My time has been sucked away lately. Besides working full time, I’m taking an online course in User Experience Design. Basically, it’s a class talking about the mechanics of pattern recognition and how we can use these ideas to build functional websites for people. For ex. if you see see a down arrow on a menu bar, you know instinctively that if you click that arrow, you will get more options. One of the most interesting tenants of user experience design, is that you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. People will get bored and go looking for a wheel they understand.
As the class wraps up, I’ve been thinking about how writers do the same thing. If you write in any genre that isn’t experimental, you’re working off these same ideas. Fundamentally, most stories can be broken down into particular archetypes, with some variations. There are various discussions of the types (I have a hand-out from one of my writing classes) all over the web. Some examples of these narrative archetypes are the hero’s journey, forbidden, love, and coming-of-age. These are very broad definitions, but you can immediately start to place stories you’ve read and liked into these categories.
Why are stories like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey so popular? Because they don’t reinvent the wheel. Both of these are forbidden love stories that follow a similar pattern. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. So, at their core, each of these is presenting a new take on something we are very, very familiar with.
Beyond story archetypes, you can see user experience patterns at work in characterization, plot structure, plot elements, sentence structure, etc. All of this is designed to give the reader a level of familiarity, so that they’re more comfortable being led into unknown territory. Human girl, boy vampire? That’s okay, because it’s basically Romeo and Juliet.
I believe that bad writing often appears when these user experiences are violated. Characterization might fall flat if you introduce a character as “narcissistic” and then in the next chapter, have him donating all of his wordly goods and possessions to the less fortunate. Now, you can make a case for this behavior. But if it’s just a passing mention and not a big part of the overall plot, you’re going to turn some readers off.
Maybe nothing is original, but there’s a good reason for that. People don’t crave out-and-out originality. What they look for, is something that seems familiar, but isn’t.
I purposefully excluded the experimental genre because it doesn’t fit with these ideas. Which explains how it got its name. Experimental fiction and poetry rarely, if ever, goes mainstream and achieves a wide audience. Because in its very structure, it IS reinventing the wheel. But that’s okay. The purpose is to do that. To destroy preconceptions. Writers in this genre don’t expect or even particularly desire to see their book on the NYT Best-Seller List.
Thinking of your writing in terms of how you can incorporate patterns of experience is useful, so long as you want your work to be more widely read. If that’s not important to you, you needn’t bother.