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Posts Tagged ‘novel structure’

I was in a foul mood all last week, so when a friend offered her opinion of a movie I’d recently enjoyed, deeming it “fairly good, while predictable,” I took it as a passive-aggressive reference to my low-brow viewing choices.

Naturally, she did not mean it that way and (thankfully) I have a strict “reread before hitting enter” policy when posting to social media, so no damage was done, but it did get me thinking.

The movie in question is of the “coming of age” variety and my friend’s evaluation was, to be frank, pretty spot-on. The movie is predictable, as we follow a young man growing up, navigating the pain of early adulthood until, at movie’s end, he comes to terms with his father’s history of absence and utter unreliability.

Predictable. Trite. Cliché. I’ve used these words to describe (in negative terms) both books and movies. I’ve done so here on this blog, and usually I’ve not been kind about it. So, why do I look down my nose at some formulaic works, yet enjoy others? Why do I consider some works to be entertaining, even though they are utterly predictable?

We’re all familiar with the old argument about story archetypes, how many there are, and how old. According to common wisdom, there are only seven archetypal plots (though opinions differ, and widely so). Whether this is true or not, formulas are used to build stories, especially in film—the coming of age plot, the rom-com, the murder mystery—and they are often followed to the point where you can set your watch by what happens on screen. Eighteen minutes into an episode of Murder, She Wrote? A body is going to drop in three . . . two . . . one . . .

Why do we enjoy such stories, even when we know how they’ll work out? And when do we not enjoy them?

I returned to the movie under discussion, and found that my enjoyment had nothing to do with the story’s predictable nature. I knew the boy would grow up and be happy. I knew the boy’s father would remain an irredeemable two-dimensional deadbeat dad. I knew the boy would have some sort of confrontation with his father and, in so doing, accept his own adulthood. I knew all this would happen, and to be honest, those were the least engaging sections of the film.

What grabbed and held my interest were the differences, the ways in which the writers deviated from the expected. As one example, it was how a collection of men—grandfathers, uncles, and pseudo-uncles—cooperated to raise a boy, communal fathers to an abandoned son, a composite role model that was both counterpoint and counterpart to the flawed original. The formula, that’s the foundation on which the whole is built, the scaffolding that supports what is new, but it’s the differences that set it apart.

Absent these differences, that’s when formula is a problem. That’s why the 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho was a flop: simply filming it in color wasn’t enough of a difference.

But with sufficient differences, ah!, now we have variations on a theme, the same story told from a different point of view, and we enjoy the result. Otherwise, we’d never watch another rom-com, see a new staging of Macbeth, or read another mystery novel. We’d be all “Been there; done that,” and set off in search of the totally new (and good luck with that).

Some will argue that there are no original stories; that everything is an interpretation of one of the seven archetypes; or a fanglement, a mash-up of two or more to fashion what merely seems new. I disagree but will allow that, in most cases, it is true. We do tell the same stories, over and over, and we enjoy the retelling, the predictability.

So, when I begin to fret that my current work-in-progress is just another old tale retold, I’ll make a point of remembering the differences I’m working into it. Style, setting, sub-plot, backstory, characterization, tone, structure, pacing—differences large and small all adding to a unique outcome.

Formulas just are; it’s how we employ them that determines if they’re worth the time.

k

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My life and my brain have calmed enough that, for the first time in a long time, I was able to finish reading a book. I’d picked up a dozen or so in the last year, but either they were uninteresting (a lot of titles about adolescent angst…what’s up with that?) or I found them annoying (like this one). After so many failed attempts among the offerings of current fiction, I decided to try something that wasn’t waiting in my TBR pile.

The question was: What?

Fate intervened, and tossed a title my way. Bang the Drum Slowly is a title I’d been aware of, but never read. I am not a big sports fan — oh, I watch the Seahawks and I enjoy a baseball game, but I don’t follow any of it — so Mark Harris’s book about a mediocre catcher who is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s during a pennant race wasn’t high on my list. But a stray mention of it as a prime example of mid-20th century fiction caught my eye, and I figured, what the hell, give it a chance. It couldn’t be worse than some of the others I’d started this year.

What I found was something I did not expect: a unique voice and structure. Well, unique in my reading experience, anyway.

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