Way back in the day, I started writing screenplays because the narrow requirements of classic American film created a simple structure--the wide infinite worlds of possibility narrowed down. I didn't feel qualified to make the hard decisions that a novelist must. It was a comfort to know that some things were given, not to be messed with. Not by a junior screenwriter, anyway.
The thriller Hanna reminded me of this. It follows classic structure to a T, even revealing the true nature of the dramatic dillemma at minute 17, (you won't believe me, but it happens in many films, even Casablanca). Despite this, the writer of Hanna innovated, experimented, and expressed a fresh and entertaining voice with the able help of the performers, the director, and some very interesting shooting choices. Was that really one continuous shot in the underground below Berlin?
Mystery in particular, but crime novels in general, are similar to movie story structure in having a number of constraints, audience expectations, traditions that must be followed, or subverted with extraordinary skill. If you don't kill somebody early, and threaten to kill others fairly often (especially the protagonist!), you'd better be giving the reader something of greater value than the reassurance of the familiar. After all, subverting the audience's expectations means making them work hard.
It was a lot of mental effort to try and assemble all those story bits in the wrong order for Memento--equally difficult to figure out who to root for after the main character of Psycho meets her famous demise. And if you've ever tried to keep track of the unruly plot of The Big Sleep without pausing it to take notes, you know just how hard it can be to really absorb a unique work that doesn't quite "follow the rules."
I think this is where a lot of people fail utterly to communicate with each other about "genre" and "literary" fiction. I've heard some of my favorite writers complain about being dismissed as "merely" genre, while all my lit-fic friends readily acknowledge:
- 90% of everything is awful, regardless of form.
- "Literary fiction" is a category, a genre like all the others.
Forgetting about the occasional cranky critic who uses "genre" like a bludgeon, I think it's time we all held hands and sang a chorus of "Sunshine" or something.
Let's all agree that no genre is the king of any other: lit-fic, romance, western, or whatever the heck those 50 Shades books are. Further, let's agree that any genre has its expert practioners, its enthusiastic beginners, and its self-deluded strugglers. We can each of us be any of these at any time, in any of our works. Finally, let's agree that writing tightly constrained genres has one set of challenges (being original prime among them), and looser genres have their challenges as well: if you can do anything, it's surely harder to choose the right things.
From this day forth, lets all simply be readers and writers and lovers of fiction. Sound good?