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  • Gregory Zeigler

On Ignoring Formulas and Shattering Stereotypes

When I was still thinking I might go the traditional publishing route with my first novel in the Jake Goddard and Susan Brand series, The Straw That Broke, and was casting about for an editor, I was rejected by one mainly because (spoiler alert) my two main characters don't have sex. They come close, but are interrupted by a phone ringing, never to resume their shattered intimacy—until Some Say Fire, that is, the second in the series. The editor felt that the formula for selling books required Jake and Susan to jump into bed. I felt they were not ready. I would even argue sexual tension maintains more narrative tension than characters just doing it. Which is a tension-ending resolution, of sorts. A huge "thing" from which there is no going back. As we all know from real-world experience.

After various and sundry other disappointments, including firing an inattentive agent, I decided to go it alone (publish independently) and write only what pleased me and ultimately my readers. Not what supposedly sold books.

Free to Range!

It was also around that time I started thinking more about formulas and stereotypes which often govern what we writers do. Most, I've decided, are important to editors, not so important to readers. For example, for my third in the series, Rare as Earth, I had an editor whose work I greatly admire insist I had to change a scene because of a point-of-view problem. I tried and tried but ultimately couldn't find a satisfactory solution. Not a single reader has mentioned it as a problem.

Let's be honest, environmental mystery writers like Pam, Dave, and I are outliers from the get go. Although the field is growing, we hang out in a sub-genre that is still in its formative stage. For instance, I recently read an online article entitled, "How to Write a Thriller in Seven Heart-Stopping Steps." The article listed ten thriller sub-genres: supernatural, politics, espionage, psychological, action-adventure, crime, historical, legal, military and domestic. There is not even a hint of a thriller sub-genre that includes environment or climate change.

Moonflower Murders

A doozy of a cozy—in a cozy.

Also, to do research for this article, I read a post entitled "Thirteen Types of Mysteries." The examples ran from cozy to noir with no mention of environmental. My point. We at Free Range Writers are exploding stereotypes from the moment we put our index fingers to keyboards. I guess that is what makes us free to range! To be perfectly honest, I'm not even certain if I'm writing thrillers or mysteries. Sometimes I think my novels are both. So I've decided to cook up my very own hybrid formula. (Drum roll, please.) It is my great pleasure to announce a new sub-genre—the eco-miller. The eco-miller is a mystery/thriller set against an environmental conundrum or catastrophe. If each of you will mention this exciting new term to ten people and ask them to do the same I will have my poet daughter, Jamie, who lives at the tip of the hipster spear in Brooklyn, let me know when the term eco-miller reaches the east coast.

Other formulas that need busting:

Fortunately, writing formulas have evolved over the last fifty years. Imagine how it would have been received if sitting around the table with writers for "The Lone Ranger" someone had boldly suggested that that mysterious masked man was not simply trying to hide his identity, but was really running from a past involving drug dealing and alcohol addiction. Wouldn't have flown then, it's almost required today. Our protagonists today have to be flawed, as long as they are more good than bad. But have we simply replaced an old stereotype with a new one?

A second formula that has emerged in the last twenty years is inclusion of the strong female lead. It is a trend I am all for and feel that in Rare as Earth, with no less than four strong females—including main protagonist Susan Brand—and ranging in age from fourteen to mid-forties, I have pretty much proven that. Yet, I saw an advert for four thrillers (films) recently, unrelated except for one thing: all four depicted exclusively strong female leads. Not a male in sight. Are we in danger of creating a new stereotype there? Perhaps we need more female villains such as Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in "Killing Eve."

Here are some other current formulas in novels and films that have begun to bug me:

The protagonist, regardless of knowledge of the local terrain, has to always be the first on the scene (often diving in without back-up) to resolve the major conflict in the drama. I once had a male cop friend tell me he loved working with female cops because they were less likely to get in pissing matches with suspects and were better at deescalating tense situations. In short, using their brains. How about an ending where a savvy female cop solves a situation with her wits but allows her testosterone-crazed male counterparts to play cowboy and ride roughshod over the bad guys. In real life, we would call that being smart.

The bad guy, the guy who will have ultimately "dun it," has to have been introduced "on stage" to the reader/viewer. What if that person's presence is just suspected or hinted at throughout the action leading up to the denouement?

The good guys have to resolve the issue in the end. I actually saw a Danish series in which a bad guy (terrorist) who had been turned, mostly by the love of a little boy, saved the day and the city of Copenhagen while the good guys, although rushing to the scene, were ancillary to the final action. I loved it.

The use of coincidence as a plot element. Although characters playing cops and detectives will constantly say they don't believe in coincidence, often totally implausible coincidence is used in plotting. Does the fact that the young woman who lands in jeopardy while hiking on a remote trail turns out, purely by coincidence, to be the main protagonist's daughter add to the tension? Not for me. I'm too busy saying, "Now what are the odds of that happening?" As I like to say, everything must pass the plausibility sniff test. But wait, am I simply creating my own formula there? "Wheels inside of wheels" as my friend BJ likes to say.

Everything must be resolved by the end of the novel or series, unless the reader/viewer is being set up for a subsequent novel/season. Europeans have a much higher tolerance for the messiness of situations that might not be entirely resolved by the final scene. European writers are more comfortable with leaving the viewer/reader hanging. Americans love their neat and tidy endings. I tend to prefer European endings and while I'm at it, I also prefer that European actors often have less than perfect hair, teeth and skin—you know, like most of us. Want to see proof of that? Compare the Swedish version of the film based on Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (which is listed as a mystery/thriller, by the way) with the American version.

Alas, because formulas keep evolving and ultimately there is no way of resolving these issues once and for all, I have no choice but to just leave you hanging...

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