On Plotting, and Movies

So I've been plotting out my new novel -- working title The Last Man On Earth. I've had a general idea what it's going to be about for months, and I've finally begun to hammer those general notions into a specific, step-by-step progression of scenes. And I've been watching a few movies. I streamed a couple of Isabelle Huppert movies, because my goal for the new heroine is to craft a character that Isabelle Huppert could play. She might be my favorite actress ever, partly because she plays such complicated, often savage roles -- she's played Medea, the child killer, and Madame Bovary. She played the titular protagonist of The Piano Teacher, whose uptight, cultivated facade hides a core of unhinged savagery, a nymphomaniac nun in Amateur, a matriarch and murderess in Merci pour le chocolat.

So I watched two movies last weekend:

White Material, about a white family driven off of their coffee plantation in the midst of a civil war in an unnamed African state. Huppert runs the plantation with her ex-husband, his father, and their son. The ex-husband has an exit plan; the son is very much the product of his upbringing, which is to say he's a nightmare; the father is too old to change; Huppert's character digs in and refuses to flee. She is unashamed and unafraid, when she ought to be both.

I really liked White Material. I think it's worth a watch. Not a fun movie, but a good one. It's a very tightly focused film, very controlled. While the pacing felt leisurely, in retrospect the movie doesn't contain a single wasted moment. The militia converges on the plantation, the family self-destructs, and it all leads to a final climactic scene.

And then Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, in which Huppert plays a prostitute who hires herself out to a psychoanalyst. The movie parallels their two professions, suggesting a host of similarities. The role is ideal for Huppert, who has the opportunity to dress up in various costumes, to wield a knife, to indulge in hysterics, and to smoke pensively on her balcony.

My verdict? Eh. Whatever. Huppert is always worth watching, but the movie meanders. While it has a point, the story is tissue-thin, the resolution is weak, and the ending abrupt.

I watched those two more or less 'for research' - to help wrap my mind around this new character that I'm creating. But I also watched a couple of movies for fun. Namely:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, about a young girl, Hushpuppy, growing up in the Louisiana bayou. I guess I'd call it a coming of age story, though Hushpuppy is much too young for it. But she has no choice in the matter -- the arrival of a massive storm in the bayou forces change on her community, while personal devastation leaves Hushpuppy with only one way forward: to rise up on her own two feet.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is part fantasy. Hushpuppy is young enough that she doesn't differentiate entirely between the life of her imagination and the real world. Events are reinterpreted in her mind as fantastical happenings or take on mythic overtones. But the touch of pure fantasy doesn't keep this movie from feeling grounded, authentic, and real.

The last movie I'll mention is Pitch Perfect, about a pair of rival college a capella groups. This sucker is, in contrast to the other three, very tightly plotted and immensely entertaining. There's the rival-groups plot, with a structure familiar to anyone who's watched a season of Glee -- the underdog must clear the hurdles of two successive competitions to reach the final round where they face off against the more polished, more successful rival in the ultimate sing-off. The protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, must overcome a series of personal obstacles before she can successfully helm the group and lead them to victory.

This is the movie that got me thinking. Because although Pitch Perfect's plot is by far the most plausible -- these competitions really exist, and college freshmen often do spend that first year on campus struggling to belong and achieve -- it felt the most artificial.

So I got to thinking: tight plotting reads as artificial.

Artificial does not mean bad. The finale of Pitch Perfect is the most satisfying of the lot, because it resolves so many plot threads at once -- it marks the protagonist's social, romantic, familial and artistic victory. It is both deeply nostalgic and fresh. It ends on a musical number and makes you feel great.

But in order to achieve so much in a short period of time, the scenes are compressed. There's no time for chitchat, no tangents. At least half the characters are familiar types that we can understand without much exposition, tweaked a bit for interest, with the glossy appearance of depth rather than real three-dimensionality.

Both White Material and Beasts of the Southern Wild disguise their artificiality. The scenes are longer and less obviously purposeful. They only appear functional in retrospect, when you sit down to dissect the plot. The viewer isn't constantly cued about how far they've come along a familiar story arc, or reminded what conclusion they should be rooting for. The stories feel, as a result, less directed and more surprising. Less artificial, more lifelike.

The dud of the lot, Special Practice/Ni Tete Ni Queue, feels highly artificial and goes nowhere.

Since I am staring down at the bones of my story, unfleshed and undisguised, this struck me as a useful metric. I think part of what readers want from a genre story is, in fact, the artificial feel. The reassurance of being directed, the familiarity of a story arc, the promise of a resolution. Things need to move quickly enough that the reader feels on track.

I think plenty of genre readers appreciate a lean, well-told story that hits its marks and takes its bow. I do, even though that's not not what I write. The take-home point for me is that even if the added elements, the layers, don't feel purposeful, they must be purposeful. There's no room for real excess.

On the other hand, a story that feels real and offers surprises is doing good work, even at the expense of ultra-tight plotting.


There's been a bit of chatter lately in Romancelandia about escapism. I'm thinking especially of Ruthie Knox's Wonkomance post, On Escapism in Historical Romance, where she wonders if escapism is necessary to romance, and Cecilia Grant's guest post on Anna Cowan's blog, And Still, We Will Fall In Love, where she acknowledges - and then points a middle finger at - the notion that escapism is incompatible with literary merit. I also had a Twitter conversation about why readers would want to escape into horrific scenarios of abusive relationships. Sarah Mayberry tweeted that the "rich guy will make me happy" plot troubled her - that she wants her "heroines to be in charge of their own happiness and have their own power, not find it thr[ough] the man."

And I thought - yes, that is a kind of escapism, but it's a different kind of escapism than Ruthie Knox was talking about, and different again from what Cecilia Grant was talking about. It occurred to me that escapism is an umbrella term, a genus with many species, and that if we want to have a productive conversation about escapism, we should probably spend some time thinking about what it is.

So I'm going to start by listing different kinds of escapism. Not a complete list, but the best I can do:

Escape into a Better World: A world where the good guy always wins. Where the romance always ends in a happily ever after. Where the mystery is always solved, the villains get their comeuppance, and order is affirmed and restored.

I think this is the kind of escapism that Ruthie Knox was talking about when she wrote, "I want some anxiety, but not too much. Some tears, but not too many. Some gritty reality in the portrayal of history, but not so much reality that I get all swept up in thinking miserable thoughts about the past."

In this better world of fiction, we expect loss and upheaval and anguish -- but not too much. (Though, of course, various writers and readers define 'too much' very differently).

Escape into a World that Can and Should Be: This is what Sarah Mayberry made me think of. This escapism is like a model home, or an artists rendering of a community development. "This is what we can do," it says. "Here's how I propose to deal with this potential problem, and that one." In romance, I think this means subjecting a couple to potentially relationship-shattering difficulties that occur frequently in real life (incompatible career goals, juggling work and family, difficult family dynamics) and modeling a successful resolution.

This also means things like forward-thinking gender dynamics, strong mutual respect within a couple, fair division of household labor, etc. And the solutions might be good, but they're rarely easy -- compromises are key to a happy resolution.

Escape Into A Better World vs. Escape into a World that Can and Should Be

Escaping into a better world is impossible, because we'll never live in a world where good guys always win and mysteries are always solved. We will never have a reality where we can count on a satisfactory outcome to our greatest difficulties.

Escaping into a world that can and should be is possible, because it only asks individuals (real, fictional) to call upon their best selves and make good choices in a generally screwed-up world. This escapism says, in fun and funny and heartwarming ways: Best practices lead to better outcomes. Some people are good: find them. And hold on when you do.

Escape from Burdens: I think this is the kind of escapism most often used to tar and feather romance, as a genre. This is the billionaire who sweeps an ordinary heroine off her feet. The bodyguard who steps in to battle the heroine's demons. The cowboy who knows just how to save the heroine's failing ranch, the playboy who discovers he wants nothing more than to be a loving, devoted father.

These are books that say: Are you terrified of financial hardship, tormented by envy, psychically drained, exhausted? Here, let yourself be carried away by a story where those burdens that you carry, that make every day painful, vanish.

These are not true stories. They are probably exactly as impossible as they are necessary to their readers.

Escape from burdens might be the most useful kind of escapism, because it has an immediate practical application. This is escapism as respite -- as Cecilia Grant wrote, "a kind of turning-away, or temporary retreat, from conditions and realities that are too painful to steadily face." Escapism as a pause, a breather, a break. Time to gear up for the next round. Or, alternatively, an acknowledgement of defeat. A hidey-hole, a walled fortress, a defense mechanism.

Some burdens cannot be escaped. Life is painful, for everyone, pretty often. I have a lot of empathy for the escape from burdens because I think it zeroes in on those grinding, debilitating worries that won't go away, that can only be endured. Grant, typically, said this more elegantly: "I find it more interesting, more rewarding, to think of romance as an unbowed answer to those conditions and realities. A confrontation. A tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair."

Escape from Consequences: If escape from burdens is an escape from conditions that often feel beyond one's control, escape from consequences is an escape from personal responsibility. Escape from punishment, escape from rejection, escape from ostracism.

The protagonists of these stories knowingly make unethical decisions but avoid the backlash that they often desperately fear. They cheat and still get a happily ever after. They steal and get to keep the loot. They betray those that they love and are forgiven, without having to do any meaningful penance. These characters may behave irresponsibly and still come out on top, without having to modify their bad habits, or expose themselves to terrible risk but emerge unscathed.

Escape from Consequences vs. Escape from Burdens

If the escape from burdens makes people roll their eyes, the escape from consequences tends to make people angry. I probably don't need to explain why. If these stories were intended as lessons, or parables of self-help, they would fail spectacularly.

I can't say that the escape from consequences is my favorite flavor of escapism, and I think it's problematic from a purely technical standpoint - how do you write good novel without consequences? There's a reason why one of the first pieces of jargon any romance writer adds to her lexicon is 'black moment' - but as a fantasy, I have a great deal of sympathy for it. Most people make a couple really bad choices in a lifetime. And there are few realities more painful or humiliating than facing up to those mistakes and moving on.

Escape Into Pure Fantasy: Sometimes we escape just for fun. To delight the imagination. It's the Marauder's Map in Harry Potter, the rivers of chocolate in Willy Wonka, the migrating bicycles in Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

In romance, it's the magical night out. Dancing at the ball in the perfect dress. Sex that always feels great and orgasms that are never a struggle or a duty.

Oh - and abs. Lots and lots of abs.

Escape into a Heightened Reality: This one ought to be broken down into parts, but there are too many parts. I associate this sort of escape, first and foremost, with science fiction and fantasy. And that means that plenty of real and virtual ink has been spilled on the subject, plumbing depths and offering expertise that I don't have.

A heightened reality can be very much like our own, or it can play by its own rules -- dragons, spaceships, etc. -- allowing characters to do things like interact directly with metaphor (magic as power, for example), or ideas (political beliefs modeled into fantasy empires and pitted against one another). It can be complex (think George R.R. Martin) or very simple (good vs. evil, with clear markers of each and no gray areas).

But for the purposes of romance, I think the relevant sub-category is: escape into a world of extremes. I think it's very easy to mistake extreme emotions for more important emotions, truer emotions, somehow superior emotions. More is better. Drama is interesting. Spectacle is value.

We see novels whose protagonists embody romantic virtues in extreme, unhealthy ways, virtues that metastasize into a disease. Devotion that is obsessive, baseless, stalkerish. Unconditional love that is proven and proven again when protagonists forgive the unforgivable.

Obviously I'm ambivalent about the escape into a world of extremes. Likely I just haven't figured out how to process it.

& Romance?

I think the more that we parse escapism, the better we will understand romance as a genre.

The only escapism that romance must offer us is the escape into a better world -- the guarantee of a satisfactory resolution to the primary romantic plotline. Subsidiary plotlines are exempt from this requirement & I think one of the possibilities of the genre is that it can offer readers a happily ever after while confounding other expectations. Love can disrupt order rather than restore it, for example.

Escapisms can be mixed and matched. They can appear singly or in concert. We already know this. Our protagonists can be flawed. They might make poor choices. They might face awful consequences for those choices. Happiness doesn't have to mean relief from burdensome circumstances.

Precision is power.

I like thinking about why, too. Why write an escape, why indulge in an escape. Is there a difference between an escape from burdens that's unreflective - The handsome duke is marrying me! I will live in a palace and wear fancy dresses and have fantastic sex all the time and never work again! - and an escape from burdens that's crafted explicitly as "a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair"? I suspect the answer is yes.

Every escapism can be raised to that level of worthiness. They shouldn't have to be - but the possibility is exciting.


In Tags ,

Bad boys.

I've been thinking, as I often do, about bad boys.  I've read a few books in the recent past (I won't name them) that feature heroes of the type that generally make me swoon - the kind who are just shy of being villains.  They're my favorites.  But these unnamed books didn't work for me, and while it would have easy to blame the heroes for having leaned a little too far toward "villain" and not enough toward "hero," I came to a different conclusion. I think it was the heroines.

It takes a certain sort of heroine to make a really dubious, morally ambiguous hero appealing.  A heroine who's not up to the challenge makes everyone look bad.

Think about it from another point of view.  You know how sometimes you read a romance and end up thinking, "Man, any woman would be lucky to end up with this man - he is a keeper."  I'm trying to think of a good example; maybe William Doyle in Joanna Bourne's The Forbidden Rose?  He's just so solid and trustworthy and reliable and good.  James in Judith Ivory's Sleeping Beauty?  Harry Dresden?

You run across them in books and in life, too - good men who are just programmed, somehow, to do right by women.  They're like the Type O-negative universal donor, one-size-fits-all hero.   No matter who you pair them up with, they're awesome.

Bad boys are the exact opposite.  They're more like the AB+, last size left on the sale rack because nobody fits it hero.  Pretty much by definition, they have a history of treating women horribly.  And we know (we do know this, right?) that it's not because all those other women were inferior or undeserving.

Bad boys can't just match up with anyone.  They need their one perfect fit.  Is it possible that's why they're so romantic?

One of the reasons why I loved Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie so much is because while I totally, totally fell for Lord Ian, I also knew that I would have been a horrible match for him.  He needs the heroine, Beth Ackerley, who can put up with him at his worst and bring out his best qualities.

Or Karen Marie Moning's Fever books.  If Barrons and Mac had hooked up at the beginning of the series, it would have been a disaster.  He'd have chewed her up and spat her out.  No romance to speak of.  By the end of the series, however, they're an amazing couple.  It's the transformation from the first books, where I rooted for Mac to keep a distance from Barrons, to the later books, when I was dying for them to hook up, that's amazing.

I think that's as far as I've come with this line of argument.  The next step would be to start generalizing about the heroines, but I'm not sure if that's possible - if the idea is that bad boys require that "one perfect fit", then each heroine would have to defy generalization.  In any case, I don't have any conclusions yet.

Maybe I just watched Red Sonja too many times as a child.

Time for a Truce

Today I want to talk about a blog post over at The Awl, Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing. It's really nice to see someone take Romance seriously and write about it thoughtfully, but I disagreed with the author, Maria Bustillos, on almost every point she made. So let's talk about that.  I agreed with a lot of Bustillos's initial points:

[R]omance is by far the most popular and lucrative genre in American publishing, with over $1.35 billion in revenues estimated in 2010....It would be crazy to fail to pay close attention when that many people are devoted to something.

True.  And yet, as Bustillos points out,

Romance literature is underground writing, almost never reviewed or discussed in the newspapers or literary rags, or at a dinner party. One is supposed to be embarrassed to have a taste for it.

This is also true, and I think it's a shame.  Especially because, again in Bustillos's words,

For all the scoffing from various quarters at the fairy-tale messages they contain, romances largely deal with practical, everyday matters; they're more like field guides for resolving the real-life difficulties women face.  As those difficulties have changed over time, the romance novel has adjusted accordingly.

This is even true of historical romances.  These days, the heroines in a lot of historical romances are aristocratic ladies who are so involved in their charitable activities as to effectively be career women (A Secret Affair by Mary Balogh, Trial By Desire by Courtney Milan, and Wicked Intentions by Elizabeth Hoyt are all recent examples of this trend).  And then there are the historicals featuring women who must work to earn a living - like Anne Mallory's Seven Secrets of Seduction, whose heroine works at a bookstore.

Bustillos does a great job talking about what romance is, why it's important, the big ideas that it concerns itself with.  Her arguments about romances fall apart, in my opinion, when she starts comparing genre romance to literature.

People in the romance community complain all the time that romance is typecast.  What a shame to see an author who clearly has felt the sting of this prejudice turn it around on another genre which, let's all be frank here, is struggling and deserves a little more understanding.  Yes, I mean literature.  Or maybe Literature.  With the capital L.

Bustillo defines literature as "'serious' fiction".

"Serious" or literary fiction is supposed to be that way because it's meant to be like Dostoevsky, leaving no stone unturned in the human psyche, shocking us, showing us things we'd never understood or even thought about ourselves before. There's not much room for fun in books like those.

She includes Art Spiegelman's Maus as an example of genre-bending apparently because Maus - a comic about the Holocaust - is just as "serious" and depressing as Dostoevsky.

Too many people already think that literature can't be fun, and that's a horrible misapprehension.  I've read a few books by Dostoevsky and I've read  Maus.  I love them both, but I'm horrified by the idea that literature is inherently melancholic or unhappy.  Or that self-discovery must be inherently melancholic or unhappy.  That's just not true.  Two cases in point: Tom Jones is about as fun and cheerful a book as I've ever read, and ditto Tristram Shandy.

Having begun to dig herself a hole, Bustillos grabs her shovel and makes it even deeper:

But surely it's not necessary to point out that the rarefied world of American literary fiction is brimming with dull, predictable and zero-ly engaging books.  Most "literary" novels, in fact, take not one single risk, offend no taboo, and leave every sacred cow grazing undisturbed in the placid fields of their conventionality.

She's suggesting that books that take risks and break taboos must be riskier, edgier -- better.  This, from an author trying to defend genre romance, with its predictable HEAs and often conventional morals.  That's a false dichotomy.  Risky doesn't mean engaging, any more than breaking taboos guarantees quality.

To sum up: literature cannot be defined by the fact that it's depressing. That does a disservice to literature.  Literature cannot be defined by its ability to shock or break taboos.  That's a poor litmus test, since it would exclude plenty of amazing books (is Pride and Prejudice shocking?) and include all sorts of awful ones (dunno what to name here...shocking but awful...shocking but awful....maybe it'll come to me later).

So what is literature?  I'm going to point back to a post I wrote a while ago, Story vs. Ideas, where I try to answer the question.  Check it out for the full argument, because I'd like to see it catch on.  In short: the more literary a novel is, the more irrelevant the story becomes and the more important the ideas in it are.  Nothing to do with who's smarter, better, anything like that.  It's a fundamental difference in nature.  There are books with great stories, there are books with great ideas...and there's a place where they meet in the middle.  Which is a great place to be, by the way.  The sliding scale has nothing to do with quality.

Bustillos seems proud to tell us that she has no idea what the "lit-fic novel du jour" is, in a tone of deep contempt.  What do we feel, romance readers, when people tell us with a sneer that they've never read a romance?  Haven't we learned not to take pride in ignorance?

Right now I'm reading a "lit-fic novel du jour": Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory.  It's fun.  Really fun.  It's full of wit and humor.  It breaks conventions and taboos.  It's edgy.  It's more or less realistic (so far, though Houellebecq often sneaks in an element of sci-fi by the end of his books).  It's everything Bustillos thinks literature can't be.  Good thing the people who gave Houellebecq the 2010 Prix Goncourt weren't judging according to her rules.

Before The Map and the Territory, I read Kim Harrison's new release, A Perfect Blood.  You know, the tenth book in her super, insanely awesome urban fantasy series, The Hollows?  I loved it too.  Love.  She's built a series full of fantastic characters that feel so real, impossible conflicts, high stakes, friendship, romance, a series-spanning plotline that blows my mind.

Bustillos does a pretty good job when she stick to defending romance on its own merits.  But she also shows is how easy it is to make exactly the same mistakes that have kept so many romance readers insecure and ashamed about our reading habits.

Enough with the war.

We can have it all.  We can read it all.  Literature can be fun.  Genre books can be smart.  We do not need to hole up in trenches, literary snobs on one side and romance proletariat on the other, sniping at one another.

Cheaters in Romancelandia

I just finished reading Scandal by Carolyn Jewel and I'm still in a muddle about it.  It's a historical romance that questions the desirability of rakes as heroes, which I appreciate.  I'm a modern woman, a proud feminist, but I still lust after these bad boy characters.  Why?  Should that trouble me? In Scandal Carolyn Jewel presents us with a heroine, Sophie, who's captured the attention of a reformed rake, Bannalt.  Sophie knew Bannalt at his worst, so she's in no doubt about what kind of man he was.  He cheated on his wife and disdained the whole concept of fidelity.  All while Sophie suffered from the neglect of her own rakish husband, Tommy, who patterned his misbehavior on Bannalt.

By the time the book opens, Sophie and Bannalt are both widows.  Bannalt is in love with Sophie and he pursues her with marriage in mind.  Sophie turns him away because, as she explains, "I would rather die than marry the man my husband wished he could be."

If Sophie were a friend of mine, I'd cheer her on.  I'd agree when she says that cheating bastards don't change.  But Sophie isn't a friend of mine.  She's the heroine of a romance novel and the cheating jerk, Bannalt, really has reformed.

As the book went on I found myself liking Bannalt more and more but Sophie - who clung to her entirely reasonable doubts - less and less.   She wanted proof that Bannalt would never cheat on her, but both in the novel and in reality, such proof is impossible to obtain.

At the end of the novel, I mostly felt sad.  I wondered if Sophie had been damaged beyond repair.  I suspected that her fears and suspicions would return with every small provocation.  I didn't think her marriage would be a happy one.

I found myself thinking of Elizabeth Hoyt's The Serpent Prince, one of my favorite romances of all time.  The hero, Simon, has been a tomcat in the past.  One reason why his romance with the heroine, Lucy, feels so powerful and unique is that while all the world steps in to warn Lucy about Simon, she never doubts him.  Simon never doubts himself.  They just know.

Of course, in real life I'd probably have warned Lucy, too, and I'd probably think she was naive for having such unshakeable faith in a previously inconstant man.

I know the lessons from Romancelandia often don't carry over to the real world, but something about Scandal is puzzling me.  As though Carolyn Jewel stepped forward and said, "Hmm, let's dig a little deeper, let's think about this in a more serious way," and then she came up with the exact wrong conclusion.  Or maybe the exact right one.  I really can't tell.