How To: Slice of Life · 11:36pm
I wrote this back in 2013 for the site, but it never ended up getting posted anywhere. I fought it again today when I was sifting through my Google Docs folder and I figured that since I haven't had much of a presence on the site for the last couple of months I might as well toss it up in the hopes that somepony somewhere finds it helpful.
How To: Slice of Life
Slice of Life is probably the least informative tag you can give a story.
That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad genre, of course, or that stories that have the tag aren’t good stories. It’s just a very broad category. It’s the Mystery Box of tags, the tag you default to when nothing else quite seems to fit. ‘Sad,’ ‘Dark,’ ‘Comedy,’ and most of the others at least imply a tone or set you up to know what to expect from the story; ‘Slice of Life’ really doesn’t. It could mean somepony going about their day-to-day life, or an over-the-top soap opera. Luckily, there are at least a few commonalities to the best ones.
With Slice of Life, you’re basically trading off the burden of creating compelling narrative thrust from ‘what happens’ to ‘who things happen to and what they do about it.’ If you want to wax poetic about sprawling, exotic worlds and magnificent vistas, well, that’s what the adventure tag is for. There’s still room for interesting descriptive prose, but it’s less important. Your description of a foreign city in the adventure fic is there to craft a picture of something new in peoples’ heads. The point of your prose in a SoL fic is to take a picture your reader already has of something familiar and either link it thematically to what you want to talk about (a character or an idea), or just talk about the familiar thing in a novel and amusing way. Unfortunately, this is considerably tougher than it sounds, and if you think it sounded easy to begin with you should probably take a step back and seriously reevaluate the scale of your ambitions.
So if the setting isn’t the star, and the plot is something well-worn and familiar, what’s left? Well, that’d be your characters. Even moreso than in other fics, writing interesting, believable characterization is a make-or-break factor in whether your story is going to see the feature box or sink off the bottom of the ‘New’ stack with a dozen views. Yes, I’m pretending the world is fair and that quality is the one and only determination of popularity or success. Just run with it for the time being.
‘So Eakin,’ you probably aren’t actually saying but really should be at this point, ‘how do I make a believable, interesting character? Everyone already knows who the Mane six and assorted supporting cast are, how do I say something different about that without mangling their personalities beyond recognition?’ Well, there’s nothing wrong with slightly divergent interpretations of a character. I mean, you probably aren’t going to get away with Fluttershy secretly living a double life as a stripper to make money, but you can choose what parts of the character to emphasize. This even happens in the show; sometimes Twilight is the frazzled psycho who’s gone totally out of her mind at the slightest provocation and sometimes she’s the cool and collected leader of the group. Bonus points if you can resolve this contradiction in an interesting way (in that case, both traits seem to stem from her unflinching devotion to impressing Celestia) or give an original reason for it. Turning a virtue into something that creates a problem or, if you’re feeling like a bigger challenge, creating a situation where a vice is key to the problem’s resolution are also good foundations for interesting characters.
Of course, just because the Mane Six are there and the center of the canon doesn’t mean they’re the only options. That’s where OCs tend to come in. Now, OCs get a bad rap because they’re pretty easy to mess up. You’re faced with the potential for the paralysis of choice, where you’re so wrapped up in how many things they could be you don’t pick one thing and make them good at it.
And for the love of Celestia, if you make them an alicorn I will hunt you down and beat you with your own keyboard. Alicorns are these larger than life figures, walking metaphors for whatever they’re rulers of (though with Twilight and Cadance the show might be moving in a different direction with that. Time will tell.) and that is exactly the opposite of what you want in a Slice of Life OC. You want a decent balance between talents and flaws, and again, bonus points if those can derive from the same core traits. The most important thing is to make them likable and relatable. Note I did not use the words ‘mind-blowing exceptional’ in there. Would you want to hang out with the guy who’s great at everything instantly and who has his victories handed to him on a silver platter without any real struggle? I wouldn’t; that guy sounds really annoying. Don’t go too far in the other direction, though. Nobody wants to hang out with the guy who whines for fifteen minutes whenever they get so much as a papercut, either. Throw challenges at them that are manageable for their station in life and capabilities, then have them deal with them in a realistic way.
The best part about developing strong characterization is that it opens up so many brand-new and exciting possibilities for ways to be awful to them (What? Have you read my stories?) by imbuing otherwise mundane actions with a layer of symbolic importance. If your protagonist is well-developed as an orphaned foal whose constant upbeat, pollyanna outlook has stood up to everything the world has ever thrown at him, then having a bully tear the head off the stuffed teddy bear that is the only remnant of his lost family is infinitely more heartrending than a thousand “Hello. I am Blank Slate. I had a little sister but she is dead now because cancer.” On the other hand, the scene two chapters later where said orphan stands up to said bully and gives them a swift kick in the nuts is now a cheer-worthy moment of triumph rather than just a cheap laugh. That’s what slice of life can be great at: establishing relatability and wringing the maximum amount of emotional payoff out of the tiniest little detail or action. Don’t be afraid of strong theming, either. Setting can be an excellent metaphor all on its own, especially if the setting in question is being built up/torn down/slowly decaying/being repaired to its former glory. The rising or falling of the place should match the direction of movement in that character’s life. An alcoholic put to work fixing up the Apple family barn while he dries out, for example.
Dialogue and character voices are so, so important to making this kind of thing work. With any OC or minor character, the reader is approaching them as a blank slate. You don’t want them to stay that way for very long. The character should say or do something within the first page, really within their first paragraph, that tells you something about who they are. Alternatively, if your protagonist is meeting them in a space they control you can speak volumes about them just by describing that space. A well-decorated home that feels like its been lived in for decades and a sparsely-decorated apartment with no pictures of friends or family paint very different pictures of their occupants before they even appear. I’m not sure I can give you any magic-bullet solution to writing interesting dialogue. If you read it out loud you can generally get a feel for when it sounds wooden or stilted, but that’s more about avoiding the bad than elevating the good. You should be consistent with the way the character sounds or acts and avoid anything that runs contrary to what you’ve established about them. Your pious nun shouldn’t curse like a sailor all the time, for example. On the other hand, if she’s been prim and proper for eight chapters then it’ll be extra shocking if she drops an F-bomb when something finally pushes her too far. If you’re going to have them say something that doesn’t fit who they are, you need to have a specific reason for doing so, and generally one that’s explained (implicitly or explicitly) around the time it occurs.
So yeah, slice-of-life isn’t something you should default to because it’s somehow easier. It requires a lot of nuance, introspection, and a light touch to make a good one. It takes just as much planning and attention to detail as a successful adventure/tragedy/comedy story, you’re just focusing those attentions on a different aspect. Still, a well done one can explore a whole range of different ideas that just aren’t well suited to other genres and be very rewarding to write and, hopefully, to read as well.