Today we approach the NON in the four NONs that is really an UN.
When I initially began actively researching boys and their reading preferences one of the first ideas I was struck with came from Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys by Smith and Wilhelm. The question “What do boys really want from books?” seemed to have a fairly easy answer. Boys are hungry for the new, and they seek it out in texts as well as with technology. They’ll go out of their way to avoid routines. And when they look at texts they use words like “new” “different” or “surprising.” Novelty isn’t necessarily what they are looking for, but a narrative that isn’t like something they’ve seen before helps them see things in a new way.
Boys want novels that are, well, novel.
Non the Third: Non-predictable.
Admittedly, the term non-predictable is a bit of a cheat. Unpredictable is the better word here, but either way it is something boys repeatedly looked for. This includes everything from plot structure to characters. The moment a story looks exactly like something they’ve seen before, they’re uninterested, which can be a bit of a problem if we’re all clinging to the same story structures, plotlines, and character types: the rules of three, Freitag’s pyramid, the happy ending, the captain of the football team, the three act structure. The answer to the question “What makes a book non-predictable?” comes down to questioning and justifying the very elements we assume are necessary in what we consider “good” writing.
Satire and irony are as good as speculative fiction in helping boys see things fresh. It lets them see the story like an inside joke they are part of. The same thing that draws them to political cartoons, Gary Larson’s Far Side comics, or the absurd humor of Monty Python also brings them toward a classic mash-up like Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the more recent history-meets-monsters Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. While both books play broadly within the confines of their genres (science fiction and horror, respectively) they do so in order to take a different approach to more serious topics: the philosophy of “Why are we here” in Hitchhiker’s and the question of historical accuracy in Lincoln. No, I don’t think either book is serious in this regard, only that they provoke interest in these areas by poking fun at them.
Similarly, the edgy and non-predictable are also strong pulls, but the sort of titles boys have called edgy and non-predictable might be surprising:
** Hamlet, because (the first time they hear the story) they have no idea what’s going to happen next. Aside from Hamlet’s declaration of avenging his father’s death there is nothing that foreshadows any of the revelations that take place. Feigned insanity? Pirates? Hamlet’s uncle and his mom? Ophelia’s suicide? Highest body count in English theatre, main characters dropping right and left? And all of it predicated on the word of a ghost?
** Into the Wild, because the narrator ignores the practical advice and he is given, goes off to explore his freedom and – whoa! – he dies! They have been so conditioned to believe that the main character sees the story through to the end that when he or she doesn’t it’s like a shock to they system. The fact that it is non-fiction may be seen as a bonus here, but I think is completely irrelevant compared to the idea that the hero’s journey goes awry.
What I find interesting about these two examples is that neither are the traditional stomping grounds for unpredictable storytelling: speculative fiction. When creating stories based in worlds that closely resemble our own it is easy to play the big “what if” game for novelty, but in the madness of Hamlet and the arrogance of Into the Wild we find to realistic stories that give no indication of how things will ultimately turn out.
The problem with getting around the predictable might come from the narrative structure itself, and how we teach writers to construct (and train readers to expect) stories in a specific format and style. We talk about the main character and their desires and goals, and out of these desires come a plot, and from the plot we can tease out threads of connection and themes. But what happens when this approach is turned on its head?
Comic book creator Alan Moore, who wrote The Watchmen and V for Vendetta among others, explains in his book Writing for Comics that the way he likes to structure a story is to first decide on the social idea, then work a framework for it, the write it. That’s pretty nuts-and-bolts, but I think what’s important here is that he’s thinking about the social message first, not tacking it on to a story idea like a theme. His characters aren’t goal-driven in the sense that we understand story structure from Aristotle, but are caught up in the driving forces of life that are more like building blocks that create a different kind of narrative pyramid.
I find myself coming back to something New York playwright Sarah Ruhl said in a profile by John Lahr in The New Yorker about her own approach to storytelling.
“Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid’s way of telling stories,” she said, describing Ovid’s narrative strategy as “one thing transforming into another.”
Aristotle is dead, we just haven’t acknowledged it yet. There, I said it.
This collection of transformations Ruhl suggests not only describes how we tend to view our own lives – not as a goal-driven collection of narratives – but is also the best way to describe the narrative of Hamlet and The Hitchhiker’s Guide and many of the works of teen-friendly novelist Kurt Vonnegut. This Ovidian approach can provide an alternative basis for building stories that create a new reading experiences for an audience of boys hungry for the unpredictable.
Next week, the last of the NONs as this series on Building Better Boy Books winds to a close.