I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and the topic turned to writing, as it usually does with this friend, as he’s also an author.
We began discussing my work (because it’s always all about me, all the time, in my world, dammit) and he made several comments. First was that he didn’t like several of my books because they didn’t have character arcs. Which gave me pause – I was, like, “So what? Who says there has to be a character arc for a book to be good?”
And then he gave me this long dissertation about how the most popular stories of all time had character arcs, where the main character undergoes a radical change during the story, basically realizing how wrong he/she’s been about something, and becomes a better person for it.
He became enraged when I said, “Sounds like every bad movie ever made, and all Disney flicks, good or bad. A tired formula that’s overused and as predictable as a politician lying.”
You see, he’d learned about character arcs in school and reading books on how to write well, thus any novel that didn’t follow this pat formula had to be deficient.
Which is idiocy. A good book is one that entertains me, and is well written. Period. I don’t need some hackneyed morality play every time I turn on my kindle. I don’t need some thinly-disguised archetype that the author is trying to pass off as original thought. I don’t need a paint-by-numbers novel where we have the usual crap espoused by lit majors and their professors shoehorned into a new premise. In short, I don’t need a novel to follow a set formula to be “good.”
Most readers are probably like me. Fairly bright (although you wouldn’t know it to read some of my reviews, but don’t get me started) and somewhat world-weary and jaded. They buy my stuff, when they do, because they like a tale well told. They don’t require that every book be one wherein the avaricious businessman learns about the true value of love by the time the denouement comes creaking to the fore, nor that the hero vanquishes his adversaries in a bare-chested climactic struggle and we all learn something important about ourselves. I know I’ve driven some readers nuts because I kill off favorite characters with ease, and could give two shits about what’s considered good form for novels. I write stories I would want to read, and I tend to groan out loud whenever they veer too far towards the expected. Witness JET, which is deliberately overblown and a tad cartoonish. I’ve gotten flack because it isn’t “realistic” enough, which is fine. I didn’t want it to be realistic. I wanted it to be breakneck paced and entertaining, and life usually ain’t. So much for realism. I’ll take fiction any day in this case.
All of which was heresy to my friend, who has invested years in learning how to write a “good” book – character arcs, beats, etc.
None of which matters if you’re doing it right. (It’s also one of the reasons I had a conceptual problem as I started reading scripts with an eye toward screenwriting – they basically all follow the same form: identify the protag within the first few pages and articulate the “theme” of the story so the dim can reflect back on it later and have a contrived “a ha” moment, establish an essential struggle or challenge he/she must overcome while highlighting his/her weakness (he’s a workaholic with no time for his wife or kid, she’s going through a mid-life crisis, whatever), and then populate the film with beats where the little morality tale plays out with absolute predictability and the bad guy gets his comeuppance by the end. It’s as absurd as Tom Cruise throwing his gun away at the end of Reacher to go mano a mano with his evil nemesis – my reaction is invariably, wait, people still write this crap? And an audience consumes it? Really?)
Another thing my buddy was absolutely certain about was adverbs. They are to be eschewed. Used rarely, if at all. Again, because that’s what he was taught or read in Stephen King’s book. I won’t get into it too much here, but that’s a stupid rule. It’s like saying commas are bad, and should be avoided. Or adjectives are bad, etc. How about, OVERUSE of adverbs as a lazy TELLING vs. showing device in DIALOGUE TAGS, is bad, and leave it at that reasonable guidance? Hrmph…
Needless to say, we don’t agree on much. Then again, I sell quite a few books. He doesn’t.
Which you can tell bugs him no end. Because he’s the one with all the learning. He likes to use words like anodyne and solipsist in everyday conversation, if that’s any clue. Mainly to show that the hundred grand of college he smoked weed through gave him something besides a mass of student loans to reflect upon while working his assistant manager position at Coffee Barn.
Except all he really did was memorize a bunch of dogma, without questioning it, and then become intolerant of any approach other than the one he’d adopted.
Which is, well, dumb.
I don’t really have a point here. Just thought I’d share what my week has been like, and why I don’t spend a lot of time in the company of fellow scribes. I prefer to read great authors to prod me into upping my literary ante, not memorializing story structures that are as tiresome as the Bee Gees on permanent repeat or rules that make no sense. Note that I’m not saying that rules aren’t important guidelines we need to know – just that rules are there to spur us to better and more effective writing, not to use as a filter through which the world, and all work, must be viewed.
Having said that, I’ll confess I’m a pedant, and it drives me batty to read stuff where the author clearly doesn’t know the basics of grammar or spelling. But that’s a whole ‘nother rant…