Do you believe in hooks caught in car doors, stolen kidneys, and killer spiders hiding in hairdos? If you do, you have been tricked by an urban legend, and you’re not alone. Reporters, police, and probably your friends have also been fooled and have faithfully passed on these stories.
As a writer who wants to reach a large audience, urban legends like these provide models for tales that will go viral. I collected these stories even before I knew what they were called, and I have every book by legend collector Jan Harold Brunvand. I have used the elements of urban legends to connect with readers and audiences.
I recommend that you study them yourself to get a visceral sense of the structure and tone. It’s fun and it will help your writing. But here are a few bits you can apply right away.
· The protagonists are easy to identify with, often reasonably identified as a friend of a friend.
· The protagonists are often careless or actively involved in a “sin.”
· They either take a chance or come in contact with someone who is truly evil.
· The consequences (sometimes narrowly escaped) are always big and frequently surprising.
· The story as a whole is plausible, although it often goes to the limit of plausibility (and can even fall apart in the face of serious analysis).
· Most have strong lessons, even warnings (though some are more humorous).
Most urban legends confirm the status quo and many take advantage of underlying racism and prejudice, unfairly targeting minorities, corporations, and government agencies. Obviously, you won’t want to reinforce such attitudes in your own work, and it is good to be aware of how your story might be reshaped to do harm. But these can be flipped in a story by a talented writer, and positive lessons and fresh insights can take advantage of the power of urban legends, too.