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Old 11-13-2012, 03:00 PM   #1
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Is the end of the world cliché?

The thread title pretty much says it all. Maybe it's a stupid question. I was wondering where to post this, and thought maybe SF/F would be good, since I figure speculative fiction might have a few more worlds ending, realities unraveling, and space-times collapsing than other genres. I could be wrong. Move it if you can think of a better section.

But anyway. How often does the end of the world come up in your stories? The "world" being relative to your in-story universe, of course. Do you write to "end of the world" stakes a lot? Do you read about it a lot? Do you enjoy it? Is it possible to get tired of end-of-the-world stakes?

I've noticed a lot of my ideas lately involve the world ending in some way or another. Usually, it's tied to an internal conflict. The rest of the plots in these ideas is quite different (my stories generally being character-driven, after all), but I was beginning to worry maybe it'd get old if every story involved the possibility of the end of the world as we know it.

So what do you think? Is it okay if the world ends over and over again as long as the story and characters are unique? Or do you prefer mixing it up with more subtle, down-to-earth stakes?
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Old 11-13-2012, 03:12 PM   #2
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I think it's an interesting question, so thank you. I think there are many different world endings. Not just the human made, natural, alien or supernatural.

A world ends for each individual at their death. A world ends for you if you change or have sufficent change forced upon you. I was watching some old footage of Edwardian England; I thought, they're all dead, every person in that footage, even the children are dead. That's a dead world. The same would be true for all the worlds the Earth has been.

I enjoy world ending stories, it's a species fascination for us I think, of how it all might end. There are thousands of ways it might come about (in fictional terms), consequently there are equally as many ways of writing about it.

I think it's fine if you trash the world over and over again. After all, how many murder mysteries or romance novels exist? It's a basic human fear. Like love and death it never gets old.
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Old 11-13-2012, 03:26 PM   #3
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I blame "high concept" and the endless pursuit of higher and higher stakes in movies for the 'end of the world' idea. It's okay in camp movies like Flash Gordon or in Douglas Adams where you're not meant to take anything seriously. But I suppose it depends what you mean by "the end of the world". Destruction of the entire planet? Cliche, also highly unlikely ever to happen. Destruction of the protagonist's world? One of the foundations of storytelling.
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Old 11-13-2012, 03:28 PM   #4
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Like AVS said, does a romance novelist need to write a thriller because they write too much romance?
It's just what you like to write.

The answer is "no". Why? Because, what else are you going to write about?
Apparently that's what you write, so keep at it.
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Old 11-13-2012, 03:54 PM   #5
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Depends on what you mean by the end of the world. If you're talking about
World Destroyed.
Everyone Dies.
Game Over.


Then that can overshadow all lower stakes and interpersonal aspects of the story.

If you mean the world is going to change radically then the lower stakes and interpersonal aspects of the story can change with the large scale change. Generally, some will become irrelevant, some will rise in importance, and some will simply be transformed.

Another way to look at it is that a world destroyed / everyone dies / game over story is as a horror story where the story lies in the unfolding of the horror and the characters' reaction thereto.
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Old 11-13-2012, 04:53 PM   #6
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My only issue with end of the world scenarios is...after that, where does the story go next? Where do the characters go next? Where is the story tension? You've already reached for the highest tension there is -- complete world annihilation. Can't get bigger than that.

Inevitably, someone will want a continuation of the story but an 'end of the world' has pretty much blown the story wad at that point. Anything beyond that seems rather lackluster.
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Old 11-13-2012, 05:10 PM   #7
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My only issue with end of the world scenarios is...after that, where does the story go next? Where do the characters go next? Where is the story tension? You've already reached for the highest tension there is -- complete world annihilation. Can't get bigger than that.

Inevitably, someone will want a continuation of the story but an 'end of the world' has pretty much blown the story wad at that point. Anything beyond that seems rather lackluster.
Except for Hitchhiker's Guide.
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Old 11-13-2012, 05:15 PM   #8
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Person 1: 2, the Earth is exploding. You watching?
Person 2: nah. It's just an old cliche, really.

I really hope this happens when the sun devours the planet...

Sorry, slight tangent there. If the world's going to end with an Earth-Shattering Kaboom (I'm sorry. I am so, so sorry, but... TVTropes alert) then unless you happen to be Arthur Dent, chances are you have no story after that. For that reason, I've used it for writing short one-offs because there's no pressure to make anything following make any sense with it.
But if it turns out that the world is actually fine and the character was being manipulated to *think* it was the end of the world...
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Old 11-13-2012, 05:51 PM   #9
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If the story ends with the world literally being destroyed and everyone dying, then that doesn't strike me as especially cliched. But it seems like a really hard ending to pull off in an interesting way.

If it's more a matter of the stakes being really high, then that is sort of cliched. There have been more world-threatening supervillains than you can shake a stick at. If you want to write another story like that, go ahead; but I think the bar will be higher for you, just because it's already been done so many times.
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Old 11-13-2012, 05:53 PM   #10
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Inevitably, someone will want a continuation of the story but an 'end of the world' has pretty much blown the story wad at that point. Anything beyond that seems rather lackluster.
At some point, it becomes "There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet." Which can be awesome in its own right, if that's what you're aiming for.
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Old 11-13-2012, 05:55 PM   #11
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At some point, it becomes "There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet." Which can be awesome in its own right, if that's what you're aiming for.
Or yawn inducing.

"again?"

Not saying I like them or don't. In fact, I love them. But I've found anything written after in the same universe, using the same characters (whether it's a sequel or not) to be a bit flat afterwards.
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Old 11-13-2012, 06:25 PM   #12
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Adams said he destroyed the Earth because he didn't want to write about people trying to save it.

I don't mind high stakes, but for me at least they have to be believable--or comical, as in HHGTTG. When the sun destroys the planet, I doubt there'll be much time to gawp. If there's even anybody here to do the gawping. But there is story potential in trying to stop it happening, or getting away before it happens. Anything short of the sun exploding, however, is unlikely to destroy the planet. Even the meteorite whack that may or may not have wiped out the dinosaurs, left the planet pretty much intact.

In book four of my trilogy (channelling Adams there) there's supposed to be another meteorite whack threatened, and the characters are supposed to try and stop it. So I hope the cliche doesn't extend to trying to prevent extinction of a lot of life .
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Old 11-13-2012, 06:40 PM   #13
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Or yawn inducing.

"again?"

Not saying I like them or don't. In fact, I love them. But I've found anything written after in the same universe, using the same characters (whether it's a sequel or not) to be a bit flat afterwards.
Yeah, if you keeping putting the fate of the world at stake, it becomes a farce. If that's the tone you were aiming for in the first place, then it works fine. Otherwise, scaling down and writing a more intimate story is probably a better idea. If you are in a hurry to save the world, you probably have a few things that don't look as important until the main crisis is resolved, but that can be good sources of conflict for a follow-up.

Take the Ender series, for example. The first book is about pushing Ender into doing whatever he needs to save the world. The second book is about him dealing with the decisions he made and trying to atone for his crimes. It's a huge shift in tone, but it worked well.

Obviously, if don't plan to keep the story going, then this isn't a concern. Maybe your MC saves the world in time to wrap up the third book in a trilogy. That's incredibly common in MG, but it keeps selling, and publishers keep buying these stories.
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Old 11-13-2012, 06:42 PM   #14
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So what do you think? Is it okay if the world ends over and over again as long as the story and characters are unique? Or do you prefer mixing it up with more subtle, down-to-earth stakes?
Yeah, I love end-of-the-world stuff. I think maybe 'cos I was a cold war kid. I also love the close cousins dystopian (the world as we know it has ended) and post-apocalyptic (the world survived, but things are really bad).

When I write it I definitely mix it up. The end of the world is nigh stakes intermixed with how characters, couples, families, communities act and react.
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Old 11-13-2012, 06:47 PM   #15
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It def seems a lot of shows, movies, and books are saturated with end of the world scenerios lately, but if it's done well it still remains interesting. Sometimes I see a trailer for a movie that contains such a storyline and cringe - other times I get excited. So, it's really how you handle it. If it's fresh.
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Old 11-13-2012, 07:09 PM   #16
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Yeah, I love end-of-the-world stuff. I think maybe 'cos I was a cold war kid. I also love the close cousins dystopian (the world as we know it has ended) and post-apocalyptic (the world survived, but things are really bad).

When I write it I definitely mix it up. The end of the world is nigh stakes intermixed with how characters, couples, families, communities act and react.
Yeah, I agree. What's wrong with the end-of-the-world? If it is over-used there is probably a good reason for over-using it. I WAY over-use it and the more you use it the better it gets. Cuz well...there is that nagging question: what's left? And how do you wipe that out? AND THEN what is left? And how do you wipe that out? Those cleaned slates are interesting to work on.
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Old 11-13-2012, 07:14 PM   #17
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But anyway. How often does the end of the world come up in your stories? The "world" being relative to your in-story universe, of course. Do you write to "end of the world" stakes a lot? Do you read about it a lot? Do you enjoy it? Is it possible to get tired of end-of-the-world stakes?
So yep. I'd say, end worlds early, end them often and keep on ending them.

Some of Banks' grimmer moments are like protracted ends of worlds. I'm not fond of dwelling on the end per se. But after the end seems interesting.

For me, its not the stakes but the range of questions: what if destructive forces win? Who fights on? Do winners and losers even remember who or what they are or were or what happened? Where are the traces? What would anyone bother reassembling? Would some destructive forces become constructive in the post-annihilated realm?
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Old 11-13-2012, 07:38 PM   #18
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At some point, it becomes "There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet." Which can be awesome in its own right, if that's what you're aiming for.
That's exactly the flavor I've been aiming for in a current WIP. Demon Apocalypse? The MC (who happens to be both mortal and a resident of Earth) takes it personally. Everyone else is of the "Not the first time or the last. Pity."

So I have fun contrasting the superman "I must save the day" person with the "I don't see much worth saving", "If we're going down, might as well have some fun" and the "I'll just wait here. Eventually a new universe will form, stars will ignite and civilization, when it arises, will produce lemon scented napkins." crowd.
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Old 11-13-2012, 08:54 PM   #19
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Oh well, see, I'd totally wait for that!
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Old 11-13-2012, 09:05 PM   #20
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Yes, but that doesn't mean it's bad.

Cliche's are powerful things. They communicate a lot of information very quickly to the reader without a lot of info-dumping. Very useful tool.

It's like 2 cowboys standing in a street, facing each other. One is dirty and has a black hat. The other is clean and wearing a white hat.

We know what's going on and who's the bad guy in that picture. It's what you do after establishing the cliche that matters, and where so many writers fail.

So, yes, it's cliche but that's not a bad thing. It's just another tool to use in telling your story.
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Old 11-13-2012, 09:16 PM   #21
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True, that it's cliche is not nearly as problematic as the difficulty of convincing the reader that the world can be destroyed by anything short of a nova.
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Old 11-13-2012, 10:47 PM   #22
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How do we feel about more character-driven drama, with the end of the world serving as the backdrop?

I like stories where saving the world isn't the real goal, but rather serves to accentuate, change, and reflect an existing conflict.

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Originally Posted by Buffysquirrel View Post
True, that it's cliche is not nearly as problematic as the difficulty of convincing the reader that the world can be destroyed by anything short of a nova.
You're forgetting about things like a psychic making the sun explode, or Third Impact, or colliding with parallel dimensions, or a high school goddess erasing this reality and replacing it with her own.
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Old 11-13-2012, 11:26 PM   #23
Xelebes
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Is the world-end cliche? Yes. Do I get enjoyment out of it? Generally not. Why? Because it presents and reinforces the false choice. I like stories that ponder the false choice.
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Old 11-14-2012, 12:00 AM   #24
kuwisdelu
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Xelebes View Post
Is the world-end cliche? Yes. Do I get enjoyment out of it? Generally not. Why? Because it presents and reinforces the false choice. I like stories that ponder the false choice.
Can you elaborate? What do you mean by the false choice?
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Old 11-14-2012, 12:37 AM   #25
RichardGarfinkle
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kuwisdelu View Post
How do we feel about more character-driven drama, with the end of the world serving as the backdrop?

I like stories where saving the world isn't the real goal, but rather serves to accentuate, change, and reflect an existing conflict.
That can work certainly. It doesn't need to be as big as the end of the world. Something much smaller (a war for example) can do that.

Casablanca:
Quote:
Rick: I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid.


The difficulty with the end of the world is being faced with the possibility that not just this but all problems are about to not amount to a hill of beans.

If you can solve that problem in each book, you're probably fine.
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