Tuesday, May 24, 2016

simply rethinking the formula

so in chemistry formulas are a good thing. in baking recipes are necessary. in construction following a set of instructions makes the difference between freestanding furniture and a pile of junk. sometimes we see entertainment follow a formula. like in a romantic comedy, where the two leads have their meet-cute and then shenanigans occur and in the end they end up together because that's what you're signed up for.

i don't mind things that are predictable in broad strokes, especially if they are unique in the details. see for example the proposal which is one of my favorite romantic comedies, and is unique in that the leads in some sense swap gender roles. but sometimes formulas are bad, in that even with different details they still feel tired or easy. things wrap too neatly. most writers follow some sort of formula, and it's usually okay. it's more common in genre fare, but even some literary folks fall prey to this.

one recent example i've encountered is kate morton. i recently listened to the lake house on audiobook, and i liked it. it wasn't the perfect novel, but it was an entertaining story with enough mystery to keep me guessing and a nice balance of contemporary and historical plotlines. when audible had a two for one sale and i noticed that the distant hours was a part of it, i thought cool, let's try it. and again it was a perfectly entertaining story, but having read (listened) to two of her books in a short time frame, i don't think i'll come back for more.

i don't actively hate anything about her novels. and she does try to change up structure and the stories are all different. but i'm not sure they are different enough. from the descriptions of her other novels, it all seems to follow the same formula. long ago events end in mystery, contemporary person is somehow linked to long ago events and goes about deciding to solve the mystery once and for all, story developed in both present and past, and then everything resolves way too neatly. there is nothing wrong with that formula.

there isn't.

except i think in the end i found both her novels deeply unsatisfying. even as everything resolves way too neatly, i think because we spend so much time with the characters in the past—characters whose presents are already accounted for and they are because of whatever mystery somewhat lacking—these are characters who in the past have so much potential and in the present are clearly missing something—i don't know. it just doesn't work for me. it all feels like too little, too late. and i just think that knowing that this is the way kate morton structures her books means that i probably won't go back for more.

morton isn't the only author i'm not likely to seek out again, but she is the most recent. and it's not like this only happens in fiction. there are writer-directors whose shows i refuse to check out because i know in the end i'll be disappointed. because the fact is, i kind of hate their formula.

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