Perfect… For What It Is

What a nebulous, crappy title for a post.  But it’s perfect for what it is. 

Because what I’m about to discuss is perfectly nebulous.

This will be part movie review – I prefer to think of these as story reviews – and part soap box ranting about a subtlety of the writing mindset that can keep you sane and focused.  And just possibly, push you to the next level.  If you aren’t a screenwriter, I recommend you see this flick anyway… if nothing else than to see what I mean.

Because this movie – the one I’ll name in a moment, right after I talk about another movie first – and what it teaches us about genre storytelling is perfectly nebulous.

In other words, it’s a masterpiece in the genre in which it plays.  And yet, even though it’s playing in theaters right now, chances are you’ve barely noticed.

Such is the unavoidable, frustrating yoke of genre-driven storytelling.

To set the stage, let me ask you a question.

Have you ever read a review of a romantic comedy that says anything nice?  That gave it an A, that awarded four or five stars?  I think not.  (Exceptions welcomed, this isn’t a universal truth, just a general one.)

If it has Katherine Heigl in it, you can bet your second mortgage that the critics are gonna hate it.

These grind-em-out primetime sit-com type movies are universally slammed.  Or, in the case of books on the romance, science fiction, fantasy shelves – or, to a lesser extent, mystery – are universally ignored by mass media reviewers.

Trust me, I know.  Been there, been ignored there.

The only rom-com I can think of that even came close to a good review was The Proposal, the 2009 blockbuster from Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds (the absence of Ms. Heigl may or may not have played a role in its box office and critical success).

Even then, most critics gave it a solid B. 

Without that film, Reynolds doesn’t score his Sexiest Man Alive tag from People Magazine.  Which proves absolutely nothing from a writing perspective, only that great abs and dry wit cut across all genres.

Otherwise, romantic comedies pretty much get a C grade (or two stars) across the board.  And those are the good ones.  D and F reviews abound. 

And yet they keep ’em coming.  Because THEY MAKE MONEY.  They work. 

They are perfect… for what they are.  In many cases, even when they suck.

The search for genre greatness is not unlike the quest to create a truly great cheap hamburger, at least from a food critic’s point of view.  When it happens it’ll never make the cover of Bon Appetit, but millions will lay down a few bucks for one with a side of fries. 

The quest for the perfect fast food hamburger is eternal (In-N-Out is as close as any, in my opinion)… as is the quest for the perfect genre story.

But The Proposal is not the film I’m here to talk about today. 

Even though it may very well be perfect… for what it is.

Rather, that’s a film that helps me make my point: when you sign up for a genre, you have to understand – and live with – the contextual flak that surrounds it.

And then, armed with that understanding, and even though no critic will ever really like it, even though your very literary friends won’t invite you and your story to their book club (they prefer the Oprah selections and the latest John Irving) and think your sexually suggestive stories are “beach trash” (been there, heard that, too)… even then…

… you need to strive to make your story perfect… for what it is.

Don’t try to be John Irving or Jonathan Franzen.  They’re playing a different game, with different expectations, standards and essences. 

Unless, of course, you are trying to join that particular group at a table at Elaine’s, in which case you need to understand that literary fiction is nothing other than a genre in it’s own right. 

Also in which case the same holds true: you need to know where the perfect bar resides for your chosen genre.  What standards and expectation comprise perfect.

If you write romances, strive to write the perfect romance. 

Unless your name is Nora Roberts it’ll never make a bestseller list, but it may get you a two book deal and an invite to speak at a conference.

If you write thrillers or mysteries, strive to write the perfect thriller or mystery. 

It may never be the subject of a lecture at a major university (nor will you be invited to speak there unless your name is Michael Connelly or Dennis Lehane), but you may get a gig at Barnes & Noble and a movie deal from Jerry Bruckheimer.

If you write science fiction or fantasy, write the perfect escape from reality.

There are plenty of niche magazines and conferences and fan-boy websites out there waiting for your masterpiece.  And few, if anyone, at those conferences are reading Irving or Franzen, or even Connelly or Lehane.

Know your audience.  Own your niche.  Focus your aim.  And don’t be seduced – or wounded – by the flak from neighboring genres.

Now for that film I mentioned.

Because it’s perfect… for what it is.

My guess is that most of you wouldn’t otherwise be attracted to this story, based on its marketing and the niche to which it clearly, with one glance at its poster or credits, is being targeted.  It’s not remotely literary in nature, even though it’s a clinic in story structure, character, theme and execution.

Which, in an ironic twist that is nothing if not nebulous, actually renders it literary.

It’s a genre story.  It’s an over-the-top, blood-soaked revenge flick… and it’s perfect.

It’s called Faster, starring Dwayne Johnson, otherwise known as The Rock.  And he can kick your ass and my ass and any collective group of otherwise hard asses that you can stuff into one row at the Cineplex.

And that very fact is, in fact, what makes it work.  Makes it perfect.

See the film to fully get this.  With another actor, even Bruce Willis, this story wouldn’t work as well.  Without the special effects, music and its gritty look and feel, it would blend into an otherwise undistinguished crowd on a shelf at Blockbuster.

And yet, the movie is entirely theme driven

Watch the trailer, the theme will jump out at you.  What you thought was an action thriller is an emotional ride on the vicarious train.  It’s a working example of everything I write about here on Storyfix.

The concept will surprise you, too, because it turns out to be something other than what you think it is, even though what you thought, a) brought you to the theater, and b) hooked you in the first three minutes.

And when you think about it, isn’t that what you aspire to in your genre story?  I’m betting it is.

Bottom line: deliver the expectations of genre, and do it in a huge, gratuitous, satisfying way.  Lather on the romance.  Slather on the sex and violence.  Slap us into full attention with the physics of another world.

Take your genre to the limits it has set for itself. 

Genre is not synonymous with subtle.  Genre is in-your-face intense.

And then, when you have us hooked – because the only “us” reading your genre story will be fans of the genre–give us something more, something unexpected.

Only when you’ve sated our thirst for genre juice can you successfully become literary, however you define that, in your intentions.

Make us feel.  Make us think.  Take us on that vicarious ride.  Make us remember.

That’s what Faster does.  That’s what the finest in genre fiction does.

Once you get this, once you understand those genre-specific expectations and execute them in accordance to the higher principles of dramatic fiction (what I call the Six Core Competencies of Storytelling, which are universal to any genre, and that includes Mr. Franzen and Mr. Irving)…

… when you can knock it out of the park on both levels…

… then – and only then – you’re in the game.  You’re giving your story a chance to be perfect… for what it is.

Larry’s new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out in February from Writers Digest Books.  Until then, you are invited to try his ebooks on structure, character, getting your bad self published and 101 Tips on how to do all of the above better and sooner.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

13 Responses to Perfect… For What It Is

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    As a life long adorer of Fantasy and Science Fiction, this is so, so true. But then I’ve never seen the need to care about the literary crowd.

    But then, when I write I don’t write with the hopes of attracting that group, because frankly who cares? Is there money there? Certainly. But there are actually a large number of raving fans in quite a few genres (romance and sci-fi/fantasy at least still do pretty well, fantasy especially gets at least a few NYT #1s every year) and I’ll take writing what passionate readers grew up loving that I also grew up with since I was a small child over chasing the literary crowd.

    Meanwhile the name of Faster made me think they were making another Fast and the Furious movie, which after the fun ride of the first fell off a cliff. But apparently I was totally wrong, and that trailer looks awesome. And The Rock is always good for a fun as hell action style movie. Though this looks to have some more depth than that.

  2. Another home run, Larry. Awesome stuff in here. Can’t wait to check out Faster.

    Literary is nothing more than another genre… Awesome.

  3. Mike Lawrence

    Aw, man, can’t we get it as an eBook? I don’t like stuff that comes in the mail. I don’t know why. Click and Read, that’s for me!

    Your timing with these articles is sometimes spooky. I’m currently practicing what I’ve learned from you and Ms. Phillips by writing a short story about a dragon. Yep, a thing with wings. There’s even a castle.

    When I first came up with the idea, my own reaction to me was, “Seriously? Dude, c’mon!”

    Yeah, well, it was an idea and it had a dragon. BUT…

    This whole notion of doing it perfect, … for what it is. Well, now, that is one very useful way of looking at it. So now, instead of rolling my eyes (at myself), I know it’s better to write a really good dragon story,… for what it is.

    It’s always just been an exercise on structure and character design – just trying to actually use all the great stuff I’ve learned of late. But now I see it for what it is. And as ridiculous as it is, it deserves to be told as well as possible.

    Never thought of it that way. All stories count, … for what they are.


    You are the most encouraging author I’ve ever met. You say things that tap into all those fears we unpublished wandernauts* have. Somehow you make it all OK.

    *Hey, I invented a word!

  4. A Romantic Comedy that is the exception, you asked. I humbly point in the direction of ‘The Philadelphia Story’ – 1940, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey.

    Nominated for 6 Oscars and won two, including best screenplay and best supporting actor. Hepburn won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actress for her role in the film.

    It’s a movie worth deconstructing or even just watching.

    In the top 250 best films ever made….

    There are times when it being around before color TV helps…and this is one of the few.

    Great article, btw, as are all of you posts.


  5. Margo

    Ah, that’s just the post I needed right now to get my head back in the game after letting a couple of literary types damage my calm recently. Much appreciated, Larry.

  6. Diana

    Another great post. How the hell did you know I’ve been wrestling with this?

  7. Martha

    You always seem to hit a subject that needs hitting for me — thanks for this. I have highlighted, cut and pasted a portion of this post on my ‘beat sheet’ to remind me I’m writing genre fiction and it should deliver what I’m promising–right to the solar plexus.
    PS — I grinned when I read the reference to ‘beach trash’.

  8. Debbie Burke

    For “romantic comedy” perfection, I humbly submit 1960’s Best Picture Oscar winner, “The Apartment,” starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. One of the finest movies ever made, even tho a bit dated, yet full of timeless truths.

    On a different tangent about perfection, this post reminded me of an ancient Redd Foxx routine where he talks about the reverend at a church preaching how everything God made was perfect, every stone, every flower, every cloud was perfect.

    A hunchback stood up and challenged the preacher: “What about me?”

    The preacher didn’t miss a beat: “Why, you is the most perfect hunchback I ever seen!”

    Perfect, for what it is.

  9. The main point here is picking a genre and sticking to it. I remember Stephen King’s Dark Tower series – western, sci-fi, horror, … One book was all I could take and he’s one of my favorite authors. If it doesn’t work for established writers, it’s not going to work for new authors.

  10. Monica

    Great post, Larry. Way to reassess our focus and our priorities. And help us drown out all that talk about literary fiction being so much better…

  11. Alan

    Knocked Up starring Ms. Heigl – very well received by critics.

  12. Gina

    Another post knocked out of the park. Thank you. So valuable.

  13. Great post. I’ve been writing romance and chick lit for ten years (before Chick Lit imploded) and I, too, snickered at the “beach reads” thing. And the critic derision.

    I’d like to address one thing: “Unless your name is Nora Roberts, it’ll never make a bestseller list.” Actually, romances routinely make the NYT, and clean up on the USA. Smalltown sweet like Debbie Macomber, funny like Jennifer Cruisie or Rachel Gibson, paranormal like Sherrilyn Kenyon or J.R. Ward. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible.

    After being the butt of most writers’ jokes (“bodice rippers”, cheesy cover art, purple prose) I think the one thing we learn in romance is respect your readers, because we don’t have to prove anything to anyone else… which is “delivering the expectations of the genre,” as you said.