Sunday, July 24, 2011

On the unpredictable inevitable

Let's discuss oxymorons for a moment.  Jumbo shrimp.  Military intelligence.  ________ (supply your own here).

Writers of books have many balancing tests.  A plot has to meet some kind of expectation, but it has to be at least moderately fresh in how it does it.  The guy must get the girl who loathed him in chapter one.  The spy must complete the mission even though he knows he's dying.  Every genre of writing has at least a couple of 'requirements' that writers think hard about before violating.

So a book has to be meet an old standard and seem fresh at the same time.  How's that for tricky?  We have to walk a worn path and make it seem like you've never been here before, unpredictable inevitability.

I finished reading a bestseller that prompted me to put some thoughts down on this topic.  I'll leave it unnamed as I do have some unflattering things to say about its plot construction, but I did want to work through my puzzlement.  It's an exemplar of the romance genre with characters who are a bit on the old side for a romance plot, a widower who's just lost his brother and a slightly younger woman who lost her husband some years earlier.  It's wry and beautifully written, lots of subplots to complicate the burgeoning romance.  Demands on their time, familial demands, things that pull them apart.  It all works until we get to the end: the woman succumbs to family pressure and moves far away from the man she loves.  He visits her, convinces her to run away with him, fine fine.  But the inexplicable weirdness begins.  A character seen briefly before shows up and starts doing monstrous things: she stabs a woman our heroine cares about, she kidnaps a young man, very religious, and tries to convince him to kill himself.  She's a snake in the grass of this large family, doing horrible things, etc.  Very little to no setup for this sequence of events.  Unpredictable, yes.  But baffling.

A romance can have violence in it.  But it should have a kind of invitation.  We should be expecting it like an unwanted guest who snagged an invite by some kind of deception.  We don't want it (or we secretly do), but it's going to come anyway. 

In this book, the one I will not name, I had no advanced notice.  Maybe I wasn't a careful reader of the text, but when this showed up as the climax of the book, I shook my head, puzzled.  It was a test of bravery for our aged hero to save the day, but it felt like Agatha Christie painting herself into a corner and pulling out some unexpected revelation.  I don't like it in a mystery anymore than a well-regarded piece of literary fiction or a romance.

Jumbo shrimp.  Military intelligence.  Unpredictable inevitable.  Cross this last one at your own peril.

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