Enough of the political / current events crap for today. Maybe Linda or the Colonel will ring in with something later. My mind is on matters fictional.
I’ve ranted several times, here and elsewhere, about the priority I place on originality. Even before the “indie explosion,” original ideas and approaches in novel-length fiction were becoming very rare. The problem remains especially pronounced in my favorite genres: the speculative ones of science fiction and fantasy. But it’s affected other kinds of fiction as well.
That having been said, in some sense every item of worthwhile fiction proceeds from a formula. According to some reliable authorities, there are only three kinds of plots:
- Boy Meets Girl
- The Little Tailor
- Man Learns Better
Each of these concerns a category of reasons for a human being to experience growth-inducing change. (Not physical growth; mental, emotional, or spiritual growth. For advice about how to achieve or avert the physical kind, consult your nutritionist.) Since good fiction must be about people experiencing change, every plot must derive from a reason for change:
- Change because of interaction with another person or persons;
- Change in response to a challenge from the external world;
- Change owing to introspection or a breakthrough in understanding.
Those are the categorical sources of change. There are no others. They correspond to the three shorthand labels above. In a sense, they express the “writers’ formulas” for concocting a plot. But within each category, the variety of events and cause-and-effect relations that fit the formula is effectively infinite.
Romance fiction, in which I’ve dabbled, has a popular “sub-formula:”
- The “meet cute:” the event that touches off the romantic consequences;
- Problems arise that threaten the embryonic romance;
- The problems are resolved, usually after he and she realize how important they are to one another.
Two hundred twenty-seven million, four hundred sixteen thousand, and seventy-two romance novels (by actual count) have been written from that sub-formula. Such romances sell pretty well, which suggests that the old publishers’ maxim – “Give us the same, but different” – is a reliable guide to what romance readers want. If you write romance and want to maximize your sales figures, the sub-formula will naturally be of interest to you.
That’s quite all right, you know. If you intend to make your living as a romance novelist, your sales figures will clearly be immensely important. Very few novelists actually aspire to live in an abandoned packing case and dumpster-dive for their meals. For one thing, it would leave them critically dependent on the kindness of strangers. For another, there aren’t a lot of sturdy packing cases in good neighborhoods, to say nothing of the spotty availability of free WiFi. So in the romance field, formulaic writing, produced at a brisk rate, is at least financially defensible.
The same sort of logic applies to other genres of fiction. There are sub-formulas galore in fantasy, science fiction, horror, military thrillers, espionage fiction, psychological fiction, and what have you. Moreover, if one keeps an eye on “what’s hot” and is able to pump out three or four books a year, those formulas can translate to a substantial and reliable income. The downside is twofold:
- Your readers will eventually notice a certain sameness in your products;
- You’ll gradually “groove” yourself: i.e., you’ll find it progressively more difficult to break away from the formula.
I try consciously to stay away from the formulas and the trends. I prefer to write stories that others won’t – in some cases, that others have never attempted. In consequence, my readership is fairly small. I certainly couldn’t live on my fiction revenues, but as I make a nice living advising (and occasionally toppling) Third World dictatorships, that’s not a concern for me. So I can indulge myself in unique plots, characters, and themes. I can also take my time, which, being a finicky sort who simply can’t abide finding a typo in his own work, conduces to my mental health.
If you elect to go a similar way, you must be prepared for consequences that will resemble my experiences. But you won’t be bored. Moreover, your readers won’t likely react to your latest by groaning “Oh jeez, not this shit again.” You’ll probably have fun…and you might learn more about yourself through the stories you choose to tell than you could learn any other legal and relatively inexpensive way.
You might meet some interesting people, too: readers who resonate to your tales, imagine you to be a kindred spirit, and make an effort to contact you. I have, and it’s a great refreshment to the spirit. This heartwarming essay by John C. Wright captures it beautifully.
Give it some thought. And remember: in this domain as in few others, one’s decisions are usually reversible. (Beware of the temptation to write porn, though.) The formulas will always be there.