Cookie Cutter Stories

This weekend, as I was cutting out and baking sugar cookies for a Sunday afternoon cookie decorating party, the phrase “cookie cutter plot and characters” flashed into my head.  As you probably know, when the phrase “cookie cutter” is applied to anything (except for the tools used for making cut-out cookies, of course), it denotes something that is mass produced, standardized, or formulaic.

Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme

As I rolled out sugar cookie dough and chose from my eclectic assortment of cookie cutters (among those not featured in the picture were a stegosaurus, frog, rabbit, cottage, cowboy boot, pick-up truck, and squirrel), I found myself thinking how inappropriate it would be to assume that, by the end of that day’s decorating party, we would have a lot of nearly identical cookies.  One reason I really like having friends over to decorate cookies is seeing the wide variety of interpretations of a single form that occur.

With that in mind, I decided to make duplicates of some of the cookies, just to see what happened under the influence of different decorators’ sense of style.

While there’s a lot to be said for originality, one of the things that makes genre fiction “genre” is that there are shared elements.  This leaves any form of genre fiction (even “literary fiction” which I have heard persuasively described as just another genre) open to accusations of cookie-cutterdom.

Romance is probably the genre that comes in for this criticism most often.  I recently read an article in the SFWA Bulletin explaining all the different elements that make for a successful romance novel, rather than a novel in which romance is an element.  I found myself thinking that, while this could be helpful for writers who wanted to break into the ever-growing paranormal romance market, it would almost certainly guarantee a bunch of really bad stories written by authors who over-optimistically believed that all there was to writing successful romance novels was picking out an assortment of these elements and mechanically constructing a story around them.

The fact is, any writer who wants to work within a genre faces the dual challenges of using the elements that characterize the genre while, at the same time, giving these elements a fresh twist or interpretation.

Fairy tales and legends can be seen as among the older forms of Fantasy fiction.   Therefore, it would be fair to think that, after hundreds of years, there is nothing new to be done with them.  Judging by recently published novels and short stories – both for children and adults – the reverse is true.  A relevant retelling using these stories – whether very directly as in Shannon Hales’ “Ever After High” novels or more indirectly, such as the recent Nebula award winning novel Uprooted by Naomi Novik – can do very well indeed.

Equally, despite the numerous people who sneer at them, there are still good stories to be told about quests, dragons, space exploration, and even unicorns and princesses.  Murder mysteries still abound, despite the fact that readers know that 1) there will be a body (or more than one body); 2) a detective (amateur or professional or both), and 3) a solution.

If “originality” is the only thing that makes a story good, then historical fiction shouldn’t exist at all.  After all, how much more “cookie cutter” can you get than retelling an event that any reader can learn about by reading a short encyclopedia or Wikipedia article?  Yet historical fiction – up to and including historical mysteries and alternate history fiction – remain vastly popular.

The big difference between dull cookie cutter genre fiction and the sort of fresh, exciting writing that has readers making a beeline toward their favorite section of the bookstore is the passion that the writer brings to his or her story.  And, to be brutally honest, the worst thing would-be professional writers can do is copy what they see as the “hot thing” of the moment, since what will make them stand out from the pack is not their ability to imitate, but their ability to do something that makes them stand out.

Yet, ironically, imitation of what a writer loves when that writer is a reader is one of the best training exercises for becoming a future writer of original fiction.  I’ve talked to many writers who admit that their earliest exercises in writing fiction involved melding elements from their favorite novels, television shows, and/or movies.

Confusing, isn’t it?

I think lazy writing is one reason why the longer a genre is around, the more frequently parodies surface.  “The butler did it” was a big surprise when it first occurred in a murder mystery because, before that point, trusted servants had been considered background elements, as more or less living, breathing pieces of furniture.  Expanding the story to include servants or other trusted retainers as three-dimensional people with motives and emotions began as an interesting expansion of the murder mystery but quickly stagnated to a cliché.

So, let’s be fair both to cookie cutters and to genre fiction.  It isn’t the form that’s at fault.  It’s what the creator does with it.  Or so I see it…  What are your thoughts?

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6 Responses to “Cookie Cutter Stories”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    People keep saying “the butler did it” is a cliche but, aside from when it’s played for laughs or for the sole purpose of using that line, I’ve never actually seen or read a mystery played straight in which the butler actually did commit the murder. Have you?

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      You probably need to look into deep time to find them. Deep in this case being the period from [probably] 1890 to 1930. According to Wikipedia [which can be very accurate in non-controversial subjects, but even so…] the phrase itself derives from Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1930 The Door. If that’s correct, it must have taken off very quickly, since by 1933 Georgette Heyer’s Why Shoot a Butler, which is most certainly not a parody, could be published with a cover blurb of ‘the butler didn’t do it’, or words to that effect [i’d have to find my copy] which, AFAICT, was used on the original printing. I’ve not read The Door, BTW.

    • janelindskold Says:

      There’s also a Holmes story where the butler is the criminal.

      I found this link, which is pretty interesting.

      http://mentalfloss.com/article/50679/why-do-we-say-butler-did-it

  2. Paul Genesse Says:

    Hi Jane, Personally, I can’t blame the form at all. It’s the author who has to accept responsibility for the characters and plot. They have to spin it in their own way–as probably all of us have said. I have to mention that many readers (especially new ones) don’t see cookie cutter, or archetypes, or trite plots as they’ve haven’t read enough to even know that J.K. Rowling didn’t invent fantasy. I believe that if a persons writing is strong enough, and they write a compelling story with good characters, like Firekeeper, people will fall in love with them. The use of fantasy tropes don’t matter if the story is strong enough.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I agree with you, Paul. Firekeeper, for example, is not the first wolf woman character, the first feral child, the first anything…

      Except that she’s MY first take on an idea that resonates passionately with me, so she’s unique, as are her friends and her story.

      There’s more to the AUTHOR than is usually addressed, maybe because it’s far harder to analyse than the usual reductive reviews and criticism.

  3. Paul Says:

    There was one TV episode of “Castle” where the butler did it. I remember because Castle was able to proclaim that at the finale.

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