Boilerplates and Handcrafting

Writers Readers & Genre

I’m talking about meeting genre expectations here, first with my writer’s hat on. Boilerplates and handcrafting, that is, which plot template should you use, are important considerations at the concept stage. As a reader, becoming a fan of Young Adult (YA) Dystopian, I’ve got stuck into the big names since His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman) first enthralled me. Here was fantasy with an added appeal and close focus on the young main character (MC), Lyra Belacqua and her peers and the younger children. In Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the relationship with her father is not revealed in great detail (she’s been told he is her uncle) and yet a strong sense of it runs through the narrative.

Boilerplates and Handcrafting

As the Dystopian genre has developed, certain components have become indispensable: the teenage MC, preferably female, the ubiquitous “strong female lead”, but there are plenty of strong males too. Katniss Everdeen and Gale and Peta, love rivals in The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Pressia and Partridge in Pure (Julianna Baggott), Tris and Four in Divergent (Veronica Roth ), Persephone and Callum in Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman).

Give us The Same, but Different

Screenwriters in the know will get the reference. It’s the core challenge that faces us all. I have enjoyed all of these concepts, but in my search for more of the same, I discover that I don’t want exactly the same every time. The boilerplate components in the Dystopian genre seem to be:

  • A world which is so ravaged by human activity that no hope of any kind remains for future generations.
  • The minority privileged ruling class and the underclass.
  • The teenage heroine who is flawed in some way and has to overcome the challenges arising from such flaws.
  • The teenage male who may or may not be a love interest (but usually is) and there has to be at least some hint of sex. The promise of sex is preferred to the fact of it.
  • Favoured treatment is first or close third person viewpoint of the MC, allowing for in-depth inner monologue and full vent to emotion.

Important components all of them, but there is a danger too many authors will include them in a limiting way, producing “me-tooisms”. It’s all becoming a bit samey. It happened with vampires and zombies and it will happen in this genre too. Having said that, I found The Maze Runner refreshingly different, and the first movie was astounding. Talk about Inciting Incident!

So when should a writer stick slavishly to the genre template, and tick off the list of ingredients? Which is it to be, boilerplates or handcrafting? Are readers up for different twists and takes on these components? As a writer, I’d like to think so. In my dystopian YA novel, Far Out, the world of my MC Saffron starts off pretty bleak, but I didn’t want to make it completely hopeless.

Far Out

I chose the close third person viewpoint for Saffron, but I also give the viewpoint of her father because the core theme of the book is the relationship between them. The point of the story is how Saffron’s relationship with her father changes as she comes of age. I hope it makes the novel refreshingly different but I know I’m defying convention because I have also read (in my research on submitting for publication) that this marketplace doesn’t want the viewpoints of older people. I would argue the alternative viewpoint provides contrast and I wrote the story as it formed in my head.

At the time of writing (Nanowrimo 2012) I didn’t think too much about the costs and benefits of either grafting my story onto a boilerplate, or handcrafting it. You can overthink things. To me, it seems the result fell somewhere in the middle. For example, we have the “strong female lead”,  the family relationship, and the love interest.

There are other criticisms of Far Out, of the elements in it that don’t obey the conventions. Then again, the sages tell you to write what you want and hang the rest; know the rules and break them. On the other hand, the publishing industry appears to want the same old, same old, but it wants it “different”. It’s a tough call to get it right, but if writers didn’t push the boundaries, we wouldn’t have the diversity of reading material we have now, including this relatively new and enormously successful Dystopian genre.

Far Out is available on Kindle.

Feed The Genre Monster

Since writing this post, I went on a screenwriting retreat with Jacob Krueger’s studio. He gave an informative talk on writing genre. Audiences expect certain things. Ask yourself, what is the appeal of Fast & Furious? You want edge-of-the-seat car chases, and you know F&F delivers those. Like Rom-Com? You know your faves will deliver. Want slash-gore, or supernatural horror, or supernatural thriller, or bromance and buddy films? The title, tag line and often, the lead actors, will tell you if your target movie delivers what you’re looking for. I’ll publish an article on feeding the genre monster later in the year. Happy reading, writing and movie-going.

Credits:  Image by Picjumbo.com

First published in July 2013

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