Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Village of the Happy Nice People

Bad Day at Black Rock

The Village of the Happy Nice People. This is from Richard Walter's book on screenwriting, a work I sometimes use to illustrate his point about how dull it would be to live in such a village, and how, if that's all you wrote about, you wouldn't have much of an audience. You must have conflict.

That said ...

In the Real World™, sometimes virtue comes up short; the killer gets away with it, the crooked politician escapes justice, and bad things happen to good people. All you have to do is look around to see this -- anybody with four neurons to spark at each other knows how things work in the Real World™.

In the world of fiction, however, writers can fix such things, right wrongs, and can end a story with "... and they lived happily ever after."

As a romantic, I think this is a good idea. If I want reality, I'll look out my window, or watch a bunch of news on TV -- and then try to separate the wheat from the chaff, and wish me luck.

As somebody in the writing biz, I know it's a good commercial idea to offer up happy endings. They don't have to be perfect every time, but upbeat and hopeful triumphs downbeat and hopeless all to hell and gone. Happy endings sell. Unhappy ones don't -- least not enough to pay your rent in genre writing. Mainsteam? Yeah, but you can count the number of writers who make good livings writing mainstream fiction on the fingers of your hand, with one left over to stick in your ear. If that's what you want to write, go away, I'm wasting your time.

Guy spends his beer money on a mystery or SF&F or western, he does not want to read: " ... and then after their herculean struggles, the Hero and his Girlfriend died horribly and the Villain got away with it."

Trust me on this.

Yes, I have spoken to the notion of tragedy, and you can get away with this. Bill Shakespeare did it a time or twelve and made a living at it. If, however, you are in Bill's class, I got nothing for you, either; move along. You're not the writer I'm looking for.

Even then, "tragic" is the not same as "futile," and you should avoid such endings like _______
(fill in your own cliche here.) There simply aren't enough people who like this second kind of stuff to give you a market, and no market, no career.

Look, for instance, at the current New York Times Bestseller List. Hereunder, the current top five books in the hardback and mass market paperback categories:

1. JUST TAKE MY HEART, by Mary Higgins Clark
2. LOOK AGAIN, by Lisa Scottoline
3. TURN COAT, by Jim Butcher
4. LONG LOST, by Harlan Coben
5. THE HOST, by Stephenie Meyer

1. TRIBUTE, by Nora Roberts
2. WHERE ARE YOU NOW?, by Mary Higgins Clark
3. ANGELS AND DEMONS, by Dan Brown
4. FROM DEAD TO WORSE, by Charlaine Harris
5. NOTHING TO LOSE, by Lee Child

Break 'em down -- A mystery, a mystery, a fantasy, a mystery, a vampire love story. Then, we have a mystery, a mystery, a techno-thriller, a vampire love story, and a mystery/techno-thriller.

The lists change, the proportions vary, but this is typical. Genre fiction rules, and in genre fiction, the old saw tends to hold true: The only two things worth writing about are love and death. Readers want the former, and want to vicariously risk, but avoid, the latter. Mysteries are about the restoration of order. Science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, westerns, gothics, horror -- they almost always have the good guys win, the forces of truth and justice prevail, because that's how people would like it to be.

I didn't go see Brokeback Mountain. I had read the story upon which it was based, and had no desire to see it. Not because it was about gay cowboys -- but because they didn't get to live happily ever after. A little tragedy, like Naga Jolokia -- the Ghost pepper, at a million or so Scoville HU, goes a long, long way.

There are some other award-winning movies I skipped for the same reason. Hey, So-and-so gave a bravura performance! Great acting! Yeah, it was about a depressing descent into total misery about a self-centered asshole who fucked people over left, right, and center, and everybody hated, but he was so good at it!

Yeah. Right. And I need to see this ... why?

We don't live in the Village of the Happy Nice People, nor are we likely to any time soon. But people like to visit it now and then, and if you take them there and you can entertain them, make them forget about the grit and grime of reality for a few hours, root for the good guys and smile when they win, you'll do okay as a writer.

If you can't -- or worse, don't care to -- probably you should pursue another line of work ...

1 comment:

Kai Jones said...

Great piece, I say this kind of thing all the time to people who want me to read a book or see some movie that awakened their awareness.

I'm plenty awake, thanks just the same; there's enough bad stuff in life, what I want from entertainment is happy endings and order from chaos, so I can at least pretend that I have a hope of making those happen in my life.