Monday, October 20, 2008

A Winning Formula

Over on Alis Hawkins' blog the question cropped up, almost as an aside, about the validity of criticising novels as "formulaic". The consensus among the writers who hang out there was that writing "formula fiction" is more difficult than it looks, and that good formula fiction is good fiction, full stop.

I've long been an exponent of the idea that there is very little new under the sun. Shakespeare reinterpreted existing stories, and wrote his five-act comedies, histories and tragedies to a pattern with which his audience would be familiar.

Formula applies to drama at least as much as to prose. In our house we're fans of various American crime series, almost all of which could be described as formulaic. The only one we religiously watch, and set Sky+ to avoid missing, is Bones. And yet Bones is utterly, completely a formula show. If you were designing an archetypal police procedural, you'd come up with something like this: an FBI forensic lab peopled with impossibly intelligent and good-looking--yet variously troubled--characters of both sexes. You'd certainly have a male and a female lead who have a mutual but never quite disclosed attraction, and of course their personalities, as well as being borderline dysfunctional, would also be completely contrasting. That is Bones in a nutshell; but it's also, to name a couple of others, also Law and Order: Criminal Intent (which we also watch) and the various incarnations of CSI (which we don't). It's not a million miles from the show which, at its peak, was the greatest of all US dramas, NYPD Blue.

Suits and Shades: the makers of Bones understand
how to make a cop show look cool

What makes Bones a must-watch show in Bosham is not the formula, then. It's the fact that the show's writers understand the formula and--here's the difficult bit--they do it bloody well. If it's different from Criminal Intent, it's because it's actually not very interested in the crimes. Yes, the play about with entomology and blood spatters; the characters can call up the most recondite knowledge at the drop of the hat. If it were aiming for realism, it would be implausible--but the real effect is to satirise the form. The writers of Bones understand the tradition they're working in but, like Len Tyler with The Herring Seller's Apprentice, they're quite happy to subvert it.

Two factors distinguish Bones. The characterisation is consistently excellent. By paying only the most perfunctory attention to plot, there is room in each 43-minute episode to explore the characters. Emily Deschanel, as the brilliant but blinkered Dr Brennan, and David Boreanaz as the strong but sensitive Agent Booth, create a relationship at once funny, tender and believable. And as my adjectives suggest, they're working with what could easily become stereotypes. The second great feature of the show is the dark comedy which underpins it. This is a show ostensibly about violent death, but it's one you can only really understand once you've recognised that it's a comedy. And it's much funnier than most productions which set out to be overtly amusing (let's take, as an example, the execrable There's Something About Mary [1998], one of the most witless productions of the human mind).

Creating to a formula--a less prejudicial term might be "working within a tradition"--is more difficult than it looks. If you're reading a book or watching a film that you don't like because it's formulaic, the chances are it's because the formula is badly executed, not because the formula doesn't work.


David Isaak said...

Yeah, it's a tricky matter, the whole originality bit.

One of the fundamental problems is that scenes we've seen a thousand times are also often obligatory scenes, without which the reader will feel cheated.

Oh, no! Not another protagonist-confronts-the-villain scene!

The only thing that could be worse is for that scene to be left out.

Tim Stretton said...

Yes, David - I think it's one of the reasons why subversions can work when they're done well. If you're steeped in a genre, it's often refreshing to see the staple scenes reinterpreted. In Joe Abercrombie, for instance, they're all there, but invariably turned on their head.

And our own Len Tyler has produced one of the best "subvert by deconstructing" stories out there.