Formulas in Storytelling

There is nothing wrong with a good formula. I read an article a while ago that said something to the effect of “There are only seven stories, and we’ve been reading and watching them over and over for hundreds of years.” (There are also, like, 5 characters types which are the 5 personalities in detention in a 1984 movie directed by John Hughes even the other characters in the movie fall into the categories depicted by the main cast, but that’s a different blog post.)

For example, Star Wars and Harry Potter are the same story. It’s the Over Coming the Monster story, the Hero’s quest. The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit are “voyage and return” stories. These stories have the same plot outlines, and comparisons can be drawn between these, but taking a step back and digesting the stories as whole pieces instead of just the bones, the stories are dramatically different. Harry and Luke Skywalker both go on a quest to defeat the world’s biggest evil of the time, but the story stories differ dramatically as to how the authors get their main characters there. Shrek also falls into this category, but I think we can all agree that Shrek and Harry Potter are a little bit different.

So when does this become problematic in my opinion?

I read mostly YA literature. Quite a bit of it tends to fall into troupes and can become formulaic to a fault after a while. It feels like you’re reading the same book over and over.

I feel that this is a huge issue with YA fantasy, it’s basically the same plot with little deviation between series. It feels, to me, that if I read one high fantasy YA novel, I’ve read all of them, only the character names are different. The same things happen: a parent dies, the teenage child must defend the dead parent’s honor, with an unlikely companion they go off on an adventure, the main character finds out they have some kind of power, but not only that they have the STRONGEST power that has been seen in a long time if ever.  It can get boring kind of quickly if I read enough of them. It’s the Defeat the Monster, Hero’s quest story, but unlike Star Wars and Harry Potter, it feels like the same story.

Does that make sense?

I’m going to use a couple examples of books that I’ve read recently. Ever the Hunted and FrostbloodBoth books I have reviewed here in the not too distant past.

 

I mentioned this is my review of Frostblood, that it had most of not all of the same elements of Hunted but pulled them off better. The two stories follow almost the exact same storyline. Even the amount of traveling between places and going back to certain places is very similar. There are a few substitutes and a little bit of a change of scenery, but they read almost identically.

I sure that there are people who can look at Harry Potter and Star Wars and say the same thing, but I don’t see Harry Potter as Star Wars if there were wizards. There are different elements that make each of those stories uniquely those stories that aren’t just the character names. One that stands out to me is that Harry isn’t naturally super talented having never picked up a wand. He is talented, and has a great deal of natural talent but isn’t out of the Dursley’s and casting Patronus charms. He has to work for it and does work for it. Many things come easy, but he works for it sometimes reluctantly. Luke is given a Lightsaber after coming off the moisture farm is the greatest of all time, and he’s pretty into it the whole time.

Reading Hunted and Frostblood I felt like I was reading the same book, and I honestly feel that way when reading a lot of YA fantasy novels. They rely too heavily on the formula and don’t create enough originality. It’s hard to separate the stories. I feel like I should mention that it’s not the writing that’s the problem. Both books are very well written, the authors are incredibly talented.

Fantasy is a genre that I could never write. There’s a lot that goes into it, world building isn’t a strong point of mine. As much as I would love to be talented enough to write something like either of the two books I’ve mentioned, I don’t have the writing chops. I know a lot of work goes into creating the world, but I feel like the basic formula needs to be built upon to get that one of a kind fantasy story that stands out in a world drowning in YA fantasy stories.

I also read a lot of YA romance, and a lot by the same author, many of those books are set in the same town. Although many follow the same or very similar storylines, I don’t feel like I’m reading the same book except one character really loves french fries and one loves music. These kinds of books can fall into troupe instead of storyline very quickly too. I’ve been lucky in being able to find books that are just different enough to feel like different books.

What is it about YA fantasy that makes it feel so formulaic? Is it that there have been so many in a short period of time that they drown each other out?

What do you think? Do you feel like some genres fall too hard on the formula and not enough on making it different? 

Until next time Internet,

Deanna

 

13 Reasons Why

Content Warning: This book is about suicide.

I first read this book in 2009 during my senior year of college while I was living in an off-campus apartment with two friends. It was a weird time in my life. I spent a lot of time sitting in Barnes and Noble, hoping no one would notice me — because I had been banned from the Augusta B&N for “vandalizing books” by putting nerdfighter notes in copies of Paper Towns in October 2008 — or locked in my room in the dark.

I’m not sure if I’m banned from all Barnes and Nobles or just the on in Augusta, but I think the ban has expired as I wasn’t vandalizing books, and it’s been 9 years.

This book was on a display of YA “must reads” at Barnes and Noble. I read a lot of books sitting in the back corner of the B&N in the sexuality section because no one ever used that plug and it was kind of close to the bathroom. That’s probably not allowed, but no one bothered me. I read about half of this book in the corner before I bought it.

This book meant so much to me. I’ve never read a book like it before. Hannah’s story impacted me in extreme ways. Seeing what was left behind when Hannah ended her life has stuck with me for a long time. Suicide, I think, has been romanticized in YA literature in a way; the idea that ending it will somehow make it better–a release of some kind, your suffering will end if you end. Thirteen Reasons Why didn’t do that. I think that maybe Hannah saw it that way, but through Clay, we see the flip side of it, the terrible deep hole that death leaves. Seeing the devastation was what made this story stick with me.

When I saw that 13 Reasons was coming to Netflix, I was worried that it was going to be a movie, and was nervous that they were going to try to shove Hannah’s whole story into 2 hours; finding out it was becoming a series, I wasn’t as nervous about it. I’m not usually a fan of books turned into films, but I think justice was done to this story. The producers, writers, and directors of the Netflix series cared about the story. That was very evident watching it.

The small changes, expanding Tony’s character, the re-arranging of some of the tapes so they make more sense in the sequence of the story, adding the subplot with Hannah’s parents, work watching the story. It’s not just about Clay this way. I think that expanding Tony, especially, added the much need grounding to the story. It pulls the mind out of the sadness of Hannah’s tapes. I found the scenes where the students are giving depositions was very powerful. I think they got what Hannah was telling them through her tapes. Of course, Hannah’s suicide was Hannah’s fault. No one that she named in the tapes were to blame for what she did. But I think everyone that listened to the tapes was able to see that how we treat people affects them in ways we can never understand.

 

I think that Asher did the right thing with using cassette tapes. Ten years ago when this book came out, my brother was about the same age as the kid in the story so he would know what a cassette tape was and it wouldn’t be old technology, but not so outdated that it would be hard to find something to play it on. I still had a radio with a cassette player, I was still making mixed tapes for my car in 2007. In 2017, I feel like many of teens in the series wouldn’t know what it was and how to play it. I read something, I feel like it’s in my copy of the book where Jay Asher says that he chose to use old technology so that the book didn’t date itself. That was so brilliant. I think that writers try to make their books fit into the current time and especially now, it can date a book very quickly. I think that a book in 2007 may use CDs and now no one uses CDs even doing that could have dated the book in an extreme way even 10 years later.

One thing that I really loved was the subtle lighting differences. When watching the flashbacks, the story is lit with warmer coolers. When we are watching the present it’s more blue and cooler colors. I think that it’s so smart. Light verse darkness. The harsh light of reality (the present) verse the brightness of what Hannah is talking about. Clay’s world, and honestly all of Liberty High, are living in the harsh light of the life after the death of Hannah Baker. Clay’s version of Hannah will always be seen with through rose colored glasses. I like that choice by the series makers.

Tony as a character in the show was so powerful. He feels a little bit like a Fairy Godmother of the tapes. I like to think that many of the listeners of the tapes had the same experience listening to them as Clay did– especially Jessica and probably Sherri. I like to think that Tony was there for all of them. Helping them get through it.

This story needs to be discussed. High school is hard. Life is hard. What I like about the end of the story is Clay reaching out to Skye, seeing many of the signs that he missed with Hannah in Skye and trying to stop it. Believe me, having one person show interest can make all the difference. Hannah reached out so many times, but she did it in a way that looking back people can see that she was screaming, but at the time she’s just Hannah the drama queen, making everything about her.

No one knew what Bryce did to her and others until after Hannah died. She didn’t tell anyone so she couldn’t get help. No one can help if you don’t ask for help. I think that’s what the part with the guidance counselor feels so off to me. She didn’t tell him what was happening, but she expects him to follow her out of his office, expects him to read her mind. She had made up her mind at that point. Nothing Mr. Porter did was going to save her.

There is so much blame and guilt that goes along with suicide. The survivors, the people that are left behind when someone gives up, have survivors guilt. I know I feel it. I blamed myself all the time for the death of a close friend of mine, he didn’t commit suicide exactly, but still, I feel like I didn’t do enough. Every single person who received those tapes felt Hannah’s death before those tapes showed up. They had all been friends with her at some point. Hannah sat in her room and decided that it was their fault. No one touched by suicide needs to be told it’s their fault. We already know. But at the same time, it’s so important to know that it’s not anyone’s fault except the person who committed the act.

I would love to hear what other people think about this book and the Netflix series. I would love to discuss it. I’ve seen a lot of mixed feelings about it on Facebook. The series is pretty graphic, and I don’t necessarily think they needed to include the most graphic of the images, but I think there was a point to it.

Let me know what you thought about this story.

Until next time Internet

Deanna