Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's wrong? What's next?

A writer friend is faced with turning a suspense plot with women's fiction elements into women's fiction with suspense elements. If you read both, you'll probably have some sense of how the emphasis will change from physical threat to emotional threat, from perhaps the danger being mostly in the future (implied threat of physical harm that might happen) to maybe something that happened in the past (some hidden problem that is currently causing conflict, whether recognized or not).

Anyway, I was listening to a lecture on "The Art of Reading" by Prof. Timothy Spurgin, and he mentioned that openings often present one of two questions:

What's wrong?
What's next?

I am thinking that those are good "genre questions" that can help you design a plot so that the story fits better into one category or another. I think of plot as "what happens," the events of the story. And "story" is how the events are presented, including sequence, journey, scene design, voice, all that.

Story is a lot more flexible than voice. And one big part of that is what the journey is, as that kind of determines whether the plot goes mostly forward or mostly back, and that determines even more. "What's wrong?" might be a good start to a women's fiction story, while "what's next" could be a good question for a suspense story.

Let's start out with a similar set of precipitating events. A woman is abducted, abused, and left for dead. (This is grim!) The action starts a couple years later, when she's living in New Orleans and has a catering business.

Now a "what's wrong" story would mean probably that, well, something's wrong. Maybe the trial is over and the abductor is in jail and she's trying to move on. But she keeps having nightmares about the abduction, only the sequence of events is different in her nightmares than in her memories. So she goes to a hypnotist to figure out why she can't let go of this and move on. And the journey is towards her discovering what's wrong with her, what she doesn't remember that happened in the past.

On the other hand, in a suspense novel, the threat has to be present and threaten danger in the future. So she can have pretty much recovered and be living happily, when the abductor's girlfriend sends her a Christmas card. Only the abductor is safely ensconsed in the prison and swears he has no girlfriend. And then there's a bouquet of roses left at her door. And then there's a box of candy left on the seat of her car. And then....

You might actually start with "what's wrong" and have the "wrongness" precipitate "what's next," like she's got amnesia about the events, and has been useless in the trial of the abductor, and he gets off, and comes after her with threat after threat. And only by remembering the past can she overcome the new danger of "what's next?" (Suspense)

Women's fiction is usually a pretty flexible genre because it mainly just means "character-based fiction that mostly women will read", and it can incorporate mystery, suspense, romance, whatever you want.

What characterizes women's fiction is -- no matter what other elements there are-- the emphasis is always on the woman's journey from one psychological place to another. For example, a woman discovering the secret of her past is very common. Or a woman coming to terms with aging or the loss of a loved one. Or a woman constructing or reconstructing a family. As long as you have something like that, you can call it women's fiction even if there's a murder in it!

One of the first wave of the current type of women's fiction was Ordinary People, where we are introduced to a family where something is clearly wrong. They're not connecting. The mother is remote and uncaring. The father is anxious. The son is acting out. What's wrong? Well, an older son was killed in a boating accident the year before, and the family has found it easier not to talk about it, to "move on" without grieving. And it's not until the surviving son starts going back in therapy and understanding what happened that terrible day that the family can heal.

For women's fiction, the best plan is always to deepen the emotion and psychology of the journey. For example, she might not just find out about what really happened, she might find out why she suppressed the real memory. Or in investigating the abductor's past, she might discover her own and realize that she'd never known that her grandfather was connected to the Mafia.

Of course, you can make it a "suspense with women's fiction elements," and that's a matter of emphasizing the danger from pretty much the beginning-- a detective arrives to tell her, maybe, that the abductor has escaped.

How you tell the story, your emphasis, will make all the difference in genre. It really does help to read deeply in the popular fiction genres and analyze particularly the openings. Often to move into a new genre, you don't really have to change your plot much, just the presentation, particularly how you present the first few chapters, what you emphasize, what you hide.



Anne R. Allen said...

Great overview of what "women's fiction" really means. Thanks!

Jordan said...

I like the definition of women's fiction, too. I've been wondering about the "woman discovering the secret of her past" trope. It seems very backstory-focused, and yet it can work (unlike many other stories that are backstory-focused, or simply have too much backstory). What do you think the key differences are here, and why does one work and the other not? (Or am I just only noticing the exceptions to the rule?)

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, well, generally-- and my current release follows this pattern-- the story moves forward so that the heroine can discover the past. So whatever happens in the present of the story starts to reveal what happened in the past. It's really kind of like a mystery novel, where the sleuth puts together in the "now" the clues that explain what happened in the past (the murder).

Yes, it's backstory, but it's also story. It happened in the past, but presumably it's either a mystery to her, or she's unable to deal with it. So it's important in the now. And the revelation of it is part of the progress of the story.