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5 + 5 =Tension: a discussion of genre formulas.

by Gregory Zeigler



This dramatic photo taken in Yellowstone National Park by Paul Sihler is not only stunning but captures the sense something is about to happen, i.e. the photo exudes tension.






No one would argue that a mystery or thriller could successfully be pulled off without tension. Tension can be created by something as simple as a child agonizing over eating a treat he has been told is off limits—to a gun pressed against a favorite character's temple. Done correctly, the two scenarios can be equally as riveting to the reader. Done poorly the result is a scene that is at least, ho hum, and at worst, results in the reader putting down the book for good.


My point? Certain aspects of genre formulas make sense. For instance, a mystery/thriller must have tension, interesting (often flawed) protagonists, threatening (severely flawed) antagonists, intriguing settings and compelling action. A romance novel—an example of another genre—or 'bodice ripper' must needs rip a few bodices and include several steamy scenes. The challenge to the author is to find new and refreshing ways to carry off what the genre formula demands, and thus what the reader expects.


As I mentioned in my recent newsletter, the film, “You Were Never Really Here,” written and directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Joaquin Phoenix has some brilliant original writing. Here is just a taste of Ramsay’s craftsmanship (spoiler alert). If you are hooked on mystery/thrillers and/or crime drama like me you have probably seen a thousand actors feign death. Have you ever seen one "die" while singing a song with, and holding the hand of the stranger who just intentionally shot him? Good(ish) guy kills bad(ish) guy. Definitely thriller formula. But to write it in that unique way—amazing!


The oldest formula in the book for story telling involves conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution. As I used to admonish my 7th grade acting students when they were up on stage pacing back and forth trying to improvise, "Something has to happen. There has to be a conflict." The simplest cartoon will demonstrate the story elements I listed above. The challenge for contemporary storytellers, as no doubt it was for cave dwelling hunters regaling the gatherers gathered around the fire, is to keep the listener/reader's interest by using those elements in refreshing, engaging and intriguing ways.


It is safe to say no creative breakthroughs in the arts or sciences have resulted from blindly following established formulas.



There is nothing worst than a story that is formulaic and entirely predicatable. Often good things happen when the well established path (formula) is ignored.


Let's talk about ignoring certain aspects of the formula for the mystery/thriller genre and focus on Paul Doiron's The Poacher's Son as a prime example.


Thanks to my friend and mentor, Tom Jackson who got me hooked on mysteries almost forty years ago by introducing me to the work of Tony Hillerman, I read and watch dozens of mysteries every year. I even occasionally write one. And in fact, it was Tom who introduced me to Doiron's novels. There is nothing that causes me to lose interest as fast as knowing early on which character is the murderer and/or which "suspects" represent red herrings. Conversely, nothing pleases me like being surprised.


Doiron does several surprising things in his debut thriller that I like and admire. For starters he features a (very troubled) white male as his protagonist. I love strong female characters. I have created several strong female characters, but isn't it time the pendulum swing back in fiction and we be reminded there are lots of male characters who are equally as interesting? Mike Bowditch, Game Warden for the state of Maine is one such character. Bowditch is completely real. He is often wrong, even about something as important as who the murderer is. Mike Bowditch makes mistakes, both personally and professionally, and beats himself up about them. And if he is chasing a dirtbag on an ATV suspected of poaching and vandalism, Bowditch is as likely to wreck his ATV and injure himself as he is to apprehend the suspect. Mike Bowditch is thoroughly believable. He had me at the first roadkill.


Second (and this shouldn't be a spoiler) I'll buy a square meal at the Square Deal Diner (Bowditch's favorite) for anybody who can correctly guess who the murderer is halfway through The Poacher's Son. Doiron even has a little tongue-in-cheek fun with the cozy mystery genre (personally not a fan) by having Bowditch muse about the possibility that everybody in the town might be involved, as in Agatha Christie.


Third, thrillers so often end in the formulaic and entirely predictable principal good guy and major bad guy going mano a mano with—well do I need to tell you who wins? Suffice it to say, in The Poacher's Son (I'm really doing my best to not spoil this for you) that does not happen.


What the reader ends up with is an engrossing read with thoroughly engaging characters in entirely plausible situations with believable outcomes. As a reader, I want more of what Doiron is serving up, and that should be possible with a dozen or so more in the Mike Bowditch series.


Doiron's The Poacher's Son. As realistic as roadkill.