Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bet You Didn't See THAT Coming.

Today we're talking about unpredictability. Defining what it means seems a tad ironic, but here's the thing...

I don't think it means what some people think it means.

To illustrate the point I found this pic of an apple with an orange center and it got me thinking. Surely if you pick up an apple you do so because you want an apple? I know I would be surprised if I got an orange, but not necessarily in a good way. 

It could be argued romance novels have been around for so long there is no new way of telling a love story-two people meet and fall in love and they either get a happily ever after or they don't-but I don't think that's entirely true. At the very least it's an extremely simplified version of events. Fact is all stories have similarities but it doesn't mean they're all the same.

Let's look at another example. My latest TV obsession is Once Upon A Time. For anyone who hasn't seen it the quickest way of describing it is to say it's a fresh take on our favorite fairytales with a twist or two along the way-some more 'out there' than others. Personally I'm a Snow and Charming fan. Not so much a Mary-Margaret and David fan, but that's a whole other blog. The point I'm trying to make is the heart of the story remains the same. Snow and Charming still meet and fall in love but if we think this is the same Snow White and Prince Charming we've met countless times before, we'd be wrong. When we first meet Snow she's a thief-then we discover the prince isn't a prince after all. Doesn't stop us from expecting them to fall in love though, does it? Having said that when I went to see Snow White And the Huntsman I'd have been happy for Snow White to end up with Thor the huntsman instead of the 'prince' but again, that's a whole other blog.

The one thing we know for certain is readers pick up a book with an expectation of what they'll get. What we writers have to do is fulfil that expectation while at the same time supplying the one thing which keeps them turning the page into the wee small hours (or in the case of Once Upon A Time, tuning in each week to find out what happens next). With that in mind I want you to remember what we said in the last blog about the hook.

'In simple terms the hook leaves unanswered questions'. 

If the reader can predict the answers to those questions, they don't have a reason to keep reading. Make the answer something they didn't expect or were made unsure of along the way and we have the required element of unpredictability. In the words of lovely M&B editor Flo Nicholl:

'...it’s about taking the reader on a journey they haven’t been on before – even though the ultimate destination of a happy ever after remains the same, an unpredictable story offers an unexpected alternative route to this climax. '

For my money Snow and Charming are doing that in Once Upon A Time without being so far removed from my expectation it makes the story unrecognizable. That doesn't mean there aren't people who prefer something more traditional or some who would like to go even further outside the box. What it means is there's room for several different 'versions' and-hopefully-a market for them all. By inviting unpredictability the editors are encouraging us to be creative. As Flo says:

'What we’re interested in is how to deliver books that surprise you, thanks to thought-provoking, unanticipated characterisation, an unexpected story line or an amazingly different emotional conflict. '

In the last blog I talked a little about my thought process with this latest WIP, how the hero is an undercover cop and the obvious theme is identity. I said he has spent his life lying to people and pretending to be someone he’s not so I found myself asking how difficult that was and whether or not he’d got lost along the way. The obvious answer to the latter would be yes, he did, so guess what I'm going to do? But if it's not his problem then what is and is the theme still identity? I think it is. I'll leave it to you to guess why.

Bottom line: The outcome of the story may be exactly what we expect but the journey to get there and-more importantly-the characters taking it, aren't. We've got to mix things up a little. How far you decide to take it or how much you'll accept as a reader is up to you but as far as I'm concerned, make the characters unique and the story is too. I have to ask myself what makes them different before I begin to write. In the case of the pic above the reason it's pretending to be an apple=character motivation. What stops it from revealing it's an orange=inner conflict. If it's an apple that looks like an apple, smells like an apple, tastes like an apple and when we get below the surface it is an apple, there isn't much of a story to engage the reader.

Thoughts on why the orange is pretending to be an apple are welcomed in the comments, as are any questions you might have on the subject of unpredictability. Right now I have no idea what next week's topic might be, so feel free to make a few suggestions! And for those who haven't seen it, this is how Snow and Charming met in Once Upon A Time:


Maya said...

Yes! The story might be well known but it's the journey which makes it interesting.

My favorite romantic pairing is Superman & Lois Lane.

In the comic book universe I have my favorite eras and stories.

I think the Golden age (30s & 40s) did a good job albeit with the entrenched sexism of the time.

I hated the silver age (1950s and 60s) take because Lois was saddled with all the horrible sexist stereotypes and she was made to take full responsibility for the triangle for two. The writers wrote her as a man eating harpy out to trap Superman in marriage while they wrote Clark as a victim even though he was the one perpetuating the fraud on Lois. Every time she came close to uncovering the truth he tricked her in very mean ways, but the subtext was she deserved it somehow. ICK.

The bronze age (70s & 80s) in to the post crisis era (86-2011) was much more balanced. Stories like Birthright (Waid) for example re- imagined the story respecting all three characters (Lois, Superman and Clark)

Meanwhile Smallville the tv show took a path that hadn't been taken before. They introduced Lois to the story before Clark became Superman. They showed their familiar bicker/banter relationship but with no Superman in sight.

They brought in a Superman prototype, the Blur, but even then her relationship with the Blur was not based on a girlish crush but instead a grown woman who respected the man and his deeds.

This is my long winded way of saying I agree completely with your post. A well known story can be told over and over again without getting stale. Many times with updates to reflect changes in society and the rest.

When I was a kid I read a lot of my mom's Essie Summer's books, and they were great. However, it was steeped in women's roles when the author was growing up and written through that lens.

A modern love story takes all these familiar elements yet brings in current attitudes toward relationships.

Just because the framework is well known doesn't mean there is nothing new to say. At least in my opinion.

Trish Wylie said...

Exactly-and with some fab examples!

I was thinking about Smallville when I wrote this post. :) Was also thinking of the trend for vampire romances and how we might never have had the craze if someone hadn't decided to shake up the Bram Stoker version. Personally I love seeing a new twist to the stories I love. That doesn't mean I don't still gravitate back to familiar favorites from time to time, but if we all ate our favorite food at every sitting...

Maya said...

oops. that should read Summers' Sorry!!

Favorite food, that is a great way to distill it down.

Janet said...

"Thoughts on why the orange is pretending to be an apple are welcomed in the comments."

It's all explained by reading Michael Hauge's Identity to Essence articles ;)

At the beginning of the story the orange is fully in her identity. She’s an orange on the inside and also on the outside (like Tess in Working Girl, who is a secretary)

Then she wants something that would mean her to stepping into her essence, which is too frightening -- so instead she physically pretends to be something she's not -- an apple. (for Tess it’s a broker)

This is your orange masquerading as an apple picture, she’s false on the outside (Acting a charade, not who she really is)

Then, as this false character, her essence begins to emerge (apple/ability to be a broker.)

She’s pretending to be in her identity (apple/broker) when she’s actually hiding in her essence (apple/broker)

When the deception is revealed she's learned enough to use her new perspective to rectify what she's done, redeem herself and get what she wants.

At the end she’s true on the outside and true on the inside and has become an apple both inside and out.

Trish Wylie said...

Lol. You're worried about the grammar police on THIS blog, Maya?

Trish Wylie said...

You had me until her essence began to emerge, Janet. Wouldn't that essence be orange? ;)

P.S. LOVE Michael Hauge!

Janet said...

"Wouldn't that essence be orange? ;)"

It depends on how you look at it :)

In the picture I saw a character in what Michael Hauge calls an 'imposture romantic comedy.' I saw an orange dressed as an apple and pretending to be an apple. (like Tess in Working Girl, Tootsie, Maid in Manhattan, Pretty Woman, Mrs. Doubtfire.. Once we get past the start of the story they are all hiding in their essence.

Alternatively the picture could be showing an apple who longs to be an orange, but hasn't the courage. So for her, her identity would be apple -- and her essence would be an orange.