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.
Similar kinds of rules appear to apply to novels, especially when it comes to genre fiction. (It seems that authors can be much more daring in literary fiction.) I find it a bit frustrating that agents and editors are constantly saying they want something different — something new and surprising — while the evidence suggests that they’re afraid to take on anything that doesn’t fit neatly into a tried and true mold. For instance, when authors actually do get feedback on a rejected manuscript, they may be told that although the material is good, it’s too much of a risk specifically because of the elements that make it ‘different’. It’s as if what publishers really want is just enough of a twist on a well-known concept to create the impression of something fresh and exciting on the surface, but they still want everything else about the book to follow the standard formulas.
Now clearly when we’re talking about some genres — the prime example being Romance with a capital ‘R’ — readers really do want books to follow the rules; part of the reason you read a Romance or a Cozy Mystery (or a children’s picture book, for that matter) is because you want the reading experience to be very comfortable and familiar. But overall I think we’ve gone too far with developing phantom limitations in fiction and creating an environment in which too many of the books being published are quite similar to each other. It’s rather like some types of popular music that aren’t very memorable because all the songs start to sound the same.
A couple of years ago I beta read a fantasy novel with some distinctive elements that I liked (which was why I volunteered to read the manuscript). The overall storyline was predictable and had several things in common with Harry Potter; the protagonist discovered to her surprise that she had magical abilities that were greater than everyone else’s, and the book culminated in a huge battle that ended with the heroine sacrificing herself, only to be saved at the last minute. While the manuscript had a number of youthful errors, it certainly had potential, and my feeling was that once it was tidied up it would be almost guaranteed to sell — because it did fit all the formulas and was easy to envision as a movie. But in retrospect, it was ironic that the very things that made me confident that the author could probably get an agent to take it on also meant that the story would have had far more emotional impact for me if it hadn’t been so predictable — I would have preferred the story to be more intimate in scope and to not have the heroine be any sort of ‘chosen one’.
Finding the right balance between creating something unique and memorable and meeting expectations can involve treading a fine line. My writing buddy, Mary Johnson, did an excellent post about the trust between authors and readers, and the problems with violating that trust, and I couldn’t resist jumping in and writing some lengthy comments. One of the things I talked about with regard to my own experiences as a reader was that, while it’s fair to say that an author shouldn’t cause a reader to expect a certain kind of story and then deliver something different, sometimes what the reader ‘wants’ isn’t really the best thing for the story — and upon reflection, the reader may see how the thing that didn’t fit with their expectations benefitted that story.
The examples I mentioned on Mary’s blog include some of Le Guin’s novels, such as Eye of the Heron. I felt the structure of that novel was setting up for a romance, but the romance never materialized because (spoiler alert!) one of the two main POV characters didn’t survive. Obviously, crappy things like that happen in real life all the time. So if you’re writing a serious, realistic novel — rather than a comfortable, formulaic Romance with a guaranteed HEA ending — doing something like that may mean breaking your readers’ hearts. However, in cases like that, I don’t think it’s right to say that the novel itself is flawed because it violates the reader’s trust. In many ways, whether or not it works — and actually makes the book stronger — comes down to both who your audience is and how the unexpected elements are handled.
Sophisticated adult readers can take being challenged, surprised, dismayed, and yes, even, heartbroken. In contrast, the last Harry Potter book is seriously flawed because (on top of having problems with the voice and being woefully in need of editing), it’s part of a fantasy series for young readers — not a standalone novel for adults — and the author violated crucial ‘rules’ that she herself had created for the series. For instance, one of the most obvious violations is simply that you cannot say you’re doing a seven-book series about a boy going to a seven-year wizard school, with each book taking place during one school year, and then have the hero drop out and not even go to school in the last year! (I’m still absolutely floored that the editors allowed such a thing — not only does it make no sense whatsoever it terms of the structure of the series, one might even say that it suggests to kids that it’s fine to drop out of school.)
So there’s no question that there’s a time and a place for following rules and sticking to certain structural elements. But outside of those situations, authors should be free to expand on the possibilities of a novel and not feel bound to make the storyline fit into a particular framework. Le Guin’s ‘depressingly realistic’ plots, as I sometimes call them, are examples of how a story can have a more meaningful and lasting impact on the reader because the author has taken advantage of that freedom to create a storyline with greater realism and, consequently, even greater emotional depth.
One convention that we usually don’t question (or even think about), is having the POV characters be the survivors of the adventure or crisis in the story, while relegating those who do not survive to being secondary characters and tragic figures who impact the protagonist because of their loss. This is why we’re shocked when Le Guin ‘kills off’ major POV characters — and why some readers might even feel that she betrayed our expectations by doing so.
But even when we don’t dehumanize ‘non-survivors’ to the extent of the characters in horror movies who are there only to be victims, we often still discount them, at least on a certain level. Perhaps it’s only natural to want to tell stories from the point of view of survivors, but it could also be argued that it’s not realistic; those who become victims of senseless tragedies are significant human beings as much as anyone else, and their experiences are just as valid. So when Le Guin writes novels in which much of the story takes place in the mind of a character who dies (such as Eye of the Heron, Word for World is Forest, and Left Hand of Darkness), those books challenge that shortcoming and give those people a voice, too.
In my comments on Mary’s blog, I also talked about my novel, In the Shadow of the She-Wolf. Now maybe I’m still following the convention in She-Wolf when I say that, because of what happens to her, the only way I can tell Omalda’s story is to tell her son’s story (though there’s more to it than that). But I also endeavored to truly include Omalda’s voice, both in the opening chapters and — in a different way — at the very end of the novel. Still, when it comes to reader expectations, I know that some people may strenuously object to bonding with one character in the opening chapters of the book only to jump ahead a number of years to a different character.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a well-known example of a book that jumps ahead (a great many years, in this case!) leaving behind the characters the reader has bonded with, since it’s really three shorter stories linked together, rather than one novel in the traditional sense. (One does have to wonder if it would be difficult for a new writer to publish something like that today, at least in genre fiction — certainly that would be more likely to fly if it were literary fiction.) And I confess that as a reader I initially felt a pang of disappointment upon discovering that Brother Francis wasn’t the protagonist of the entire book, since Miller certainly makes his readers develop a strong bond with that character. But when you look at the book as a whole and you understand the author’s purpose, an adult reader can accept that disappointment as a necessary part of the journey the author is taking them on. So this is another good example of how ‘drawing outside the lines’ can allow the writer to create something that has a greater impact.
I stumbled upon an essay written a few years back by Romance writer Jennifer Crusie called “A Writer Without A Publisher Is Like A Fish Without a Bicycle: Writer’s Liberation and You”. In this amusing but astute essay, she compares frantically trying to get published to being desperate to get married. She points out that desperation and frustration are always off-putting, especially when it involves no longer being true to yourself because you’re trying to fit into some mold that represents what you think will please others the most. So while Ms. Crusie doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t pursue either marriage or publication, she explains why seeing those things as your primary goal is problematic, because being genuine — in both relationships and writing books — has to come first.
And it seems particularly enlightening that this is coming from an author who writes in the genre that probably has the most rules that really must be followed to make readers happy, such as the requisite HEA ending (even if there isn’t really a formula for what happens on which page number!). But she makes it clear that even within that framework, there should be as much flexibility and freedom as possible, so the author’s individuality can shine through: “When we deny our voices and our visions to write what is popular and publishable, we’re making ourselves into lemmings, indistinguishable from the crowd. When we write the stories that only we can write, those stories become different, interesting, and rare, and editors become more inclined to dig a wider hole.”
So I think we have to stress that no matter what genre they’re writing in, writers should never get themselves all tied up in knots worrying about rules and conventions; the important thing is to write the book that you love, in the way you want to write it, feeling free to explore different ways of structuring the story to express the ideas and experiences you’re striving to capture in that story. The more genuine a book is and the more the author puts their heart and soul into it, the more likely it is that others will be truly moved by reading it, and that the book will offer a meaningful experience that will linger with them long afterwards.