Narrative convention is one of those topics that covers all story-telling media – movies, television, plays, novels, comics, etc. Narrative convention is why the plucky underdog will prevail against all odds, why all romantic comedies have exactly the same plot, why the star-crossed lovers are not going to prevail against the odds, why the dangerous monster is going to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting populace despite totally foolproof safeguards in place to prevent just such a thing, why pretty much everyone in a horror movie is going to die, and why the last person you suspect is always the mastermind behind the crime. Narrative convention is to plots as stereotypes are to characters. In small doses, when that’s what you want out of your media, it’s fine. But when it pervades all media, it’s really annoying.
Quite honestly, humans are a pretty uncreative lot when it comes to story-telling. Respected literature critics state there are only seven core plots to any story. Hero with a Thousand Faces explains why Odysseus and Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are pretty much the same person. Characters and situations in all media are dominated by tropes (the website www.tvtropes.com has a very exhaustive list). Using one of the seven plots or tropes is not necessarily bad. Tropes are easily recognizable and relatable within the context of the trope and are a good starting point for writing (although a bad endpoint). For instance, Shego, whom I heart (as described in the entry “A TV Entry: I Heart Shego“) fits the trope of a Dark Action Girl. Kim Possible, whom the series is named after, is an Action Girl. Animation is full of the trope of the “Five-Man Band.” People also like the same things. We are creatures of habit. This is why sequels are so hard – sequels must balance between giving people the same thing as the original movie but making it just different enough people don’t see that it’s the same movie (generally speaking, anyway; The Hangover 2 just said, “$#%& that. Just make superficial changes to the original script, film the whole thing again, and no one will know the difference”).
So this brings us to narrative convention. When a certain set of events happens within a genre, that, to me, is simply the constraints of the genre. For example, in romances there are generally only two sets of events: the romantic tragedy and the romantic comedy. 1) Hero and Heroine love each other but can never be together and thus their romance ends in death or at least them actually never being together (i.e., “Romeo and Juliet”). Or Hero and Heroine immediately and strongly dislike each other but overcome their differences to find true love and their romance ends happily (i.e., Pride and Prejudice). I’ll give genres a pass for invoking their narrative conventions. After all, people don’t watch romantic comedies to see a realistic portrayal of romance. They want, “unlikely suitor, high concept hijinks, unnecessary obstacles, true love, happy ending.”
But here’s where narrative convention starts to become irritating, at least to me. I’ll continue the example of romances. Pretty much any romance in any media follows the two paths described above even if the media is not actually a vehicle for a romance comedy or tragedy. If the Hero and Heroine immediately dislike each other, you know they’ll fall for each other in the end. That’s fine for a romantic comedy, but why the hell does that happen in a crime drama? Or an action movie? Or science fiction? Go on, think of a novel or TV show or movie that had at least a romantic subplot. Was the outcome Romeo and Juliet or Darcy and Elizabeth? I’d lay odds that 95% of whatever you are thinking of right now was one of these two outcomes.
I’m not sure why this happens. I suspect part of it may be laziness. Writers/filmmakers/etc. rely on stereotypes instead of character development, so it makes sense they might rely on narrative convention instead of character story/development. Maybe in some genres it just doesn’t make sense to try to break narrative convention for a romance. For example, in an action movie, it’s probably just easier if there is a romantic subplot at all to fall into Romeo and Juliet or Darcy and Elizabeth. Maybe it’s stagnation. Maybe writers/filmmakers/etc get so used to only utilizing the Romeo and Juliet or Darcy and Elizabeth models they can no longer think of alternative relationships that break narrative convention. I posit that these models are so ingrained that if you watch a romantic comedy and the Heroine is dating a guy and they’re getting along great, this guy is not the hero. He is, in fact, all wrong for Heroine and soon that jerk she met and hated instantly will turn out to be a Hero with a heart of gold (i.e., Darcy and Elizabeth) and she will dump/be dumped by the guy in the beginning to get together with the real Hero.
Not every story has to be about Romeo and Juliet or Darcy and Elizabeth. In fact, I’ll bet you can’t think of a single relationship in real life that actually followed either model. Generally if people like each other, they try to see more of each other. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it even works out really badly, but seldom does it end so tragically as Romeo and Juliet. And if opposites attract, they often don’t last long-term because they lack common interests (because they’re opposites after all). One of my goals in writing (besides, of course, trying to make a living at it) is to avoid the trap of narrative convention. I can’t escape the seven plots and probably not even the Campbell’s hero, but I can try to break out of the mold, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. There is a lot of drama between comedy and tragedy and I see no reason to constrain myself to narrative convention.
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