasn't sure that readers would get his Big Symbol of Cain and Abel. By this he seems to mean the book's structure wherein the sons of Adam and Cathy (a Lilith figure) are twins, one good and one evil--get it? I like East of Eden, but that's not exactly a hidden symbol. You can trust your reader.
As I said, most of the fiction is really fine, but that's not to say Homer doesn't nod on occasion, as in the list above.
Do you have any "bag of tricks" items that you've seen in current fiction?