I love the title of my blog today, don’t you?
Doesn’t it sound like I know what I’m talking about?
That’s always a plus, but not necessarily the truth. Quite honestly my social science background is shaking me by the shoulder and asking how I know what readers love. Have I done studies or even read other people’s? Have I stood in the doorway at multiple bookstores with a clipboard, number two pencils and questionnaires? After all, I am the same woman (somewhat older) who wrote a master’s thesis on the American family as portrayed in comic strips. The same woman who faithfully gathered up weeks of comic strips from half a dozen major newspapers and submitted them for my own carefully devised content analysis.
And for that and a year and a half of fascinating classes unrelated to comic strips, Virginia Tech gave me a master’s degree.
There was at least a smidgen of scientific method in that madness. There’s none today. Absolutely none. I’m simply going to expound on several plots I see over and over again, everywhere, and why I think they’re so popular.
And then I’m going to turn you loose in the comments section to have at it, too.
Before I start, let’s not confuse plot with genre.
We all know that when simplified, romance novels are about two people falling in love, fighting their attraction, and finally overcoming whatever kept them apart. Mysteries are about the successful solving of a crime, usually a murder. I won’t go on. What interests me today are the stories themselves and not the genre they’re found in. In theory each of these plots could be tweaked to fit into almost any genre.
So here we go.
A woman (almost always a woman) returns to her childhood home after years away (and usually after some cataclysmic event like divorce or infidelity) and makes peace with her past, quite often in the form of a man she left behind. The home is often a small town or community that she fled. There’s often family she has to confront and deal with.
This story crops up all the time under the category of “women’s fiction.” Why is it so appealing? I can think of a number of reasons. Life in the city is complicated, and returning to a small town where you are known (and loved by somebody) is a way to simplify your future. All of us want to crawl back into the womb after life treats us unfairly. This story assures us we can. A successful reunion with the past also girds us for dealing with our own and helps us think about tying up loose ends. Maybe we won’t run right out and do anything after that final page, but someone else’s happy ending opens that door just a crack.
A curmudgeon, who is determined to alienate everyone around him/him learns that people are much kinder and better than he or she believed and steps into the light again with the help of cheerful strangers.
Who doesn’t want to believe that by extending a hand to even the most annoying loner, misfit, or survivor of abuse, we can change their life and our own for the better? If we can change the world one grouch at a time, nothing is impossible. As a race, we humans are nothing if not optimistic, especially in fiction. We may not want to take the time or make the effort in our daily lives, but on the pages of a book, we are delighted someone else did.
A man or a woman who starts out with almost nothing fights his or her way to the life they’ve always dreamed of. Sometimes they’re sorry because the reality is not all they hoped it would be, but more often they end their journey by stretching out their hand to help others. (Why do you think Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey is so busy doing charity work throughout the series? And yes, I read it. Get over it.)
The Horatio Alger myth is alive and well. Anyone with enough pluck and brains can make it in this great society of ours. Whether his mother was a drug addict or she was abused as a child. We want to believe that everyone can achieve a happy ending if they just work hard enough. Of course the dark side of that? We want to assume if they didn’t find a happy ending, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough.
Definitely the dark side.
Of course there are many more.
I feel a sequel to this blog coming on, but for now, I’m turning you loose. What plots are you seeing over and over again, and why do you think they are so popular? Do you care if stories are repeated in different forms? Is there a particular story you never grow tired of?
I’m in the mood for some controversy because hey, there’s not enough on the news these days and somebody has to liven things up. So let’s talk plots.
Have at it.