Keeping the reader guessing (new post on my website)

Please go to CarolLouiseWilde.com to read this new Conversational Wordsmith blog post, in which I discuss several approaches to keeping readers guessing (plot twists, withholding information, misdirection, and deliberate obscurity) – along with my take on how effective they are and some of the problems I see if they’re not done well.

There is now a way to sign up on my website for email notifications about future posts, so I invite you to do that while you’re there if you’re interested. I really am hoping to close down this blog (the one you are now reading) some time next month.

Does Genre Fiction Need a Theme?

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice to writers over the years, and the word “theme” has cropped up a number of times. It was listed, for example, among the things that should be found in the first two pages of your story. Really? I mean, I’ve always associate the idea of having a theme with fiction of the more literary sort, but I write genre fiction. I kept wondering; does genre fiction need to have a theme?

I think the short answer is no. All genre fiction has to do to be successful with readers is to meet the expectations of the sub-group of readers who read books of that particular genre. And if those readers don’t expect a theme, then you don’t need to have one. A mystery is a story-puzzle wrapped around some hopefully interesting characters. Theme needed? No. A romance doesn’t need any other theme besides the obvious one of romantic love that defines the genre. Fantasy readers expect to be transported beyond the boundaries of their mundane existence, and science fiction readers are looking for a provocative “what if” to bend their minds. Conclusion? Genre stories don’t need no stinkin’ theme!

So why am I writing this? Because I’m a natural-born worry-wart and my brain wouldn’t put the idea down. And the thing is, when I took a hard look at my seven-book fantasy series, The Nagaro Chronicle, with the theme-idea in mind, darned if I didn’t find some! This, even though I hadn’t set out to put one in. The Chronicle follows its main character, Nagaro, across ten years of his life, and he’s a man with a destiny who doesn’t know it. Something had to drive the character, so I made sure there were things that mattered to him – things like honor and using his gifts to do good in the world – and these concepts became threads that are now integral to the character and his story. They run throughout the entire series. And I think the series is the better for it.

I’m not saying that having a theme turns my work into great literature, but it does provide a cohesiveness, perhaps a little more depth, and a feeling of enhanced meaning. It also contributes to the work’s unique flavor and finally gives me a nut-shell description that could help potential target readers identify with my work. When I tell them the series has themes of honor and altruism, I know it will resonate with some readers and I hope they’ll be more likely to buy that first book. Readers who don’t care for heroes who are too “nice” may also be motivated to steer clear – which reduces my risk of getting unenthusiastic reviews from folks who just aren’t part of my target audience.

I don’t think you can just slap a theme on top of an existing manuscript, or poke a few holes and try to insert one. Themes have to be organically part of the story. But if you see the seeds of a theme in your work as you’re writing it – or find one trying to emerge while doing revisions – I’m suggesting that you nurture it. And also that you find a way to work it into your cover blurb.

What do you think? Am I onto something, or off-base? Any genre works with themes that you can point to? Do they benefit from having one? How about your own work?

Fear in Fiction

Fear is often treated in fiction as if it were just a weakness — a deficiency of the thing we call “courage” – and something that should be overcome at all costs. This overcoming of fear is an extremely frequent theme in all forms of storytelling, and the approach to overcoming fear that is depicted is almost always one in which the character confronts his or her fear, beats it, and is never troubled by it again. This is a convenient and compelling scenario which allows a rapid, dramatic solution to a problem. It has the further attraction that the hero or heroine must use courage to arrive at the solution.

This cliché is so ubiquitous that most people don’t realize it is a cliché. They think it’s an accurate representation of how fear works and how fear should be dealt with. Psychologists have a name for this confrontational approach: It’s called “flooding,” and they don’t recommend it. They don’t, for the simple reason that it’s all too possible for the fear to “win” the confrontation, making the person’s problem worse, not better. The recommended approach for overcoming inappropriate fears is called “desensitization” and consists of approaching the fear in a series of small incremental steps that can take quite a long time to achieve their goal. It’s pretty easy to see why that approach isn’t popular with fiction writers. You do see it used occasionally in fiction, usually when the fearful person is depicted as inherently weak, such as a small child or a traumatized person. Heroes don’t do it this way, however. To be a fictional hero one must take the plunge.

Everything I know about fear indicates that the view of it as a weakness or a deficiency of courage is fundamentally inaccurate. Fear is functional. It’s a protective mechanism that evolved to help keep us safe and frequently serves us well. Fear undoubtedly saves countless lives every day as it motivates people to avoid dangerous situations and behaviors. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, reacting naturally to that motivation was probably beneficial most of the time, or at worst, harmless. Our modern world differs vastly from the one we evolved to inhabit, however, and some of our fears have become inappropriate as a result. There are also a number of recognized disorders involving the fear mechanism, ranging from free-floating anxiety to simple phobias, to panic attacks – some of which may be exacerbated by the complex demands of our modern society.

Fear is known to have a biological mechanism involving specific brain regions and neurotransmitters. The same cannot be said for courage. It’s difficult, in fact, to say what “courage” actually is. Much of what passes for courage is really fearlessness. Real life “heroes” who rescue other people from danger frequently report that they didn’t think, but “just did it.” In that moment of impulse it’s doubtful they were experiencing fear. Daredevils and thrill-seekers routinely take on dangerous feats because it gives them a “rush,” which I can only assume is not the same thing as what I call fear.

According to my best understanding, the fear-overcoming type of courage consists of the ability, in a specific situation, to marshal mental motivators of sufficient number and potency to outweigh the power of the fear response that the brain is experiencing. And there is simply no guarantee that any particular person will be able to do that in any given situation. I conclude that we are far too free with the “coward” label, especially when anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 20% of the population.

We’ve probably all heard the adage, “to be brave one must first be afraid.” Yet fear has such a negative perception in our culture that we continue to admire fearlessness and look down on those who show fear. Further, the adage implicitly assumes that being “brave” is the desirable response. Writers of fiction (and nonfiction) frequently contribute to this bias. They love to make antagonistic characters ultimately turn out to be “cowards,” even as the protagonist turns out to be “brave.” It’s often assumed that we will judge characters negatively or positively based on how they respond to danger – and that we are right to do so.

If we truly wish to help people who suffer from inappropriate fears, an excellent place to start would be to resist this cultural bias that automatically dumps on fear and on the people who experience it or are overcome by it. We can counter the inaccurate assumption that one must always face fear head-on and the cavalier notion that a “courageous” person can always will it away. Fiction writers can help by seeking to portray fear more realistically. Readers can take writers to task for failing to do so.

I invite your comments.

Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.
Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

In Defense of Fantasy

fantasy landscape

fantasy landscape (Photo credit: sekundo)

As writers go, fantasy writers don’t get a lot of respect in this world. Genre fiction in general doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the circles of those who read it or write it—unless of course someone manages to write a bestseller and make a lot of money. That always seems to be okay with people.

I think fantasy in particular just seems frivolous to many people. There’s also the sense that it’s a form of escapism, which some people see as a weakness. I could defend the escapist aspect of fantasy on the grounds that it exercises the imagination. You may or may not think imagination is an important thing to exercise, but that’s not actually where I want to go with this post. (I already explained in a previous post that I believe storytelling developed in humans because it’s useful, and that exercising the imagination is part of that.)

I have a more fundamental point to make here: There’s an element of fantasy in all fiction. Otherwise, it would be nonfiction. In order to create a work of fiction, a writer has to reach beyond what exists or has existed in terms of characters and events. What fantasy writers—and also science fiction writers—do that sets them apart most from other fiction writers is they also venture beyond the known in terms of setting. Characters and events can also be fantastic, of course, but for writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres setting is fair game and often a large part of the fun. (Fantasy and science fiction tend to grade into each other and are often lumped together, so I don’t particularly try to separate them here.)

Now, I’m sure a lot of the fantasy and sci-fi fans out there are saying, wait a minute! Just because our writers make up a lot of stuff doesn’t mean they don’t have to worry about making things be true to life. Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events. Outside the boundaries of any magic involved, the laws of physics still have to apply. And of course this is the other half of my point. There has to be something in the story that is congruent with the reader’s experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing for him or her to relate to and no reason to be interested in the story.

So, my point is: All types of fiction must contain both elements that are novel (that’s why it’s called a “novel”) and elements that are familiar. Fantasy is just one end of a continuum, one that allows the mind a particularly free rein—at least potentially. Fantasy, like any genre or class of fiction, has its own conventions and tropes. There are in fact sub-genres within fantasy, and within science fiction, each with its own conventions which may be unfamiliar or even distracting or annoying to other readers. But the best of fantasy, like the best of any type of fiction, is not blandly conventional. Rather, it stretches that envelope. It gives us visions either strange or wonderful, because it is fantasy, but it also provides us a glimpse of uncompromising truth.

Truth, Justice, and the Happy Ending

Parthenon from west

Parthenon from west (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My brother says the main difference between “great” literature and the rest of it is that great literature isn’t allowed to have a happy ending.

If there’s a happy ending to it, it automatically isn’t great.

Of course he’s being a little facetious, but not much. There does seem to be some truth in the notion. If one goes back to the ancient Greeks, for example, (always a good place to start for western culture), those folks wrote just two kinds of plays – comedies and tragedies. There was no “drama” category. A “comedy” was light entertainment, not to be taken seriously. Anything that was serious was a “tragedy.” The distinction still seems to be with us when we get to Shakespeare and it lingers with us today in that you still hear a happy ending described as too “easy” or too “trivial.” Happy endings aren’t “realistic,” people say. If the function of literature is to hold up a mirror to the world that reflects “truth,” then your story ought to be a downer since the real world can’t be counted on to deliver a happy ending.

Happy endings do, of course, occasionally happen in the real world, although arranging one often requires that one chose carefully where to end the story. One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13.  It’s such a great true story.  But that sublimely feel-good moment of homecoming is tempered by the voice-over epilogue that tells us about the subsequent lives of the three astronauts. It’s obvious that “they all lived happily ever after” can’t be literally true – because nobody lives forever. As Peter S. Beagle put it in The Last Unicorn, “There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”  (That’s one of a number of profound observations made in that book – which I highly recommend.) Tolkien’s variant is better: “He lived happily ever after to the end of his days.” That, at least, is possible.

Cover of "The Last Unicorn"

Cover of The Last Unicorn

My brother’s rather cynical point is that there’s a certain smug, highbrow snobbishness to the rejection of the happy ending. Happy endings are popular, and if one is going to practice “high art” one mustn’t stoop to the level of appealing to the masses.

All of this got me to thinking about why happy endings are so popular. Obviously they make us feel good. We often identify with the protagonist, so a good outcome for the protagonist is, vicariously, a good outcome for us. On the other hand, some of us also take pleasure from reading about bad things happening to other people (generally the rich and famous), as shown by the popularity of the tabloid press. So what, exactly, is going on here?

There are probably various hypotheses one could offer, but the one I’m going with today is simply this:

Human beings crave justice. And justice, in the real world, all too often eludes us.

We want the world to be fair, and it isn’t. We enact laws in our societies in an effort to create justice in the world. We offer up prayers and make sacrifices to our gods in an effort to persuade them to give us – or those we care about – what we believe we each deserve. We join causes, we found nonprofit organizations. Some of us turn to vigilante-ism. If we have managed to come out on top in life, we may persuade ourselves that we have earned it, that those who are less successful must be less deserving. When all else fails, we tell ourselves that death is not the end and that it will all be made right in the hereafter.

Or, if we happen to be writers of fiction, we write stories with happy endings.

I think story-telling is a fundamental human trait, like bipedalism, complex language, tool use, and being a social animal. I previously wrote about the instructive nature of stories, and their entertainment value. But fiction also offers us a powerful opportunity to indulge our craving for justice. When, as a writer, you create a work of fiction, you are the god of your fictional universe, and the temptation inevitably presents itself to make the story turn out the way you know it ought to.  If someone works hard, he ought to be successful. If a person takes on an evil-doer, he should win. The sweet child who faces a life-threatening illness with faith and courage should pull through. Good deeds should be rewarded. Sacrifices should not be in vain.

We know that every story needs conflict in order to be interesting, and conflict implies that something has to go wrong for somebody. We happy-ending-lovers just want the story to turn out right in the end. Is that really too much to ask? I mean, if we want to see things turning out wrong, all be have to do is look around us. I, for one, get tired of all the injustice, the pain, the tears.

Turning out right can mean seeing bad people get their just deserts, as well as seeing good people get their just reward. A story that focuses entirely on a “bad” person could have a “bad” ending and still be “right.” (I just don’t personally enjoy focusing on bad people.) Endings that satisfy my desire for justice don’t have to have “happily ever after” endings.  They only have to make things right.

Two of my favorite movies are Gladiator and V for Vendetta. Neither is a happily-ever-after tale. Both revolve around men who have suffered great wrongs, who have essentially lost everything but their lives, and who are trying to change the world for the better before they die. Both are stories about setting things right.

My husband and I originally had a disagreement about the ending of the movie “Inception.” He thought the little top left spinning at the end was intentionally ambiguous, and he liked that ambiguity. I thought the fact that the top was beginning to wobble meant it would eventually fall. And I also said this was the “right” ending, because the other ending would not have been fair.  The main character had earned the right to the happy ending. (The filmmaker has since weighed in on the issue, and I was right.)

What about you? Where do you stand on truth, justice, and happy endings?

Writers, readers, and breaking trust

Truth

Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

Among the comments on my recent post about truth in fiction, was one from the norfolknovelist  in which she pointed out, among other things, that if you violate the truth in your fiction, your readers may decide they can’t trust you. This is a valid point, although it’s also clear that fiction writers routinely bend or stretch the truth in some ways without getting into trouble with their readers (not to mention constructing things out of whole cloth). This is because readers of fiction are willing within limits to do something called suspending disbelief. After all, if everything in a fiction story had to be true, it wouldn’t exactly be fiction, would it?

Or, as my teenage son so aptly puts it whenever I start getting bent out of shape over some scientific inaccuracy in a book or movie: “Mom, it’s fiction!

So, what can you get away with, and what can’t you? Well, for the fictitious elements of your story, you can get away with anything from plausible to downright impossible depending on the genre.  You can do angels and demons, magical transformations, time travel – for the right audience. That’s where disbelief-suspension comes in. The devil, however, is in the mundane details – where it comes down to reader knowledge and reader expectations. These, in turn, vary depending both on the setting of your story and on the audience you are writing for. If you’re writing a story involving contemporary life, you’d better get as many details right as possible because your readers are contemporary with your setting and they are going to know details. Every reader may not know everything, but they’re all going to know something. If you’re writing a crime drama or detective story you had better get your forensics right because people who read this kind of story care about that kind of detail. Making an inaccurate statement about the kind of information that can be gleaned from a particular forensic technique is going to lose their trust big-time if they either already know the truth or later find out that you had it wrong. On the other hand, these readers aren’t likely to care if a minor character who is a bird watcher makes an inaccurate comment about the markings of the black-headed grosbeak – unless, perhaps, it turns out to be relevant to the solution of the crime.

BUT, there is another – perhaps even more important – aspect to reader trust.

This other aspect of trust relates more to internal consistency than to consistency with the external world. I’m not talking about saying a character has red hair in chapter 2 and brown hair in chapter 7 because you forgot what you wrote in chapter 2.  That’s an error of continuity. It needs to be fixed, but if it were to sneak through, it would be more likely to make your readers think you were sloppy than to lose their trust. No, I’m talking about lying to your readers. I’m talking about the situation where the writer purposefully tells the readers that A is true in chapter 2 and then has it turn out in chapter 7 that A is not true and in fact the truth is B.

Why on earth would writers do this? Because they don’t want the readers to guess the truth too early in the story! Not surprisingly, mystery writers are some of the worst offenders, but at some level every story is a mystery and so all fiction writers are potentially subject to this temptation.

Here’s the deal: When you tell a story, the reader implicitly trusts that what you say is true is true, within the context of the story. To put it another way, when you are the omniscient narrator, you are the Voice of God – for that story.

So don’t overstate the facts to try to mislead your readers. It’s a lie. It’s a cheat. It’s a violation of the readers’ trust.

Consider your wording carefully to achieve the desired effect without engaging in outright deception. There are important differences between the following examples:

a)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying dead on the floor.

b)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

c)       He looked in the window and saw the body of a dark-haired woman in a blue evening gown lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

In the first case you’ve told us the person he saw was his wife and that she was dead. It had better not later turn out that it wasn’t his wife or that she wasn’t dead. In the second case you’ve told us it was his wife, but while the pool of blood may suggest she is dead, you haven’t actually said so. And finally, in the last case, you haven’t explicitly identified the woman (although the description might match that of his wife), nor have you explicitly stated that the woman is dead.

A skillful writer can have the readers pretty much where he or she wants them to be without ever telling them a lie.

On wolves, sheep, and truth in fiction

A while ago, G M Barlean (author of Casting Stones, and story-telling blogger extraordinaire) mentioned in a comment to one of my posts that the nonfiction writers in her writers’ group often asked the fiction writers about truth in fiction and that the ensuing discussions generally came around to the subject of the genres of fiction. The subject has been kicking around the back of my brain ever since, so I’ve decided to post on it.

So what about the idea of truth in fiction? I mean, if a story is fiction, it follows that it isn’t true. And yet I think every fiction writer knows that every story has to contain elements of truth.

, from the title sequence of the Superman cart...

, from the title sequence of the Superman cartoons. Suomi: Fleischerien versio Teräsmiehestä. Français : , à partir de la séquence titre des dessins animés de . Italiano: Superman in posa solenne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Truth has to be in there at some level or the story cannot make sense. Even if it did manage to make some sense, it wouldn’t be a very compelling story if it had little or no truth in it. This is because, if there isn’t enough truth to anchor a story to the reality of our experience, the characters and events in the story simply won’t matter to us. Example: As a child I once discovered that some neighbors had a huge cache of Superman comic books, and I went on a binge. I was young enough and unsophisticated enough in my experience of the world to initially buy into the rather shallow characters and horribly contrived plot lines. Eventually I began to see the glaring plot flaws, however, and the endless repetitiousness of the character interactions. At that point I walked away and never went back because I had just stopped caring about any of it.

So if we are to care about a story, it must contain a certain amount of truth, somewhere. Also, I think more truth generally makes stories more meaningful.

Consider the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It’s a very old story. It’s attributed to Aesop, which takes it back to about 600 B.C.E. (How’s that for immortality?) Everyone (or almost everyone) knows the story about the shepherd boy who gives too many false warnings about a wolf menacing the flock and then isn’t believed when there really is a wolf. To “cry wolf” has come to mean to “give a false alarm.” But was there ever really an Aesop? If so, did he make this story up? Is it based on a true incident that he knew of personally, or one that he just heard about? Does any of that matter?  No: The story stands on the strength of the inherent truths it contains. We all understand, in principle, the behavior of wolves (preditors) with respect to sheep (prey). We all know about little boys who will do just about anything to gain attention or to see adults running around making fools of themselves, and we also know that when there have been too many false alarms, people may very well disregard a real one. The story is positively riddled with truth even though the incident it describes may never have actually happened. The story has become so iconic that “cry wolf” has entered the lexicon, and this is because it uses elements drawn from the real world to teach us a lesson that rings true.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Project Gutenberg ete...

The Boy Who Cried Wolf – Project Gutenberg etext 19994 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story wouldn’t work if the boy were standing on his head when a sheep came out of the forest and ate a wolf that wandered by, after first running around in circles whistling Dixie – because that story doesn’t contain any truth to speak of. It may be extremely creative in an off-the-wall kind of way, but  its elements just don’t connect – to each other or anything else.

I’d like to return for a moment to the image of our story-telling hunter-gatherer ancestors from my earlier post (Why we create fiction). In that post, I explained that I believe storytelling is fundamental to our nature as a species. It’s fundamental to our ability to pass our understanding of the world on to others (cultural transmission), and it’s fundamental to the nurturing of imagination and to creativity.  I’m sure it didn’t take our story-telling ancestors long to realize that stories could teach valuable life lessons and provide models for behavior. They would also have realized that, while true stories can serve this purpose, fictional ones can work just as well, provided they ring true for the listeners. And fictional stories have the advantage that you don’t have to wait around for an appropriate event to happen that will illustrate your point. So was born the fable and the parable, the epic or hero’s quest that illustrates noble behavior, and any form of mythology that seeks to explain why the world is as it is or to justify a culture’s customs, values, or beliefs. Also heir to this legacy would be any modern work of fiction that serves as a cautionary tale. (A legend, on the other hand, began life as a true story but has been embellished and tweaked to such an extent over time that its relationship to the truth has become obscure or uncertain.)

At this point I’d like to digress a little bit to talk about the relationship between history-keeping and storytelling. I just attended the first annual LitFest Pasadena this last weekend (a nice little book fair held in a Pasadena park). There was a panel discussion on “History, literature…..and the truth.” My husband and I arrived too late to hear the discussion, but since I had already been thinking about truth in literature, it jogged some more brain cells. So here goes…

It’s like this: Out of the human propensity for storytelling are sprung two broad fields of human study/endeavor: history and literature. I use both terms broadly here and don’t restrict them to written forms. “History” deals with the factual recording of past events (and other aspects of human life) for the edification of posterity and includes biographies, memoirs, journalism, and documentaries. “Literature” includes all forms of creative storytelling, from comic strips, to novels, to drama and motion pictures.

Both activities are concerned with truth, though in different ways. To put it in a nutshell:

History deals with the art of truth; Literature deals with the truth of art.

(Yeah, I know. Way too cute. Feel free to groan.) I use the word “art” here, by the way, more in the sense of artifice (something constructed) than of artistry (the creation of beauty).

History as the art of truth:  I know a bit about what historians do, since my father was a professor of English history and I currently have a college age son who is majoring in history.  There is an art/science to uncovering what is true about the past, to preserving the information, interpreting it, presenting it in an understandable and meaningful form. It is important work, and the day we cease to value it will mark the beginning of the decline of our civilization. (The majority of Americans are already far too ignorant of history – and unconcerned about the fact – for my comfort.)

Literature as the truth of art: I don’t have any specific credentials here. Mostly I’ve just experienced literature in all its many forms – what I’ve sampled of each, that is. (Remember, “art” here is the artifice of the constructed fictional story.) Basically, any story you construct has the potential to expose some truth or truths about people, life, the human condition/predicament, etc.  The more important (non-trivial) that truth is, the greater is the story’s significance. The more broadly the truth is appreciated across people of different cultures and times, the greater it’s universality.  Of course, stories are valued by humans for the entertainment they provide as well as (or instead of) for the factual information they contain (a point from my previous post), but either way, they must contain elements of truth. Authors writing solely to entertain their audiences need not be particularly concerned about things like significance or universality, but they still need settings that feel real, events that are plausible, and characters whose actions, motives, and responses are believable.

And now, finally, I’m going to get around to the subject of genre. Genre relates to the writer’s purpose, which in turn relates to the interests and expectations of the intended audience.  Writers of literary fiction are concerned with the kinds of truth that yield significance and universality (and also with artistry – the other kind of “art”; the one that means beauty in language.) This is what their audience is looking for. Writers of historical fiction that is entertainment-oriented may not be concerned with significant or universal truths, but need to be very attentive to the accuracy of its depiction of the chosen time period. Authors who write romance must focus on the inevitable convolutions of boy-meets-girl, but (presumably – I don’t read in this genre) still need plausible characters, settings, and events. Mystery writers need those things too and also have to reveal their plot in a way that keeps the reader guessing right up to the end without pulling any hat-tricks. (At least that’s what they should do if they’re doing their job right. I hate hat-tricks.)

Speculative fiction is a category that is considered to include both science fiction and fantasy. One could argue that these authors have the fewest limitations on their creativity. They can take you anywhere. They can create alien creatures, new technologies, whole future societies, or entire worlds. They can dabble in magic and the supernatural. But still, still, they need to tie their tales to truth. Even in the far future, the laws of physics must prevail (or if not, you have to plausibly explain why not.) Even in a fantasy world that is entirely your own invention, you must have characters whose actions, thoughts, and responses to events ring true.

So, you can’t get away from truth any more than you can get away from grammar. At least that’s the way I see it. What do you think?

Why do we create fiction?

Lakota storyteller: painting.

Lakota storyteller: painting.
Wikipedia

I strongly suspect that human beings have been telling stories for about as long as we have had language that was complex enough to make it possible.

(One of the defining characteristics of complex language is that it allows you to talk about things you and have not seen, and be understood by a listener who has never seen them either. “I never saw a purple cow. I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.”)

I picture our hunter-gather ancestors huddled around the campfire at night telling stories.  I’m sure it began with the simple recounting of the teller’s experiences. (“I crossed the stream, and went over the hill, and I met a…”) The first simple stories would not have been fiction. They would have been accurate accounts within the limits of the storyteller’s understanding. I imagine that storytelling would have conferred a selective advantage because the stories served a purpose: to convey information about the world – such as where to find food, or how to avoid danger. And I’m sure the information was more likely to be grasped and remembered if the stories were interesting – if they drew the listeners in and held their attention. In other words, these early stories were learning opportunities that would have been more effective as such if they were good stories to begin with, and also if they were well-told. Their power would have come partly from their realness – and I don’t mean the fact that they were true stories. I mean that they felt real to the listeners because the listeners could vividly imagine the storyteller’s experiences – even imagine themselves moving through the story in the storyteller’s place.

I believe we often learn better from stories than from dry recitations of facts because a good story makes the useful information it contains more concrete and more personal. The story creates a more real experience in the mind of the listener or reader because it engages his or her imagination.

These, then, are the three components that are essential to successful human learning-from-storytelling:

  • A good story (interesting content)
  • Good storytelling (language skills, dramatic sense, etc.)
  • Imagination (on the part of the listeners/readers)

Why is imagination important for the listeners? A really bad telling will ruin a good story, and even the best storyteller will be a flop without good material. But you could have a great story that was superbly told, and it would still be wasted if your listeners were unable to picture in their minds the people, places, and events of the story.

Well okay, you say, that explains the origin of narrative nonfiction – but, what about fiction? Your title sort of implies that you were going to talk about that. (Ahem!)

I’m getting there.

So the question is: when did our hunter-gather ancestors first start making things up?

I’m sure this happened pretty early, too. It would have started with simply embellishing an otherwise factual narrative. One obvious motivation would have been self-aggrandizement. If the storyteller were relating his own experiences, he might wish to make himself appear smarter, more competent, or more heroic. And if several other people sitting around that campfire had good stories to tell that night while his day had been dull and uneventful, he might just be inspired to concoct something out of whole cloth. Does that mean that fiction got its start from people lying?  Well, not really. Lying has the intent to deceive, and, while I’m sure there were some who tried to do that, they would have ultimately been caught in their lies and would have lost standing in their tribal groups as a result.  No, I’m sure a lot of those early spinners of fiction were motivated by a desire to entertain their listeners – because stories do definitely entertain.

Stories entertain because they offer vicarious experiences. Entertainment consists of experiences that we seek out because we  enjoy them, rather than for any obvious practical benefit – and vicarious ones seem to work almost as well as real ones. In the case of stories, the listener or reader can follow the adventures of the hero or heroine without having to actually face the dangers, or endure the hardships, and without having to possess the knowledge, skills, or prowess necessary to successfully deal with the problems encountered.  Through stories you can travel – via your imagination – to places you have never been, or could never go. You can witness wonders beyond anything the mundane world has to offer.  People do crave novel experiences, but they naturally (and sensibly) shy away from dangers and try to avoid hardships, and the mundane requirements of their lives tend to prevent them from traveling unnecessarily or going adventuring.  Stories conveniently get around these limitations.

Magazine cover of Imagination December 1952 issue.

magazine cover of Imagination, December 1952 issue.
wikipedia

The components essential  for the success of an entertaining story are the same as for an informative one: good story, good storytelling, and imagination. The difference, in the case of fiction, is that imagination is required on the part of the author as well as the listener/reader. And this is part of the reason why I believe fiction provides a positive benefit to human beings – why it isn’t just a byproduct of the fact that humans benefit from the telling of true stories.  Nothing exercises the imagination quite like the process of concocting a good piece of fiction. The rest of the reason is that this exercise-for-the-imagination benefit extends beyond the author to touch the readers/listeners as well. It’s this simple: True stories are limited by what is true, while fiction is limited only by the restrictions of one’s imagination.  And imagination is what takes us beyond what is concrete and visible, beyond what we already know. It is the basis of all future vision and all creative enterprise.  Without imagination, humans would not be human.

If you can imagine more elaborate imaginings, you can dream bigger dreams. And if you dream bigger dreams, you are likely to achieve greater achievements.