As a child, I loved the old TV shows from the 60′s and 70′s like I Dream of Jeannie, Welcome Back Kotter, and Bewitched. There was just something about the way they harkened back to what I considered in my youthful ignorance as a simpler time. I loved that all of the problems could be solved in a half hour, and that after each show I’d feel optimistic. Even as a kid, I was all too aware of the problems in the world. (I once cried during a video on recycling, mourning the damage we’ve done to our planet. So I was an environmental conscious, melodramatic child.)
But well into my teens, the one show that I’ll confess I watched more than the rest was the original Scooby Doo: Where Are You? mysteries from the 1970′s. Now, I’d like to say it was because Casey Kasem’s voice is like crack for your ears, yet I know what really attracted me was the formulaic approach. I watch a lot of crime shows as an adult, and as a co-worker recently told me, they all follow pretty much the same pattern. Introduce some red herrings, false leads, we see our detectives work tirelessly in definitely not real time, wham bam here’s the real criminal. As I write my first historical romance novel with heavy suspense elements, I’ve been watching those crime shows with a more critical eye to see just how they put together the mysteries.
Today I’m looking particularly at the structural elements of a Scooby Doo episode and how we can relate those techniques in romance. Fundamentally, every episode follows this pattern: the Mystery Inc. team arrive in their awesome hippedelic van to solve a new crime. Some sort of mythical monster is tormenting the townspeople, be it a werewolf, a mummy, a ghoul, or a demented clown. Shaggy and Scooby are of course terrified, but the rest of the gang is skeptical. Fred–that egotistical cad you see in all romance novels who picks on our hero or heroine–is too busy impressing the women to really form a cognitive plan of action other than “splitting up to cover more ground.” Inevitably, Scooby and Shaggy will be sent off on their own and they’ll get chased by the monster while Daphne ends up stuck somewhere, Velma loses her glasses, and Fred makes some mad disco moves and is obstinate. Finally, they’ll all get back together and unmask the monster. Always, except in one horrible incarnation called Scooby Doo and Zombie Island which scarred me as a child, the monster is not real.
It’s this key element of Scooby Doo that stuck with me most. The imagined evil is conquerable; it’s not something outside of the gang’s abilities. The obstacles set up, while originally seeming horrible (community terrorized, objects stolen, strange scary occurrences) must always be something the hero/heroine can get past if they just hold a certain key. Joseph Campbell calls this “return with the elixir,” which basically means that in your third act, when your hero/heroine finally achieves success over everything they’ve been battling in the book, they now know how to solve the problem. Everything that they’ve worked for is now possible. With the guaranteed happily ever after in romance, we can’t set up problems with no solution. Like the half hour time slot given to Scooby Doo, there has to be a satisfactory resolution or the romance reader feels cheated. We want that feeling of elation.
Once the criminal is unmasked, order is restored to the universe because the gang has triumphed over evil. In every segment, the criminal utters something like “and I would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.” I think this transcends to romance as well–we want a hero and a heroine we can route for against all odds. While the Mystery Inc. gang is a cartoonish example for sure (pun intended), their successes make us want them to succeed because they’re stopping dirtbags from preying upon innocent civilians. In our romance novels, we set up a series of obstacles for our protagonists to conquer. It’s at those “dark moments,” like when Shaggy and Scooby are getting chased by the monster, that we most want our favorite characters to prevail.
When watching an episode of Scooby Doo, you know what you’re getting. I think it’s that regularity and expected payoff that I gravitated toward. In a world of unknowns, it was comforting to me to have something that followed a set track. As readers, we often go toward books that fall in a certain trope–some people like governess stories, others like ward and guardian, friends turned lovers, enemies to lovers, redeemable rogues, etc. There’s many variations on these themes, but they still remain in many romance novels because they work. They appeal to a certain part of us that wants to see love blossom between two unlikely characters, to see goodness in a bleak fate.