Meriel Patrick, deputizing for Lynne
My mum's having a thoroughly deserved and much needed day off today, so you've got me instead.
I recently picked up a copy of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, the cover of which confidently assures me that it's the last book on screenwriting I'll ever need. I haven't finished reading it yet, but the thing that most stands out so far it is how rigid everything is: there's a lot of 'You must do this' and 'It's imperative to...' and 'By page 15, this has to have happened'.
It's all very rule-based. The author's message is crystal clear: if you don't follow this pattern, your screenplay won't work. I don't know enough about the screenwriting world to know whether he's right, but it's interesting that reviews of the book are polarized. Some people laud the author as a hero, providing clear, common sense advice about the essential dos and don'ts. Others say that what he's offering is a recipe for trite, cliched, and formulaic screenplays.
Now, presumably these groups can't both be right... can they?
Crime fiction, it seems to me, is a genre with a large number of well established rules. Justice must be served, one way or another. You can mislead the reader, but there are limits to what's allowed - you mustn't cheat. Ronald Knox's Decalogue was one of the earlier attempts to codify these rules, and while one or two of these are embarrassingly dated now, most of them still represent solid good practice.
People who don't like crime fiction often seem to regard this rule-following as a bad thing. 'They're all the same!' they complain. 'The plots are just so predictable.'
The problem is that breaking the rules frequently leads to an unsatisfying story. If you cheat, then the reader feels, well, cheated. The rules exist not because some self-proclaimed authority has decided to lay down a set of arbitrary restrictions, but because countless writers and readers over the centuries have discovered that this is what works. And I assume that's also what's behind Blake Snyder's inflexible approach to writing a screenplay.
So does that mean all crime novels (and all Hollywood movies) are destined to be trite and predictable? Of course it doesn't. There are untold millions of ways of filling in the blanks - endless new takes on established plot structures, new characters to populate them with, new sub-plots to weave around them.
My mum has enthused before on this blog about Robin Stevens's wonderful Murder Most Unladylike series, featuring schoolgirl sleuths Daisy and Hazel. In some ways, these books tread very familiar territory. In the tradition of Golden Age authors, they're set between the wars, mostly in England. One book is a country house mystery. Another is a locked room puzzle, on board the Orient Express. The most recent novel happens in an Oxbridge college. Yet they're anything but hackneyed: each book offers a fresh slant on an old theme. And while the plots work because they follow the rules, that doesn't stop them from offering surprises: the first book in the series was one of best examples I've ever read of the murderer being present throughout the whole book, with a host of clues pointing in the right direction, and yet still managing to be the last person you expect.
One of Snyder's chapters is called 'Give me the same thing... only different' - which is what a film executive once said to him in a development meeting. And for my money, that's what Robin Stevens succeeds in delivering par excellence.
But even following the rules isn't an absolute, er, rule. If you know what you're doing, you can flout them to great effect. I recently came across the following pleasing little nugget on Twitter (I can't now find the original tweet, so apologies for not giving proper credit):
Some of my favourite narrative devices:
• The rule of three
• Twist endings
What I like about this is that it breaks one rule (the rule of three) in order to serve another (twist endings). It acknowledges the existence of a rule, but only in order to play with it.
Breaking the rules is fine, as long as you do it well. But ignore them at your peril.