Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Maltese MacGuffin

So, last week I talked a little bit about a couple genre problems I see pop up all the time. I think they’re most common in fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but the truth is they show up all over the place. It was a fun little rant, You should check it out if you missed it.

There was also one other genre problem I wanted to talk about, but I didn’t want that post to get ridiculously long. And in an odd way, this is sort of a reverse-genre problem. Less a problem with writing genre, more one with identifying it.

I’d like to talk to you about a little indie film from a few years back called Pulp Fiction. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Excellent.

What’s that? How does this relate to genre rant, you ask? I mean, Pulp Fiction clearly isn’t a genre movie. Not in that sci-fi/fantasy sense, anyway.

Except... well, do you remember the mysterious briefcase that floats through the story? The one with something bright and glowing inside of it, something we never see. There are a lot of theories out there about what’s in the briefcase, but one of the more interesting ones is that it’s Marsellus Wallace’s soul. He made a deal with the devil as a young man and now he’s made a new deal to get it back. Jules and Vincent, you see, are the go-betweens who are getting the soul from Satan’s reps (Brett and his two partners). This is why the briefcase’s combination is 666 and why everyone is stunned by the beauty of the thing in the case—it’s a pure, innocent soul. It also explain why the bad guy’s can’t hit Vince and Jules—it really is divine protection.

And if the movie’s got this spiritual/magic element to it now—souls and the devil and actual divine protection—well... isn’t this a gritty urban fantasy movie? I mean, that’s pretty close to the definition of urban fantasy. Maybe supernatural crime or supernatural noir, if we want to give a more flavorful description.

Of course the real question is this. If it is Wallace’s soul in the briefcase... what changes in the movie? What would be different?

Before you answer, let me point out the thing in the briefcase is what we’d call a MacGuffin. It’s an object that drives the plot without really having anything to do with it. The Maltese Falcon’s another famous one. It’s the motivation behind everything that happens in the movie—every death and betrayal and double cross—but the titular statue only shows up in the last ten minutes.

So the answer to the above question about “what would be different” is, of course, nothing. Again, the thing in the briefcase is just a MacGuffin. It could contain a human soul, a gold brick, a Tron ID disc, absolutely anything... and it wouldn’t change the plot in the slightest. Because it isn’t actually interacting with anything in a meaningful way. We can make an argument the briefcase is, but whatever’s inside it is... irrelevant.

So it’d be kinda dumb to call Pulp Fiction an urban fantasy movie. The sole element that would put it in that genre is almost completely disconnected from the plot and/or story. It may contain that element--that plot device, if you will—but that doesn’t necessarily push the movie into a different genre.

Which is the problem I wanted to talk about. Some folks have a bad habit of using a single element of a book or movie to justify bumping it into a new genre. I’ve talked about this a couple times with superpowers stories that try to call themselves superhero stories, and the problems that can cause. Just because someone’s using a sword doesn’t make my story high fantasy or historical fiction. Setting it ten years in the future doesn’t automatically mean it’s sci-fi. And just because there might be a soul in that briefcase doesn’t make Pulp Fiction urban fantasy.

I’ve seen this sooooo many times. You probably have as well. A book or show that’s really X but got marketed as Y by the author or publisher. Something that has one simple conceit to it that could be a genre element, but really the story fits into another genre altogether.

As I’ve mentioned before with superhero stories vs. superpowers stories, the big problem here becomes audience expectations. If everybody had gone into Pulp Fiction being told it was a supernatural crime story, it would’ve affected how they viewed everything they were shown. And let’s be honest... they would’ve been annoyed. Probably pissed. Because the story went against everything they thought they were going get.

What’s my point? I need to be honest with genre labels. I need to be aware of what my story really is, even if it’s got a MacGuffin or setting that might make it look like something else. Again, having a sword doesn’t suddenly make this historical fiction.

And yeah, it’s really tempting when comedies are selling to say “Why, yes, my manuscript Terminus contains several laughs and completely reads as a comedy.” But this almost always works against me. Sure, sometimes a reader will say “this isn’t what I expected at all but I ended up loving it anyway...” but those times are few and far between.

So be honest with yourself about what you’ve written. Even if it has ghosts or clones. Or a disembodied soul in a briefcase.

Next time, speaking of genre (some more) I’ve got a little mystery for you to ponder...

Until then, go write.

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