On expectations and predictability

I’ve been having issues lately with my leisure reading. Part of it is certainly lack of time—instead of immersing myself in high adventure, slick passages, throbbing stalks and Love Conquering All (and by “all,” I mean 350 pages of limp conflict and the hero’s ability to think with things other than his fiddly bits), I’ve been drowning in the endless procedural minutiae of the federal courts, which is just about as fun as it sounds, and also arguing whether New Jersey barring Philadelphia from shipping its garbage into its borders is constitutional, which is, weirdly enough, a great deal more fun than it sounds. (The term “gerbil jurisprudence” actually came up while discussing that particular issue, which is one of the many reasons why I enjoy my Constitutional Law class immoderately.)

So yes, law school is fun and challenging and HOLY FUCKMONKEYS a lot of work. But besides the paucity of reading time, I find myself feeling very restless and impatient with the fiction I picked up in recent months. What has been galling me, in particular, has been how distressingly predictable a lot of the stories have been.

I’m not complaining about overarching structure here, nor about genre requirements. Knowing there’s going to be a Happily Ever After at the end of a romance does not, and likely will never bother me. Neither is knowing that the mystery will be solved at the end of a detective novel, or that the hero will survive mostly intact (if not necessarily mostly sane or healthy) at the end of a thriller.

What I’m talking about is my current ability to see plot twists and character fates writ large on the wall. It’s sort of the equivalent of having a very large, very loud person walking up to a tree, poorly concealing himself behind it and yelling that he’s not really there, and there’s really no way I can ever guess his location, oh no, because he’s a clever one, he is.

I don’t mind a certain amount of predictability in my fiction, but when it comes down to it, I am most truly delighted when I have my expectations quite thoroughly fucked with. It especially fills me with glee when an author take some sort of shorthand that we’ve all taken for granted and turns it upside down or just molests it in unspeakable ways.

For instance: I am sick unto death of picking up a certain sort of genre work, encountering a male character in the military who has a wife at home who’s just had a kid, and knowing just from those facts that he’s a) a Good Guy, and b) going to make it through the book in one piece. Just once, I’d love to have that guy die painfully and pointlessly, or have him reveal some sort of genuinely horrific perversity—the Goebbels, for example, genuinely loved their children and killed them out of loyalty to Hitler and to spare them what they thought was an untenable future. In short, I am sick of many things, and one the biggest peeves I have right now is how being a good guy means loving kids and puppies and kittens, and being a bad guy means being child molesters and puppy kickers and kitten killers. Not that I can imagine a good guy being physically abusive towards the weak and vulinerable, but one can dislike something without acting violently to that dislike, just as one can love something soft and cuddly while being a thoroughly evil bastard.

We’ve talked before about how there’s a tendency for this sort of shorthand to stand in for actual characterization. Is your hero dark-haired and large? Odds are high you have an alpha on your hands, whee! Is your heroine redheaded? Then please choose from either the Awkward or Feisty variants. If there’s a psychotic killer on the loose, just look for the one character who gets significant airtime in the book who a) doesn’t have a sense of humor and/or b) is not especially attractive. If you’re the Other Woman? Expect to be older than the heroine, being fond of orgasms for their own sake and considerably more savvy about make-up and nail polish.

Certain plot conventions also tend to have shorthand resolutions. Have an impotent heroine? The hero’s super sperm will save the day and bless her with many bouncy bairns, guaranteed. Identical twins? The True Lurve is the one who can recognize the difference with no apparent effort. Is the hero surly and jealous, and is there a more easy-going male secondary character who becomes a good friend of the heroine’s? There will almost definitely be a blow-up in which the hero will accuse the heroine of being a dirty, dirrrty hoor.

I don’t like the implications of some of these standards, but mostly, I get really goodamn tired of them when they crop up over and over and over again. That’s not to say that talented authors can’t create convincing, nuanced iterations of these archetypes, but it’s so good when somebody takes the norm and deliberately, thoroughly flouts it. For example, when the protagonists don’t want children, as in a couple of Jennifer Crusie books, I just about keel over with glee. Loving And Desperately Wanting Children is such a marker of being a Good Person, and enjoying fucking without some sort of greater Family and White Picket Fence agenda lurking in a background is usually reserved so much for the villain that characters who are about to violate those particular conventions tend to get automatic props from me, if only because they don’t seem to rely on what seem to be somewhat lazy character-building methods.

In short: right now, I want something to surprise me, and surprise me good. I don’t want to read a book and be able to predict the character and story arcs for just about every damn thing within the first 50 pages or so. The enjoyment I get from being right is a poor substitute for being delightfully surprised or having my jaded expectations thoroughly fucked with.

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Ranty McRant

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  1. 1

    Hey! I was just wondering what had become of you lately. Sounds like you’re having fun (not!) Though “gerbil jurisprudence” has a nice ring to it. I first read that as “gerbil jurisdiction” which is that much more amusing.

    I can relate to what you’re talking about with regard to books. There are books where I swear the only thing the author did was a search and replace with the character’s names because it’s the same old story time after time after time…

    Picked up my first Jennifer Crusie book last week (Crazy for You) and blew through it in two days it was so good. Haven’t had one like that in a while.

  2. 2
    tilts_at_windmills says:

    Have you ever read The Passion by Jeannette Winterson?  It’s not genre romance, more magical realism, but romance drives the plot.  If you can predict the direction it’s going to take in the first fifty pages, you’re a lot keener than me. 

    Plus, cross-dressing!

  3. 3
    Rosemary says:

    I had the opposite happen to me.

    While I was in school and my brain was engaged in school thinking, I didn’t want to be engaged in free-time thinking.  (My brain’s kinda lazy sometimes.)  I wanted simple, stupid, predictable stories that were basically free time for my brain.  Now that I’m not in school and I’m not actively engaged in deep thinking at my job, I am horribly unsatisfied with EVERYTHING that I read that is fiction.  It’s all crap.  Non-fiction is the only thing that makes me happy right now.

  4. 4
    darlynne says:

    Many readers say they want to be surprised and then run up the red flag of outrage when a writer does just that. I do not count you in that very broad generalization at all, Candy, but lately I’ve seen series authors pilloried when characters and plots don’t behave exactly as fans have come to expect. One person’s vision of surprise is another’s version of jumping the shark, or worse, that the author has abandoned her principles or her marbles, and those lines don’t blur so much as shimmy. I’ve been having the “Authors and Readers: Whose Book Is It Anyway?” discussion in my head for a few months now, but that’s a different topic.

    I’m firmly in the “surprise me” camp and my first recommendation is the Jasper Fforde books, starting with “The Eyre Affair,” if you also want to be delighted and amazed. Will have to work on more and other titles.

  5. 5
    Rosemary says:

    And, NOT ALL FICTION IS CRAP!!!

    Lord, I didn’t explain myself well at ALL. 

    The frustration that I’m experiencing is that the stuff that used to make me happy is now grossly disappointing me, and whenever I try something new I find myself frustrated because it’s not making me happy.

    I’m like a fussy baby that doesn’t know what it wants.

  6. 6
    Meriam says:

    I was more like Rosemary. At university, I couldn’t bear to read anything more demanding than a Lisa Kleypas.

    However, I recently went through a serious anti-romance phase when nothing appealed, not even the old favourites. I tried approaching the genre sideways: I read historicals that weren’t “romance” – Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet), The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Dahlquist(described as steam punk – very enjoyable), Indiscretion by Jude Morgan, and more recently Bareback by Kit Whitfield (a paranormal, lovestory, who-dunnit and cautionary tale in one). Currently, I’m reading The Crimson Petal and the White. All of these books have romantic elements, but they are daring and inventive and different.

    Only problem is, the more I read of the ‘good’ stuff, the more critical I become of romance. It’s what you say, Candy – a certain staleness.

    On the plus side, I recently read a Kresley Cole (No Rest for the Wicked) and enjoyed it temendously – fresh voice, interesting characters and a little bit of that convention flouting that kept me reading all the way to the end in one sitting. I tend to stay away from paranormals, so that might be part of the reason I was so taken with NRftW.

  7. 7
    fiveandfour says:

    Though predictable in their own way, I’m currently enjoying a re-read of Anne Stuart’s Ice series, just because I find it fun to have a hero who acts like a complete asshole towards the heroine until about 1 page before the end of the story.  In the right mood, I find it darkly satisfying to find one of the tenets of the romance genre so thoroughly flouted.  [I’m sure there’s discussion material aplenty about the many ways AS heroes parallel all the things I dislike about 1980s romance heroes, but…world enough and time and all that.]

    I read something recently that touched upon nearly every expectation of the genre then managed to turn it about 90 degrees so that the results were unexpected, but damned if I can remember what book that was at the moment.  I’ll work on trying to remember it.

  8. 8
    Robin says:

    Candy, YOU’RE BACK!  I’ve been whining this same tune now for a while. And it frustrates me when people think the formalistic aspects of the genre limit the content so predictably—feels so lazy to me.

    I didn’t take Con Law until 2L.  1L was a fixed curriculum of contracts, civ pro, torts, real property, legal writing, moot court, contracts and employment.  I remember that garbage case, though, lol.

    On the plus side, I recently read a Kresley Cole (No Rest for the Wicked) and enjoyed it temendously – fresh voice, interesting characters and a little bit of that convention flouting that kept me reading all the way to the end in one sitting. I tend to stay away from paranormals, so that might be part of the reason I was so taken with NRftW.

    I’ve been waiting to hear your verdict, Meriam, and all I can say is YES, another potential convert to Cole’s series!  You might want to try the novella she has in the Playing Easy to Get anthology; IMO it has the same flavor as NRftW.

  9. 9
    Meriam says:

    Robin, not only did I read No Rest for the Wicked, I went online and bought Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night and A Hunger Like no Other. All that remains is Playing Easy to Get – and I’m on the case. You have before you a complete convert. I can’t pinpoint why I like her so much, it’s just fun and hits the right note for me.

    I would really like to know more about this book you read, fiveandfour…

  10. 10
    Cori says:

    I so completely understand where you’re coming from (3L here, currently not paying enough attention in State and Local Government). I’m in the criminal law track, so after hours, days and weeks of learning the many nuances of the horrible things people do to each other, all I want is a HEA once in awhile.

    At the same time, it’s frustrating to be able to list every book trope and map the book from there. I read a 350 page romantic mystery this weekend where I’d pegged the murderer by fifty pages in, and spent the rest of the book railing against the heroine’s terrible case of TSTL disease. There was a moment when a secondary character appeared, about ten pages in, and I said to myself “Whoops, you’re the fourth woman and there’s only three guys. You gonna die.” I was right, too. I did amuse myself by going to TVTropes.org and reading about all the conventions it was following. Disappointing, because I really like the author most of the time, but it also showed clearly how important it is to subvert the status quo at least occasionally, so that the HEA doesn’t come too cheaply.

  11. 11
    megan says:

    Actually, that whole puppy kicking bad guy thing has bothered me for awhile.  Many sociopaths have been known to love animals and babies, make funny jokes, and not look like all around “Scary Bad Guys.”

    I also like Anne Stuart for her men.  In real life I never want one of them, but its nice to see someone write an “alpha” male and actually make him somewhat “alpha.”

    Jenny Crusie is pretty good at avoiding the shorthand characterization.  I realized that one of the reasons I like her is that she will write a heroine with sexual experience who has bad sex with the hero (which-by the way is one of the most annoying romance character abbreviations to me- if its the best sex the heroine ever had then that must be the hero).

  12. 12
    Robin says:

    I can’t pinpoint why I like her so much, it’s just fun and hits the right note for me.

    It’s the magic of a great reading experience.  Cole is very much like that for me, and I’ve stopped wondering why I like her books so much—I just indulge!  Now I don’t feel so bad about you disliking the historical you read.

    Right now I’m reading Stuart’s Ice Storm and I am enjoying it more than I have the last two books in that series.  Not as great as Black Ice, but currently number two on the list. 

    Candy:  Have you read Megan Hart’s Dirty? Or Broken?  I liked the first better than the second, but both definitely delivered the unexpected, IMO, and very persuasively so.

  13. 13
    saltypepper says:

    YES!  A story that recently surprised me was MaryJanice Davidson’s story in the Over the Moon anthology.  Of course I cannot recall the story’s title right this minute, but I know the anthology title is right. 

    The other stories in the anthology were of varying degrees of quality, and not surprising to me at all, so if you want to check it out, I suggest the library.

  14. 14
    willaful says:

    I think this is probably an inevitable disadvantage of liking genre fiction.  I know exactly what you mean, it’s gotten to the point that just a hero who’s slightly built in an old Mary Balogh will thrill me. Not that I am particularly hot for the slightly built man, it’s just DIFFERENT. Blessed, blessed variety.

  15. 15
    Julie says:

    Ah, you need some Dorothy Dunnett – although the Jasper Fforde recommendation is a excellent one.
    I too am loving Jennifer Crusie at the moment – especially when the couple in question aren’t bothered about sealing their luuurrrve by having kids.  How refreshing!

  16. 16
    fiveandfour says:

    I realized that one of the reasons I like her is that she will write a heroine with sexual experience who has bad sex with the hero

    Megan, I’m so with you on that.  Crusie had a convert for life thanks to that scene in Faking It.  Never thought I’d be thrilled to read about bad sex, but I was.

    I would really like to know more about this book you read, fiveandfour…

    Yeah, me too Meriam.  Stupid memory!  I’ll look over the bookshelves tonight – hopefully that’ll jog it loose.

    And Robin I agree about Ice Storm.  It’s neck and neck for me with Black Ice.  I haven’t heard (or researched) whether she intends to continue the series, but in a way I kind of hope not since it would be so great to end on a high note with this one.

  17. 17
    Jo says:

    On story that surprise me lately was Lori Handeland’s “Voodoo Moon” in the ‘No Rest for the Witches’ volume.  The author doesn’t overtly come out and say the hero is black and the heroine white, but that is what they are.  I would say that the romance genre on the whole is pretty homogenous, so this piqued my interest.

  18. 18
    Robin says:

    And Robin I agree about Ice Storm.  It’s neck and neck for me with Black Ice.  I haven’t heard (or researched) whether she intends to continue the series, but in a way I kind of hope not since it would be so great to end on a high note with this one.

    I thought for sure she was planning on more books, but that could just be my imagination.

    What I like about IS is first how well matched Isobel and Killian are and second how Stuart has solved the problem I had with the last two books—not enough contact between H and H to make me believe they fell in love, let alone like.  Although I still have some niggles about whether Stuart has softened Isobel up to much (Killian is running the show an awful lot, which bugs me), which is why it’s not right at the Black Ice level yet.  I’ll see how I feel when I finish.

  19. 19

    I read a Regency era historical with some linked books, and the villain in the series not only had a cat he was quite fond of, he made arrangements for the cat to be cared for when the good guys caught up with him. 

    I liked that.  A lot.  Now, if I could only remember the name of it…

  20. 20
    iffygenia says:

    Agreed—it’s NOT the “formula” (big plot outlines) that make the book predictable. Though the identibook cover copy on romances does its best to make them all sound alike.

    Some of Crusie’s older category romances fit the romance plot formula fairly closely, but the writing itself isn’t tired or copycat.

    I enjoyed the first 2 Kresley Coles I read, but my interest tapered off as their style became less a novelty to me.

    Meriam, funny you mention Whitfield’s Benighted/Bareback—I have a post on that book waiting on my other computer.  Syn-chro-ni-ci-ty. [cue synth]

    Robin, I found Hart’s Broken not as “different” as I expected. Did I just contradict myself? I mean I expected not to expect what happened in the end.  But what I expected was what happened.  Yuh-huh.

    I have similar issues in other genres—it’s hard to find books that really feel fresh.  Like Rosemary, I turn to nonfiction to clear out the cobwebs—but there’s a lot of “readable nonfiction” that doesn’t have particularly fresh or interesting writing.

    Candy, have you tried short stories?  When I read romance collections, usually there’s at least one story that seems off the beaten path.  In the not-quite-romance category, I keep recommending Steve Almond’s My Life in Heavy Metal—stories about relationships, sex, and love.  Though Robin recently found that Almond’s voice is so interesting, it made her even more cranky about the boring romances she’d been reading!

  21. 21
    Phyl says:

    According to Anne Stuart’s blog (sorry, can’t figure out how to link it), she recently finished the first draft of Reno’s story. So that means there’s at least one more entry in the Ice series.

  22. 22
    Dragonette says:

    I’m know you’ve read it, but Shadowheart was quite the surprise, with its requisite TD&H lusty male and wee fair sheltered heroine….

    I, too, love the twisty surprise – what some authors apparently intend as delicate foreshadowing, I see as a 30 pound mallet – and find it hard to be surprised. It’s wonderfully refreshing to actually get an “Oh!” moment.  I’ll definitely use this list to build my TBR pile.  :)

    On the other hand, there are days when I want comfort and familiarity and re-read the same book for the twentieth time.

  23. 23
    Alyssa Day says:

    I adored Constitutional law, loved the hell out of it, which might explain a bit about how dark and twisty my brain is.  Glad you’re having fun!!

  24. 24
    Arethusa says:

    Oh ho. It seems as though I should try this Kesley Cole. I solved my impatience with romance by reading a lot less of it, which wasn’t a big deal for me because a I read lots of other stuff (including fantasy, so I still have a “genre”).

  25. 25
    Teddy Pig says:

    lately I’ve seen series authors pilloried when characters and plots don’t behave exactly as fans have come to expect.

    Probably because they have an issue with character continuity. I hate authors who do not track what they have lead me to believing would happen to characters in three books of a series and then decide to change their minds at the last minute.

    It is basic continuity issues like that which suck the life out of me.

  26. 26
    Applesauce Parker says:

    Isn’t the dormant commerce clause a kick? 

    I found that during first year, my reading-for-fun time was really limited & I only wanted to ration it out for really good writing. 

    Second year is better in that there’s a higher degree of being able to learn just for the sake of learning (at least in non-bar courses), so reading for class is itself feels less arduous & I find myself being less discriminating with my pleasure-reading time again.

  27. 27
    Chicklet says:

    I’ve been feeling much the same lately; as an experiment I started reading all of the nominees for last year’s RITA for Best Single-Title Contemporary (you know, where Adios to My Old Life won), and there was one finalist I couldn’t quite believe had made it beyond the preliminaries, because every element was so predictable.

    I just read Forbidden Shores by Jane Lockwood, and while I had some big issues with the execution of it, by God I will kiss her feet for attempting something different.

  28. 28
    Janine says:

    Candy, like Robin, I want to recommend Megan Hart’s books Dirty and Broken, two books that defy expectations.

    And if you haven’t read it yet, Pam Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation>/i> which is much more unconventional than her earlier books, and even has a nonlinear structure (like a Tarantino movie, only it’s a historical romance!).

    And (though full disclaimer: she is a friend of mine) Sherry Thomas’s upcoming Private Arrangements.  If one of these books doesn’t satisfy your craving for something surprising, I’ll eat my shoelaces.

  29. 29
    Janine says:

    Darn my screwy HTML!

  30. 30
    Freezair says:

    I’m one of those people who deliberately enjoys messing with people’s notions. I try to break from conventions where I can. At the end of my fantasy novel (unpublished, blah), the heroes fail utterly to Save the World, the little boy they were trying to protect from The Almighty Evil (although they’re unsure if he’s actually evil) dies, and they decide that trying to Save the World was a bad idea and that it wasn’t their place in the first place. My main villain is also pretty, and one chapter of the book shows him going to the grocery store, getting mad about hearing a teenager make racist comments, and falling asleep on the couch while watching TV after eating a frozen waffle.

    I wish I could think of something really good to say that didn’t sound totally vain and braggart-y (like that paragraph above), or that contributed something meaningful to the discussion. Let’s try this then: I really hate it when a book can so convincingly pull off a lot of little twists and turns, but the big twist of the main plot is visible from 20 pages in. I read a book like that over the summer. The author fairly skillfully managed to pull off a lot of unsuspected “OMG!” moments, yet I’d figure out what the big twist of the plot was by the second or third chapter (I forget witch). It made me want to scream at the author, “I know you can do this! How did you POSSIBLY overlook how glaringly obvious that was!” Honestly, it would’ve been more of a shocker if my prediction HADN’T been true.

    Antispam word is “very69.” There’s a joke there, but I’m not clever enough to phrase it in a way that isn’t just juvenile.

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