On Flouting Conventions

I remember my oldest brother laughing about how he’d heard that there was an actual formula for Harlequin Romances, and each significant story element was supposed to happen on a specific page. So the moment when the heroine first meets the hero, when they first kiss, when they have their first misunderstanding, when they reconcile, etc., all had to happen on designated page numbers.  That was many years ago, and I don’t know where he came across that information or how accurate it was.  But even when the formulas involved are nowhere near that detailed, it seems that today there are many restrictive conventions and expectations when it comes to the structure of a work of fiction.

Some are blatant, like the idea that prologues and epilogues are strictly verboten, while others are not really talked about or even consciously recognized. When I discovered Miyazaki’s films (which I talked about here) I had an epiphany about ‘unconscious conventions’, because it made me realize how much American-made films fit into formulaic guidelines.  Why is it that foreign films usually have a different ‘feel’ that brands them as foreign more than the language difference?  It’s because they don’t follow the same conventions when it comes to everything from the perspective and the pacing to the inclusion of certain standardized elements.  So it can be something of an eye-opener when you realize how many other things can be done with film that American filmmakers simply never do.

For instance, we have an unwritten convention that animation is for children’s stories and comic adventures. With the possible exception of an occasional film that would be considered avant garde or ‘artsy’, no one here would do a contemporary drama in animation. That rule certainly isn’t present in Japanese film-making; Wishes of the Heart is one example, and I’ve also seen another animated film put out by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli that’s a realistic contemporary romance (it’s essentially an ordinary ‘chick flick’).  And I’ve realized that even when people rave about an American movie and say how much it surprised them and was ‘different’, when you really take a good hard look at such a film, you’ll see that it still follows most of Hollywood’s unwritten rules. Continue reading