Back in 2003, after completing my novel An Accidental House, I decided to take an introspective look at the personal style I had been honing with my first three books. With equal parts youthful audacity and blind vanity, I concluded I had created my own subgenre of contemporary literature that would henceforth be called the “snapshot novel” or “snapshot mystery,” with An Accidental House, of course, being the perfect template example.
Below are the original provisions of what characteristics a “snapshot novel” should possess. From 2003, I present the original Snapshot Novel Manifesto:
1. The length is deliberately truncated. The novel should clock in near the 200 page mark. Scenes should be quick and not rely heavily on pages and pages of details. Details arise out of necessity (to serve as clues or set an ambience for the reader) and should be used sparingly. People and places should be described physically so as to give the reader a “snapshot” or “sketch” of a character or setting. The rest is left to the imagination of the reader. This is to allow for multiple interpretations of what happened in the book and multiple solutions to the mystery. This should also give the reader an overall sense that they haven’t been given the whole story. Something is missing. All they have are these “snapshots.” They’ve only been given glimpses of a larger work. This adds to the mystery and is meant to help the reader expand their imagination.
2. The narrator is unreliable and can often be roving. The story can be told from multiple points of view that don’t always need to be clear. The narrator is not to be trusted and often mirrors the fractured psyche of the character it follows or may serve as a wholly separate character that is caught between the world of the writer and the world of the reader. The narrator assembles the “snapshots” and scenes for the reader with the intent of confusion but secretly desiring for someone to solve the mystery.
3. The underlying theme or mystery should always center on the blurring line between dreams and reality, the conscious and unconscious, fiction and nonfiction, nightmares and real life horrors. The unreliable narration and the “snapshots” are only meant to give the reader the “impression” of what is really happening. The reader is meant to use their own imagination to determine what occurred in the book.
4. Flashbacks and shifts in time should be utilized. Dream sequences are to be used to reveal clues or to further muddle the mystery and blur the line between the truth and the lie. Symbolism should be obvious and deliberate. Pop-culture references, real life current events, and brand-names should be used to frame the story and allow the reader to connect on some level to the reality beneath the abstractions and lies.
It’s interesting to look back on this concept of a new subgenre. My latest novel, The Thief Maker, though not a traditional “snapshot novel,” does bear many of the hallmarks laid out here: the multiple points of view and the shifting back and forth in time being the most noteworthy. Also, interestingly enough, one of the main characters is a renowned photographer, and descriptions of her artistic collections serve as introductions into the four main sections of the novel. It seems I took the idea of the “snapshot” to its logical end, using the descriptions of actual snapshots as thematic guideposts for the action in the book. However, instead of the listless surrealism I employed with An Accidental House, I tried to create a gritty melancholic realism with The Thief Maker. Also, full of plot twists and psychological complexities, most threads reach a logical conclusion in The Thief Maker, whereas An Accidental House left much open to interpretation. I also focused more on character development and the creation of vivid details than with any of my previous works, though I tried to maintain the same crisp, briskly paced writing style that would be inherent of a “snapshot novel.”
I notice, too, many of my favorite novels (which clearly inspired my style) contain characteristics of a “snapshot novel.” Both Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Muriel Spark’s The Comforters, though not traditional mysteries, share a length around 200 pages, utilize unreliable/roving narrators and depict a struggle to define reality. I also see many of these traits reflected in some of my favorite films, from the works of David Lynch (Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive) to the works of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) to the recent Will Ferrel vehicle Stranger than Fiction.
The questions I pose for discussion are:
1. The “snapshot novel” by definition calls for an “active” reader. How much, should we as writers, expect from our audiences? For the readers out there, how much do you like to be challenged? If familiar with some of the work discussed here, do you find that type of storytelling (often vague, open to interpretations, surreal, or unsolvable) frustrating or fulfilling?
2. Is there room for the creation of new genres and sub-genres of literature and film? Are the provisions laid out in the “Snapshot Novel Manifesto” enough to warrant a new classification? How important is it that a novel or film be classified and subscribe to the norms of a certain genre?
3. Are there other books/films out there that bear the hallmarks of the “Snapshot Novel?”