I watched an interesting video recently (Escape to the Movies, escapistmagazine.com) that suggested the strength of Stephanie Meyers’s work is that it is, more or less, professional “Outsider” art. The idea is that Meyers isn’t a very good writer, but she also is offering something different exactly because she hasn’t been pounded and shaped by traditional artistic conventions. The story she wrote would never be approved of in basic storytelling technique and that is why, for better or worse, it is so beloved and reviled at the same time.
I’m not interested in discussing the specific value of Meyers’s work. Individual opinion is largely irrelevant in this case, and we can argue all day whether or not she is a good writer or if the Twilight books are worthy of the attention they received or not. It is a circular debate, and really, the mark of success is success itself. Meyers is far more successful than I am (or will ever be), and I’m not going to criticize her books, what they might say about her worldview, or if they’re even written well. It’s just pointless.
But the idea of “Outsider” art is something I think worth exploring. The truth is that there are a lot of things you learn as a professional artist that are, for better or worse, largely irrelevant to the average person. I know as a professional novelologist, there are lot of popular stories that annoy the crap out of me. I also know that most people aren’t professional novelologists, and they couldn’t give a damn about all the little details that we writers can obsess about.
Let’s use my most recent dead horse, the dull, plodding Skyfall. I’ve already made my case about how, from a plot structure point of view, the “story” is a mess. The character arcs are incomplete or inconsistent. And the story itself only works if you ignore every needlessly clever / stupid thing everyone does throughout. But people DO ignore that stuff. Most people don’t even notice it, and those that do aren’t likely to care very much. The film might be a mess, from an established artistic perspective, but it works for people because few people care about such things.
I’m not a fan of the expression “thinking too much”, but there is such a thing as being so educated in a particular subject that it’s easy to lose sight of all the people who don’t share that point of view. Skyfall works, not as a technical piece of fiction, but as an emotional experience. Despite the weakness of its story construction, most people walk out satisfied by the film. They might even acknowledge how many things are “wrong” with the film without really caring.
This is definitely true of The Dark Knight Rises, where plot holes abound and nobody gives a damn.
I could name more examples, but you get the idea.
None of the above examples are exactly “Outsider” artists or creations. By definition, they are about as mainstream as you can get, but they’re all a bit of a mess in terms of story construction. Twilight is the story about a young woman who falls in love with her perfect love, becomes immortal, and gets to live happily forever after with no sign of sacrifice or loss. From a dramatic story framework, it just doesn’t work. From an emotional perspective, it struck gold.
What these stories tell us is that, for all the professional obsession over story structure, character arcs, themes, and so on, none of that matters nearly so much as connecting to the audience emotionally. And in that way, the professional has no real advantage over the amateur, much as I hate to admit that. In fact, under certain circumstances, the opposite happens. Meyers’s blissful ignorance over normally accepted storytelling and even the vampire genre in general enabled her to tell a story most trained artists would never have thought of to tell.
It’s something I believe more and more. If you want to write a good story, write something that strikes a chord with the audience. They’ll overlook everything if you do. They’ll nitpick you to death if you don’t. And all the training in the world, all the meticulously plotted outlines, subtle character arcs, and adjective-per-page rules in the world don’t always help you find that sweet spot.
More than anything, that’s what I try to find when I analyze stories. I might not like a story, but I can respect it for managing to do something I aspire to with everything I write. And often, the best place to learn is by all those stories that break the rules (even badly) that somehow manage to succeed despite that.
Or maybe it’s because of that.
I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,