Not long ago, I had the opportunity to meet Philippa Gregory (most famously the author of the historical novel “The Other Boleyn Girl”), and hear her address a large group of fans and readers. While Philippa herself is a charming, intelligent woman, and her talk was both entertaining and informative, what really interested me about the evening was her audience.
Everyone had arrived early for the best seats, so there was plenty of time before the program started for the self-made introductions that readers do so well, the kind that always begin with “Have you read…?” This was a well-read bunch, too, with dozens of teachers and librarians in the mix, so there were many interesting conversations bubbling throughout the room.
Of course the most popular topics were Philippa’s books (after all, it WAS her night) and the “Boleyn Girl” movie currently in production on location in England, confirmed to be starring Scarlett Johnanson as Anne Boleyn, Natalie Portman as her sister, and Eric Banna as Henry VIII, and due for release next summer. (There you are, Hollywood scoop in the WordWenches!)
But then the conversations turned to other novels about Anne Boleyn. To my amazement, they never tired of Anne’s story, no matter how many times they’d read it. They all knew that in every book Anne would beguile Henry away from his wife, marry him, fail to produce a male heir, and have her head cut off. There weren’t going to be any real surprises, yet still they couldn’t wait for each re-telling.
“It’s like hearing the same gossip from different friends,” explained one woman. “I love the nuances of different perspectives.”
Now any writer who’s heard an editor/agent panel at a conference knows that those editors and editors will claim to all be seeking something fresh, something new, something we’ve never seen before. Yet here at the other end of the publishing food-chain were book-buying-readers saying they couldn’t get enough of exactly the same thing.
It doesn’t have to be Anne Boleyn, either. There’s also a new wave of Marie Antoinette books out now, and we all know how those will end, too. And no matter how many novels are set in the Civil War, or the Napoleonic Wars, or World War II, for the most part the same armies are going to keep winning those wars as well.
But it doesn’t have to be just a historical novel. In romance, readers and writers return again and again to the same kinds of stories. We all joke about the “secret-baby-in-jeopardy-masquerade-spy-runaway-bride” stories, and yet the classic plots continue to be reworked and retold by different authors.
Of course, romance by its very nature has a predetermined resolution. True love will triumph, and the girl will get the boy, or it’s not a romance. But between page one and the happy-ending there are –– and always will be –– endless variations.
I had one world-weary editor who claimed there was only one plot: “Take them up the tree, and get them down from the tree.” Loosely (very loosely) speaking, she’s right. Or, to trot out another aphorism, it’s not the destination that makes thejourney special, but the stops along the way. It’s those “stops” that help every good writer put her own spin on a classic plot, and make it fresh again to readers.
At least that’s what we try to do. 🙂
So what’s your take on tried-and-true plots? Would you rather read something new, fresh, unexpected, or do you reach for a secret-baby story every time?