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Celebrating Form

October 9, 2009

I’ve been reading a fair bit of How To Write Your Novel commentaries lately, and they all say pretty much the same stuff. You’ve got to have a plot arc. You’ve got to have (three) stages of development, with decisions or events that change the character worked into the transitions. You’ve got to have subplots. In a few of the commentaries, it’s practically touted as a winning formula. “If you follow this structure, you will have a novel,” seems to be the implication.

I realized some things about this novel structure yesterday.

1) It’s incredibly formulaic. You don’t really have to put a lot of thought into setting up a plot using it, though if you want the novel to be good, you probably should. All you need is a genre, character, and setting, and you’re in.

2) You can use the structure to write any kind of novel you want—literary, mainstream, sci-fi, horror, mystery, fantasy, young adult, whatever.

3) The degree to which this structure seems to be taught and lauded (by teachers, writers, agents, editors) implies to me that there’s quite a bit of “celebration of form” in the publishing industry. It may be that the ability to follow the structure and do interesting things within its constraints trumps quality of writing. And it may not. I’m just drawing a parallel.

What parallel? What’s celebration of form? I’m getting to that.

Eighteenth century culture was all about form. There were elaborate structures that had to be followed when creating a piece of music, painting, designing a building, designing or creating anything within that building (furniture, decorative molding, etc.), greeting people, and so on. Not so much writing novels, though, because people were inventing novels and working out the kinks. I’m pretty sure the main novels of the period don’t follow The Formula. They’re more along the lines of bildungsromans and travelogues.

What I’m getting at here is that in Eighteenth Century Europe, you didn’t become a master of something until you showed that you could do new and interesting things with the formula. This is what I’m calling celebration of form.

Take Bach or Mozart. They both had a limited toolkit. Sonatas, concertos, and symphonies all follow the ABA, three-movement pattern, where the third movement is a variation on the melody of the first. Bach had counterpoint, a completely separate and complimentary melody running in the bass line. Mozart had Alberti bass, a sequence of two alternating notes from the cords of the passage. One, two, one, two, one, two. They had 12 major keys, 12 minor keys, and 12 notes in the scale. What’s impressive, and what impressed the composers’ contemporaries, was how much they were able to do within the constraints. And they showed off, too. “Look what I just did with the sonata! Bet you didn’t think that was possible. Neat, eh?”

Doing impressive and varied things within a set structure … Sounds kind of familiar, yes?

What I find interesting about this is that music, art, and architecture all broke away from those constraints over the next two centuries, spawning impressionism, cubism, dadaism, atonality, jazz, rock, and this building. Jazz, rock, and some contemporary classical still follow the Classical forms and still have internal patterns (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus), but they’re less constrained.

Novels, on the whole, haven’t gotten to the experimental stage, at least not in the English-language publishing world. I’m not slagging the structure,  because it’s obviously still in demand and still working for writers, readers, and the intermediaries, but I do kind of want to see a bestselling novel that stepped outside the boundaries, or at least pushed up against them. I don’t know how it could be done, because I’ve spent my life reading formula novels so they form my conception of “novel”, but it’s got to be possible.

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