Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Underpinnings...a different kind of support

by Lisa Hughey

Well I do believe that the previous pens have definitively covered the somewhat racy subject of undergarments (insert smiley face here--I would if I could but I can't find a small one in blogger :) ) so I am going to turn my focus toward a different kind of underpinning.

Underpin (underpinned, underpinning) verb
1 to furnish a foundation for; corroborate
2 to give support or substance to

I’m fascinated by the idea that all fiction is derivative.

“Nothing is knew. It’s all been done before.”

Anyone who studies writing techniques has heard this adage. Literary writers frequently disparage commercial fiction as formulaic. I think they are missing the point. The very reason commercial fiction is criticized is the reason that commercial fiction has a wider audience. It isn’t so much formulaic as the writing is supported by an underlying mythic structure.

Our job as a writer is to take that underpinning, along with the unique details
(character strengths, weaknesses, and quirks; historical or dystopic or Wiccan settings; scientific phenomena, fact, and what ifs; paranormal talents; and the list goes on) that describe our fictional world, and craft a story. Which sounds pretty simple but in reality is a lot of hard work.

However, I believe that the reason these works appeal to so many is they tap into the stories so ingrained in our brains-even if we are unfamiliar with the old myth-that the story is viscerally attractive. And that appeal is timeless.

That’s why Cinderella story movies continue to prevail and secret baby plots will never go out of fashion.


ps. for new writers: There are lots of writing books on the reference shelf at your local library or bookstore, but Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and the more recent Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey convey the mythic structure in a simple format, breaking down the pieces of the story into building blocks, and giving the writer the correct underpinnings.


Rachael Herron said...

"the writing is supported by an underlying mythic structure"
Yes! Right on! That's what I'm going to say now to opponents of commercial fiction.

Juliet Blackwell said...

This is great -- I was just thinking that SOMEONE had to look at "underpinnings" in a metaphorical, rather than literal, sense. Perfect! Stories, like buildings, need the proper underpinnings -- otherwise they fall apart.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Love your post! The human brain craves *structure* (that's why our languages, which was made up more or less one grunt at a time, organize themselves into such richly consistent patterns), and is put to sleep by formula.

Did Dennis LeHane reinvent mystery or suspense? Hell no, but he TOLD THE HELL out of a story he knew well, which at that point had only been exploited, not really *told* in commercial fiction.

Structure is the underpinning of all art, even if that underpinning is deliberately deconstructed. Formula is the underpinning of art's demise. Can I say that?

Commercial or tightly-constrained-form fiction can be as ambitious or talented as the writer who takes it on. One might argue that it's harder to reinvent within a tightly-constrained form than outside it.

Anyway, thanks for the inspiration!!!!

Adrienne Miller said...

You had me at Cinderella. But you already knew that. I love Joseph Campbell. I've always thought that the best thing a storyteller (any kind of storyteller) can do is check out some Campbell, not so much to learn what to do, but to get some insight into why your instincts are right.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Hear, hear. Excellent post, Lisa. :)