Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Not-So-Secret Formula

by Stephanie Black

In Monday’s blog, Jeffrey Savage talked about formulas in genre fiction and asked the following questions:

“Do you expect your genre novels to follow a certain pattern? If they don’t follow that pattern do you like it or hate it? What if the woman and the man don’t end up together at the end of the book, or the bad guy gets away? Or what if the story is written from the perspective of the dead victim? Or the story is told in reverse?

When does it get to the point where you throw the book aside and shout, ‘This isn’t following the rules!’”

This is a fun and intriguing topic, so in today’s blog, I’ll give my opinions. (This is far easier than thinking up my own blog topic—thanks, Jeff!)

My answer is: yes. I expect genre novels to follow a certain pattern, and would get very bothered if they didn't. The point at which I’d want to fling the book at the wall is when it violated the rules of the genre so completely that I felt like I didn’t get what I'd ordered—when, to steal Jeff’s analogy, the steak under that alfredo sauce turned out to be monkey’s brains.

I think Jeff’s steak/alfredo/brain comparison is an apt way to illustrate the issue. You can broil the steak and sprinkle it with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt; you can put a glob of garlic butter on it; you can you douse it in A1 or Heinz 57; you can marinate it in lime juice; you can smother it with carrots and potatoes, wrap it in foil and shove it in a campfire; you can chop it into chunks, skewer it along with eggplant and portabello mushrooms and flame-broil it—but it’s still steak.

You can write a hardboiled, hard-bitten mystery with a protagonist who channels Humphrey Bogart; you can write a cozy mystery complete with recipes for almond-cranberry muffins and monster cinnamon rolls; you can make your detective sweet Miss Marple or sassy “Puzzle Lady” Cora Felton; your detective can be a doctor, a cop, a housewife, a caterer, or a Victorian Egyptologist—but at the end of the mystery, the detective had darn well better solve the mystery or that book will be winging its way toward the wall at high velocity.

Just picture it. It’s the end of Murder on the Orient Express and Hercule Poirot shakes his egg-shaped head and says regretfully, "The criminal is too clever. The little gray cells, they have failed me. I give up." And he walks off the train and into the sunset. Somehow I don't think Agatha Christie would have sold three billion copies of her books if she'd pulled stunts like that. Yes, there's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her famous twist on the usual mystery story--but the crime still gets solved in the end, right? The reader is left going, "Oh, wow!" not "Oh, brother!"

Is genre fiction too predictable? I don’t think so. You know that in a mystery the detective will solve the crime, or in a romance novel that the boy and girl will end up together, or in a suspense novel that the rogue government agent will thwart the terrorists’ evil plot. But you don’t know how it will happen or who or when or what or with what startling twists and revelations along the way. The freshness of the characters and plot and the uniqueness of the writer's voice make it fun. If you want complete unpredictability, by all means, stay away from genre fiction. But personally, I like to know that in fiction, unlike in real life, things will work out. If I want a mystery where the bad guy gets away, I can read the newspaper.

Not all fiction needs to have a foreordained ending. Literary novelists, for example, are free to do all manner of experimental things and to have their books end triumphantly or miserably or anywhere in between. But if I want to read a literary novel, I’ll pick up a literary novel. If I order steak, I want steak.

Anyway, thanks for the blog topic, Jeff. Tune in next week when I’ll be stealing Sariah’s ideas.


At 5/24/2006 5:54 PM, Blogger Steven said...

So true. So very true.

People expect certain things of Mysteries, certain things of Fantasy, certain things of LDS Fiction, etc. Just a fact of life.

At 5/25/2006 12:58 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Hey, that brings up a good question. What things do people expect of LDS fiction (besides that it will be clean)? It would be interesting to poll a bunch of readers and see what they say.

At 5/25/2006 5:54 PM, Blogger Steven said...

Since you mention...I think one thing people expect (and usually receive with only a few exceptions) is that the plot climax highlights in some way a LDS teaching. Even the humorous fiction seems to have an underlying tone of "here's the lesson you're supposed to learn" somewhere in the book, usually at the end where the character learns The Lesson(tm).

At 5/26/2006 10:33 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

When I talked to Covenant about my mystery series, we discussed the fact that I didn't want it to be LDS specific. I wanted to write a hard biting mystery series that was edgy but clean. This came from many readers who had told me, "I like Janet Evaovich/Sue Grafton/Joe Konrath, but I wish I could read books like thiers without the gore/sex/language, etc.

Also, I run into a problem with my mysteries when the character is overtly Mormon. If she is a devout mormon does she pray when she's in a jam? Of course. How does that play into the resolution? Do I have to lay out how her prayer was answered? It all gets dicey.

So I just write clean mysteries. There are messages, but they are not overtly Mormon. No one gets converted or baptized. So does it still work in the LDS market?

At 5/26/2006 12:55 PM, Blogger Steven said...

Again, this is just my opinion so feel free to pooh-pooh it if you want.

While the message may not be overtly Mormon, it may still have something to do with the teachings. Love of mankind is a universal thing, and yet still Mormon. Okay, okay, so that's a really simplistic example, but you get the idea, I hope. When I mentioned underlying messages in even humorous fiction what I was specifically thinking of as a concrete example was Baptisms at the Barbecue. I thought that book had a nicely undertoned message of charity and tolerance towards others.

I do appreciate the fact that people are starting to want hard-bitten mysteries that aren't full of cussing and sex. I have actually had friends mention to me that "LDS fiction won't hit its full stride until it stops having obvious Mormon themes in every book and being afraid to address some serious topics." And I can see that in some ways. I actually have hopes of writing similar things myself. (I believe I commented elsewhere in this blog that I am a wannabe writer.)

I believe Liz Adair writes a LDS-marketed mystery series that is set in Nevada. While the character is obviously Mormon and does have his "Mormon moments", the denouement of the mystery doesn't really have anything to do with Mormonism.

I guess what I forgot to mention in my previous post is that while there can be more than one climax in a story the LDS angle can come in with a personal issue the character is facing. (Like, oh, maybe a detective trying to figure out if he wants to continue with the job or not or something minor like that, but it's still something that needs to be resolved. And that little issue can be resolved using his/her faith but the faith may have nothing to do with figuring out who killed poor Jane Doe.)

In every story's three essential conflicts (man vs self, man vs man, and man vs nature) there is usually one where the Mormonisms come out more than in the other two. In most LDS-marketed mysteries I've seen, the LDS angle most often comes in play with the man vs self conflict.

So your stuff can still work. You don't necessarily need to show that the praying had anything specific to do with the denouement. You can perhaps show that it gave her the inner peace needed to deal with what is going on and it cleared her head to the point that she could see a vital clue she'd been missing. I don't know. Just a wild idea. That has the advantage of being a little bit more immediate and not directly "interfering" with the denouement.

I admit I would be a bit thrown if right in the middle of a car chase your character suddenly thought "aha, the spirit just told me the answer." Again, a cheesy example. Sue me. I guess in my longwided way I'm saying that I see your point and also saying that there's ways to play it without having it be so LDS-centric that it makes your readers roll their eyes. It can be a balancing act sometimes as I've found in my own writing so good luck with that. But I don't think it's necessary for someone to be converted or baptized because - and here's something I didn't mention - even within the LDS Fiction genre, you still have the internal genre expectations. People will still expect you to have mystery-ish stuff.

Anyway, I think I'll shut up now and get off my hobby horse.

At 5/26/2006 12:57 PM, Blogger Steven said...

Whoops. The name of the book should be Baptists at the Barbecue, not Baptisms. My bad.


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