Formulas and when to break them

Last week I wrote in this blog about sticking to genre formulas in stories, and how that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I explored the principle of giving readers what they want, but not necessarily the way they expect it; of unpredictability within a formula.

However in this blog I’m going to examine when it is a good idea to break from formulas and honoured genre conventions. When should a writer do this?

A good general principle is that a genre rule or convention should only be broken for one reason: to replace it with something better. It’s no good writing a genre novel that deliberately breaks rules for no particular reason, just for the sake of being unpredictable. A plot turn or twist that makes no narrative sense will stop a good story in its tracks.

On the other hand, there may occasionally be good reasons to break with tradition. Here are two examples from the world of film where formula conventions have been broken with good reason. SPOILERS AHEAD for Chinatown and The Pledge.

Chinatown. In Roman Polanski’s noir masterpiece, the villain Noah Cross gets away with his crimes due to the sheer level of corruption amongst local police, businessmen and politicians. The film was made in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (wherein President Nixon was not prosecuted for his crimes). Because the American population was still reeling from that scandal they could well believe that a character like Cross would be able to commit incest and murder and get away with it. Thus, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne decided to break the noir formula that normally saw the villain punished to reflect the culture they were living in. Their gamble paid off, and the film still stands up brilliantly today.

The Pledge. This underrated drama, which like Chinatown also stars Jack Nicholson, sees him play a soon to retire policeman who swears “on his salvation” to find the killer of a young girl. Act one plays out like any number of thrillers, but ends in Nicolson retiring. The rest of the film details his increasing obsession with finding the killer, to the detriment of others whose lives he endangers. It gradually becomes clear that this isn’t a thriller at all, but a study in obsession. Thus, in the end, the identity of the killer is an irrelevancy and never revealed – again breaking a convention with good reason.

When writing novels, sometimes formulas and conventions include a particular prose style, which can on occasion be broken with good reason. Writing in the present tense seems a hot topic at present, particularly with first person narratives. Sometimes writing in a mixture of past and present tense is appropriate, as I do in Children of the Folded Valley – a novel I am hoping will emerge soon. The reason is that the story is told as a first person narrative, with the flashbacks in the past tense, and the stuff in the present in, well, the present tense.

At other times content boundaries are crossed in interesting, sometimes shocking ways. For example children’s books don’t generally contain strong language, but Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time contains a number of very strong expletives that are entirely appropriate in the context of the novel, whose protagonist is a fifteen year old with Asperger’s Syndrome. He has an obsessive interest in mathematics and a compulsion to report the truth one hundred percent accurately, hence his transcription of the afore-mentioned swear words verbatim.

To reiterate, whatever the reason for breaking formula and convention in writing, it should always be done to replace the existing rule with something better.

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