Conventional Wisdom

Some of my recent reading and viewing has made me question the conventional wisdom about writing. The things I’ve enjoyed most have violated the “rules,” while I find that stories that do what editors say they want are much less satisfying.

One of the bits of advice is to “put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them, and then set the tree on fire.” To keep tension high and pages turning, your characters should be in constant trouble. Things should never work out well for them, and if something they do works, that outcome should land them in even bigger trouble. They shouldn’t get what they want during the course of the book, until maybe the end, unless what they want is actually bad for them.

I’m reading a couple of books right now, one that follows this advice, and one that doesn’t. Following this advice is why I’m reading two books. I realized I can’t read the “characters in a tree” book at bedtime because it stresses me out too much, so this is the book I read in bits and pieces when I have reading time during the day. The main character in this book starts in a bad situation, gets out of that situation only to land in another bad situation, and everything that looks like it might help only makes matters worse. The main character is up against impossible odds and going through terrible things. It does make for an exciting book, but I have to admit that I’m not finding it very fun to read, and though you’d think this would make for a page turner, I can only bear to read a few pages at a time before I have to put the book down.

The other book isn’t really throwing rocks at the characters, but it may actually have higher stakes and deeper conflict. If the characters fail at their assignment, it could affect their futures, but they’re learning that if they succeed, it might make things worse for society. They do have some personal struggles, so things aren’t entirely easy for them, but we move in and out of those parts instead of things getting worse and worse. The “worse” part is more about that dilemma of what to do. I’m tearing through this book and only putting it down at night when I can’t keep my eyes open, even though it’s not as obviously tense as the other book. It’s by an established author, so I don’t know if that dilemma would count as enough tension for a major publisher to buy it from an author without a name.

The other conventional wisdom, something I hear often from my agent and from editors, is that the main character needs to have agency. The plot needs to be driven by the decisions the main character makes, and these decisions should be what leads to the defeat of the villain and the conclusion of the book.

But a while ago I was watching a miniseries based on a Victorian novel, and although it violated this in a big way, I found it incredibly satisfying because the villain got a huge comeuppance she brought entirely upon herself. The heroine did nothing but stand her ground and hold true to her personal ethics. She never actually tried to oppose the villain. I often find that it’s far more satisfying when the villain brings about their own downfall than when the hero defeats the villain. In this case, it was a lower-conflict situation, not really a “vs.” type of conflict. The villain wasn’t truly evil. She just wanted something and thought the heroine was in the way, but everything she did to try to get the heroine out of the way just made her own situation worse and backfired. Ultimately, circumstances shifted so that she suddenly needed the heroine to get what she wanted, after she’d spent all this time being terrible to her, and the moment in which the villain realized this was an outright fist pump of triumph moment of awesomeness. The villain bringing about her own downfall and having to eat crow was far more entertaining and satisfying than if the heroine had been trying at all to stop or defeat her.

This was based on a Victorian book, so I’m not sure you could get something like that published now, with a heroine who doesn’t have a goal other than getting through life and maybe having a little happiness and who has very little agency. I guess you could compare it to the Cinderella story, where Cinderella is just trying to survive, maybe go to a ball, but she’s not really trying to bring down her stepmother. It’s the stepmother who ends up making herself look bad to the prince.

I’ve been trying to think of ways to pull off this kind of story in today’s market because it really is so fun when the villains defeat themselves. It’s also reassuring, serving as a sign that evil doesn’t pay and that it will cause its own downfall. That doesn’t mean things are easy for the hero. They can only win by not giving in or giving up, and they may go through some tough stuff along the way. I wonder if you could make the hero fail, but then the bad guys are still defeated because they brought it upon themselves.

I think there may be a disconnect between what people want to read and what editors like. I’m sure that reading tons of manuscripts of varying quality skews your tastes. You’d be drawn to things that make you sit up and take notice, that are more intense. Quieter books don’t stand out so easily unless they have something else going for them.

One Response to “Conventional Wisdom”

  1. Melisande

    That is a super interesting observation. I have a short middle-grade-ish level story in progress written in that style and my middle grade captive test audience didn’t like the rough draft. They felt like to much was happening and there was not enough time and detail when the character was rushing from one situation to another.
    I also wonder about the laser focus on agency. Some of my favourite books have had characters that were amazing for standing firm in the face of circumstances rather than being the agent of change. Especially for the middle grade books. Being the architect of change is good but most kids that age still are not in charge of their lives. They get some comfort from seeing a character learning to endure.
    I think in general there is still a place for books that are less fraught. I was once asked for nice safe adventure in the school library. The kid needed to know there would be a happy ending after the scary middle. There are a bunch of books that are super popular that go back on a lot of the current trends.
    Hopefully publishers or independent authors can find room for these again.

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