Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Week Thirteen: Why Novels Are Like Apples

The best-laid plots ...
I've been thinking this week about plots, genres, and how they can so easily go awry when you're not watching. Literary novels can go off in any direction they want. But most commercial novels are all about the plot. Characters are important, yes. Vitally important. Characters are what drive the novel forward, after all. But in general they have to do something for the book to take off. The Hundred Year Old Man is fascinating - but it's not until he Climbed out Of A Window and Disappeared that we started buying his story in droves.

So let's cram as many events as possible into our stories, the new writer might say. If action and plot are what is required, let's put something amazing in each chapter, and crown it with a genre twist.

But of course this will not work. Yes, we want action as well as character. But what we do not want is chaos. Fiction is like real life, but it is not real life. It has to be controlled, fenced in, kept in order by its creator. Stories must stick to the plan. Worlds must cohere. Mild-mannered country folk cannot run away and become international jewel thieves - unless that is the crux of your story. (See The Hobbit for details.)

Stick with the genre you came in with. At least for this book.

Genre is all-important in this. Genre tells you your parameters and how far you can push them. It can feel like a limitation at times, but more often it's a liberation. It allows you to focus, really focus, on language, the nuts and bolts of writing, on narrative, on dialogue, on pacing and structure, and forget - to some extent, once you've set it down in outline - about plot. Like a partner at a dance, you need to stick with the genre you came in with or risk losing your reader's trust. (From Dusk Till Dawn is a notable exception in film terms, which I stumbled across one night on the television and watched with my jaw hanging open.) In other words, you can't start out writing a comic novel, then turn it into a romance, then rev it up into a thriller, then shift it into political drama, then develop a cop buddy story, then ...

You get the idea.

It's perfectly possible to write like that, of course. No one is stopping you from writing anything, especially in these brave days of self-publishing. But successes with that kind of genre merry-go-round are going to be rare. You need great skill to negotiate the comic and the dramatic, to keep romance bubbling away while exploring political issues, and so on. Great skill only comes with experience, the kind of writing experience that tells you not to bother in the first place. And if you did bother, you'd need a brave - or foolish - agent to take it on.

The way I see it, novels are like fruit. And they enjoy the same limitations and structural integrity as fruit. So a novel that begins as an apple should end as an apple.

Novels are like apples. An apple never becomes a banana halfway through being eaten.

A novel that starts life as an apple should not turn yellow and become a banana by act two, or morph gently into a mango in the closing chapters.

This does not mean we cannot mix genres. Not in the slightest. A pineapple is a mixed genre fruit. But it's still a pineapple. It doesn't forget which two genres make up its DNA, if you see what I mean. It doesn't add a third one as an experiment just because things are getting boring.

So even if she does not make a plan, the commercial writer needs to know, at least at a subconscious level, what kind of novel she is writing. And though she may not know the exact details of the journey at the outset, she must understand that it cannot suddenly become a different category of novel, or not without risk to its integrity. Romances need to stay romantic. Thrillers scare you till the end. And baddies always get punished, even if it takes a ten book series to catch them.

I write mixed genre novels: this is an historical paranormal romance. But I planned it that way and did not deviate from its exact parameters. It started as mixed genre, and ended the same way.

To steer the story to its conclusion without mishap, you only need to keep chanting, 'Steady as she goes.' And if it feels like your romance or historical is flagging in that so-called soggy middle, don't reach for the hand grenade or the unexpected kidnap. It's not a touch of international thriller you need to excite the reader. It's electric prose. It's a feeling of inevitability. It's narrative drive. It's brilliantly illuminated characters. It's good old-fashioned excellence in writing. Nothing more.

QUESTION: Have you ever written a book that began one way, then unexpectedly turned into something quite different, and what did you do about it? Was it successful?


  1. I increasingly find that my books get darker as they progress. Not so much a change in genre but a change in tone. At the moment it's still at the level where I can lighten things up (where appropriate) as I edit, but I think for my next book I'm going to start off dark and see where that takes me. I've never actually jumped genre mid-book though. *eyes rom-com work-in-progress; wonders whether it's too late for aliens to land...*

  2. No, I haven't, Victoria, because I wrote two unashamed attempts (several unpublished) at short romance in the eighties, which stuck strictly to the rules, and no more until the first book in the current series which started (cynically) as the deliberate first book in a series with set parameters. Loving these posts.

  3. Thanks Alison and Lesley! I love the parameters of genre, especially when it means I can stretch or defy them.

    Alison, I agree that tone is not usually the same as genre, but depending on your plot choices, it could become a close second. Dark or ironic comedy has a long tradition, for instance. But while romantic comedy can turn grim and gritty in places, if it all ends in tragedy, the writer may have gone a little too far! Vx


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