Genre: Writing “Surprise Soup”

Every genre has a formula. Many writers pride themselves on breaking formula, but are later disappointed that not many people seemed to like their changes. Those writers who don’t understand why, need to understand that consumers don’t like to buy “Soup Surprise.”

To explain…

Imagine you have the biggest craving for chocolate cake. And not just any cake, either—your mouth is watering for the cake that is served at your favorite restaurant. So you go to that restaurant and order chocolate cake. After waiting patiently, you get your cake. You pick up a huge forkful of chocolatey goodness and put it in your mouth, only to discover…

SURPRISE!

They changed the recipe, and no one told you. It is now Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake.

Assuming you have no potential anaphylactic shock from any possible peanut allergies, you would still be very put out. Yes, at any other time, you might actually have enjoyed trying some Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake. But this was not expected, so your tastebuds revolt, and you have to spit it out.

Or, you go to that restaurant to have some soup. Every day, they always have your favorite soup, so you plan on having the same soup. But that day, they tell you, they are out of your soup. Now, they only have “Soup Surprise” – AND you have to order the soup to find out what it is.

Even with this warning, even if a customer did not have any possible food allergies, most people are not likely to order it.

Yes, there are the people who like an adventure and who will try anything, but most people go to their favorite place to have their favorite flavors.

The same is true for books. Most people go to their favorite genres and sub-genres to have their favorite characters and stories. It’s the reason that book and TV series are so popular: people ENJOY the familiar and the comfortable.

For example, I had been a long-time reader of a certain Cozy Tea Mystery series. I enjoyed the characters, the concepts, the pacing, and everything. For eight books, I was comfortable in that town, with that heroine, watching her gradually develop as a character, enjoying that she was gradually developing a romantic interest in the last three. Then, on book number nine… BAM!

The author changed the recipe on my beloved chocolate cake to add mint and peanut butter. For some reason, the heroine had amnesia. All of the regular characters, plus the romantic interest that the author had developed over the last few books, were now gone. Another male character was thrown in the story to take his place. The previously G-rated series now had multiple sex scenes that were written mildly X-Rated, there was more profanity, and the violence of the crime was more graphically described. None of the characters, not even the heroine, seemed familiar. I felt as disoriented as the amnesic heroine of the story claimed to be.

Ordinarily, I know I would have enjoyed this story. The mystery itself was well-conceived, the storytelling in general was very good. But the fact that my favorite chocolate cake now had peanut-butter-and-mint in it left me with a bitter taste in my literary mouth, and I have not picked up that series again.

Another example…

I also enjoy some Science Fiction. There have been more than a few books over the years that people have suggested that I read, because they know I like Science Fiction. But SciFi is a strange animal, and has some very specific rules and formulas. It has many sub-genres that are very unique, including Time Travel, Alternate Universe, Hard Science Tech, Dystopian, and so on. Someone who is not familiar with the distinctions of these sub-genres is quick to assume that because I like some SciFi, that I like all of it. But any SciFi nerd knows that being a Trekkie does not automatically mean you will “go gaga” over Star Wars, or vice versa.

So, when I get these recommendations, I go in knowing that I am ordering the “Soup Surprise”—I merely know it’s soup, and I have no idea if I’ll really enjoy it. The way they describe the book sounds like something I might like, but I just have to read it to find out if it really is the flavor they claim it is. They have read a few SciFi books, so they are just sure this is one of the same kinds of stories that I like.

But that’s like saying, “Hey, I know you like Chicken Noodle Soup. You’re gonna love this. It has chicken in it, too.” (They think it’s the chicken that I like, when I actually enjoy the noodles the most.)

Sometimes I get lucky and they really did recommend a good SciFi story. But Science Fiction, like many genres that encompass a large variety of sub-categories, is not something you can have just a few tastes of, then assume you can make for yourself and mess with the recipe at the same time. As an editor, I have read stories by writers who were trying very hard to write stories from a genre that they had not read sufficiently, or for which they had only seen movies on screen. Their lack of experience with the formulas and “rules” for that kind of book was always apparent.

You might think that they had a right to experiment with that formula, and you would be right. But before changing around a recipe, you need to know the basics – that Chicken Noodle Soup needs to at least have chicken, noodles, and broth. Changing out a basic ingredient in the soup (genre) changes the kind of soup (genre) you are making (writing).

Before you as a writer want to get creative with a genre, be sure you have read enough of that genre to know its sub-genres and formula (“recipe”). Be sure to know what the basic ingredients are, before you end up serving your readers with a literary version of “Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake” or “Soup Surprise.”

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

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“Show and Tell” in Your Writing

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One of the common problems I have been running across lately in my work as a freelance editor, is that there is a lot of “telling” in the writing, and not much “showing.” The writer “tells” us to be afraid, that the character is arrogant & mean, that the house is falling apart, etc. But the writer fails to create a sense of dread, wonder, and affection for the character.

Instead, the writer should be making the reader afraid, showing them the arrogance of the character and how dilapidated the house is, and so on.

For example, a writer who is only “telling” things might say, “The spooky old house was falling apart.”

But this is far too much “telling.” You have just told the reader that they are supposed to be afraid of the house, instead of creating a sense of dread and fear in them as you describe the house in better detail. The reader will not feel something just because you tell them to, you have to create that mood.

Also: How is it falling apart? Show how it is falling apart: describe the windows cracked, the rotten floorboards, the curtains ragged, the paint on the walls (inside and out) faded and chipping away, etc. Give them a specific image in their mind, so they can visualize the details.

You should also use sensory descriptors and imagery to create the mood and images you wish to convey. Use sensory descriptors to get the reader to feel the danger: sight, sound, smell, etc.

Some examples:

  • The rustling of the leaves in the cold wind made him look over his shoulder. For a moment, the bizarre shapes of the gnarled, twisted branches as they shook in the wind made Peter imagine they were trying to grab at him from all sides.
  • Suddenly, an overwhelming stench hit him. It was the smell of very rotten meat and organic decay. It was the smell of death. His stomach turned over, and he gagged, almost vomiting. The next thing he knew, the scent was gone and he could breathe again.
  • A freezing wind blew out of the woods. It was unnaturally cold, even for this time of year, and was blowing in the opposite direction of the rain. It was as if the woods had a wind of its own. Holly felt the chill of it deep in her bones.

If possible, a writer should also evoke emotions and the readers’ own memories to help create a stronger image, and more powerful writing. Make the reader feel anger at the injustice of the villain’s actions against the hero (or another character), or comfortable & safe at the smell of pie cooking in a kitchen – just before you have the demonic-werewolf-ghost jump through the window and attack someone.

Another example: Instead of calling someone “villainous”, show us how they can be mean and evil. If a main character savagely kicks a homeless man who is merely sleeping in a freezing alleyway, for example, or laughs at the sight of a bully beating up a smaller child, we know that character is not one of the good guys. Such “Random Acts of Villainy” can be just as effective as “Random Acts of Kindness” in showing the reader who your characters are.

One of my favorite characters on TV is Adrian Monk. Every episode we are “shown” his major character traits: He has a keen eye for detail, and a passion to make things right in the world. The writers show this by giving him OCD, and grief over the murder of his late wife. His OCD causes him to notice details that pass by most people, but it is not focused solely on crime scenes: he also obsesses on the placement of every item in the room, the socks someone is wearing, the idea that he might have left his stove on back home, and so on.

The fact that he has an incredible eye for detail is shown to the viewer in countless situations.

Yes, you should have a list of descriptive terms for every character, but you should not share this list with your readers. Instead, try to demonstrate how each character is worthy of those descriptors.

EXAMPLES AND LINKS OF INTEREST:
“Improve Your Writing: Show, Not Tell” (Benjamin’s English) – Video

“How to Show, Not Tell, in Your Writing” (Quotidian Writer) – Video

“How to ‘Show Don’t Tell’ in Creative Writing” (Ignited Ink Writing) – Video

“The definitive guide to ‘show, don’t tell’ ” (The Writer Magazine)

“Why ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is a Golden Rule of Creative Writing” (Writers.com)

“3 Simple Tips on the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Mantra” (Writers Edit)

“How To Show & Not Tell in Short Stories” (Writers Write)

“How to Balance ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in Your Writing” (Well Storied)

“Show, Don’t Tell: What You Need to Know” (Jerry Jenkins)

“The Three Words That Almost Ruined Me As a Writer” (Literary Hub)

“My Golden Rules to ‘Show Don’t Tell’: 6 useful tips I use in my writing” (The Writers Cooperative)

“How to Show Not Tell in Writing With Exercises” (Self-Publishing School)

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

Thank you!

Thank you!