Thursday, August 16, 2007

Staying Inside The Lines

Small children will sit in front of a television and watch the same show over and over again. Parents complain, maddened at having to sit through "The Lion King" or "Cars" for the fiftieth time. But are the adults so different from the children?

Someone recently said to me: "People like the familiar. They don't mind twists on the familiar, but they want something comfortable." Writing is like that. When a reader picks up a spy novel, they want a spy novel. And there are rules that writer is supposed to follow within that subgenre. When people read a vampire story or a zombie tale, they expect the author will work within their expectations or else have a strong reason why they are coloring outside the lines.

Strange that we spend so much energy exalting the "original" and the "creative". I'm not condemning, just observing.

I think that the brilliance of some writing is the ability of the author to take the familiar and present it in such a manner as to strike deeply resonating chords within the reader. Whether the author does that by deliberately following a Campbell model of archetypes, or by following an intuitive bend, success is measured by reader response.

Reader response.

I've been critical of writers who create without consideration of readership. I've scoffed at those who are acclaimed great writers for producing books nearly indecipherable. Is originality an illusion, or a matter of timing and perspective?

Stephen King, a writer with whom I have a love/hate relationship (I just recently gave up on trying to make it through "The Gunslinger") is a master at playing to that part of the human psyche that sits on the floor cross-legged, smiling dreamily while proclaiming: "Tell me that story again. Tell me again the part with the old man."

King stays colors within the lines. It's his genius to do so. Giving the public what they want may not win a person literary praise by ivy league critics, but it improves chances of publication.


SQT said...

For what it's worth I haven't been able to get through The Gunslinger either.

I think of J.K. Rowling when it comes to the genius of delivering what we want to read. I don't know what it is about the story that resonates so strongly, but she tapped into something.

spyscribbler said...

"Tell me that story again."

That has to be the highest compliment to a storyteller. Now how do you write a story that people want to read over and over?

Kate S said...

Sqt mentioned Rowling, and that's who I thought of, too, when I read this. What I loved about her books was the way they made the ordinary extraordinary. Every day objects and "normal" people (the familiar) doing fun, unusual things (the original/creative).

I always enjoy books like that - because they make the familiar seem magical. Makes it seem like anything could be possible without really leaving our comfort zone.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT...on target. Rowling is a simple writer, which by the way is a trend. More and more authors are writing for young adults, but in actuality those books are being read by adults.

Spy..I really like that comment. A story that people want to read over and over again. I think it's about the archetypes, myself. Harry Potter certainly falls within Campbell's hero's journey

Kate...making everyday objects extraordinary. Did you ever watch little kids be read to? They sit there and things that we take for granted, that are part of the most mundane level of our existence, become something extraordinary for them

Christina said...

Maybe that's why I'm a fan of Mercedes Lackey. Some of her stories are based off faerie tales like, The Swam Princess, (though I forgot what the title of her book for that one is), she did one on Beauty and the Beast, titled: Fire Rose. I love her work.

Charles Gramlich said...

Couldn't get through Gunslinger either. I think you're right on here, Stewart. I want to read something new that resonates with me. That means it's going to have "some" characteristics in common with what I've liked before, or else I don't have a pathway to work my way into the story. However, I don't want it to be exactly like what I've read before. If there is no surprise then why should I read it? It's often a fine line, complicated by the fact that everyone comes to a tale with different experiences. You might find a story "old hat" while I find it fresh and new, depending on our ages, reading history, knoweldge base, etc. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Gramlich, it's a fine line to tread.

I think change, in anything, should be gradual. When I pick up a book, I do have certain expectations based upon the genre, and the subject matter in and upon which the book was written.

If the book is supposed to be about vampires for example, I'm going to be pretty pissed if they completely disregard any and all mythology upon which the creature is based.
Oh, I don't mind if they get rid of a couple of the little things, garlic, mirrors, and what have you. But I never want to see a vampire who doesn't have to drink blood, or who can walk in the Sun without fear of death. (you're on thin ice blade...)

I enjoy seeing someone take something old and familiar, and twist it to make it new and exciting again.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear that you quit the Gunslinger. If I had to guess, I would say that you couldn't get through the Gunslinger because you wanted the story to move...and it didn't.

I watched Clerks 2 last night and in the film, two characters argued over LOTR vs. Star Wars. One parodied LOTR by stating it was a movie about walking. In the first movie they walked. In the second they walked. In the third they walked, dropped a ring in a volcano, shrugged then walked home. This scene reminds me of the gunslinger. He walks. However, TDT was a new direction for King at the time (sort of…the Stand fits in here in ways) and I know many who didn't care for that cup of tea. However, I still stand by my claims of its greatness...(if you can get past the Gunslinger). Maybe in time you can come back and give it another swing.

Lucas Pederson said...

I agree with Jim here. Stewart, and most all of you who haven't made it through Gunslinger, you are truly missing out. The Dark Tower series is a great sprawling story,and one must bare with the first volume to get to the really good stuff in the second book. The Drawing of the Three is fantastic! I'm not saying all this becasue I'm an avid King reader, but because these books really are good, if given a chance. Like writing, you have to push through it at first before enlightenment begins. Give it another chance, Stewart, and no matter your thoughts about th Gunslinger, read the second book. I gurantee you'll be hooked after that one.

As for Rowling, yes, she is the current champ for readership. And I love all the Harry Potter books. Pure story. But, I wonder, can she create something else? Can she write soemthing other than the story of Harry Potter, I wonder? Probably, but I have to ponder that for a while.
Great post!

Fab said...

I like it when writers deliver my expectations. Not that I don't like a good plot twist. But as said in the post: a spy novel must have spy elements. I devoured the last Harry Potter as so many did for that same reason.

So I agree that writers should take into consideration what readers want. I don't think it limits their ability to be original. I sincerely hope not.

Working with children a lot, and as a consequence reading a lot to them, they can listen to stories over and over again. But as an adult I do the same with books I love. Yet every time, how well I know the story, I get something else out of it.

Sphinx Ink said...

Excellent and thoughtful post, Stewart. You touch on an issue my writers' group often has discussed. We call it "tapping into core fantasies." In other words, the novels and short stories that become most popular are those that resonate with readers because they hit upon the readers' subconscious, mythic-level fantasies. We came up with names for the most common fantasies, such as "Band of Brothers" (your friends will stay with you no matter what--e.g., Lord of the Rings); "I'm Special" (you look ordinary on the outside, but you have hidden qualities that set you apart and make you powerful--e.g., Harry Potter). Those are just two of many core fantasies we have identified. In fact, our group presented a panel discussion on the Core Fantasies analysis to a local chapter of a national writers' group. The group loved our ideas.

I can't take credit for the ideas, however--they all were developed by my brilliant colleagues ion Wordsmiths, who deserve kudos for their imaginations and analytical abilities: Laura Joh Rowland, Candice Proctor, Charles Gramlich, Steve Harris, and Emily Toth. (I confess I sat silent, frantically taking notes, through most of the core fantasies discussions, unable to contribute much except admiration for my colleagues' intellects.)

Anonymous said...

You know Stewart, now that I think about it (again...its been a while since I read the series) I say skip the gunslinger all together. Go right to the drawing of three...skip over the gunslinger. you can always go back to answer a question or two...skim till you find what your looking for.

Just a thought.

SQT said...


I think you're dead on with the "core fantasy" idea. I've heard psychologists talk about our basic human needs and one that I always remember is the need to feel significant.

I think we like characters in which we fancy we see a little of ourselves. Or maybe it's characters we like to fantasize we could be.

avery said...

Isn't it funny how a word that means new and different defines an entertainment category that so obdurately resists change?

People want what they can recognize and relate to. It doesn't mean that the format for stories has to stay the same forever, though. It's just that the change has to evolve slowly. And, the older one's audience, the slower the change is going to have to be for them to accept it. I believe all of the little plot tweaks we implement to give our stories a new flair will eventually add up to an entirely different format for novels. We just won't be around to see it.

Kate S said...

Hey Stewart - (off topic here) - a friend of your made a comment on one of my blogs that maybe he needs an assignment to get writing again.

Is it about that time? :) (Hey, you ARE the guru - we await your leadership.)