Why we do this
What makes a person write? And specifically, write literary fiction? Take a look at the bestseller lists and you’ll find everything but literary fiction topping the charts.
Time seems more valuable than ever, so why commit to a style of writing that isn’t the most popular? What are we doing here?
I believe the writing thing was founded on meaningful realistic narratives. Times change and genres rise and fall, but curiosity about everyday people and how they tick remains a constant. We don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do.
It’s about confronting the known
In the late 1980s, songsmith Elvis Costello released a tune called “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror.” The lyrics are a clever critique of an unnamed beauty for her vanity and elusiveness, which is Costello’s celebrated subject.
“One day you’re going to have to face a deep dark truthful mirror. And it’s going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say.”
If you don’t know Elvis Costello, these lines hold an odd mix of compassion and complaint. He suggests he won’t damn his beloved for her faults and frailties. She will do it to herself when the mirror shows her who she really is.
Elvis often writes lyrics with a playful jesting, as if to say, I chide because I care. His message here is bittersweet, and yet dripping with intrigue.
As I contemplated writing a blog post about the type of fiction I like, this foreboding song title came to mind. It describes the way that dramatic fiction works for me. Dramatic fiction is a genre that confronts a reader with what should be common knowledge—you. Dramatic fiction delves into the personal lives of its characters, and by extension your life as well.
Dramatic fiction delves into the personal lives of its characters, and by extension your life as well.
As you read dramatic fiction, you’re liable to examine your identity, attitudes and beliefs. Like Costello suggests to his love in the song, when we review our deepest motivations, how often are we confronted with a stranger?
“… you’re going to have to face a deep dark truthful mirror.”
Those of us who enjoy drama-filled literature don’t view ourselves as having to face new truths. Each new book allows us to. We delight in it.
Why do we look into a mirror at all? We’re not particularly happy with our appearance, many of us. We do it because, frankly, we need the information. At the very least, we don’t want to step outside with fly-away hair.
For literature fans, looking into a fictional mirror serves much of the same purpose. A novel is made-up, but it’s written to show us what we’re going through. Readers feel they understand themselves better when they experience stories that acknowledge life’s complexities. Well-written literary characters show these readers aspects of themselves.
I imagine an action-adventure reader is thinking, “So why is it a dark mirror?”
We’re not perfect, any of us. It’s a reason why self-analysis is often painful. A fictional story that is based on the vulnerabilities of human beings will have within it a compelling tension. We enjoy the artful depiction of our lives, especially in a story where the elements are heightened for dramatic effect.
It’s cathartic, even fun, to see what literary writers do with our foibles
But we’re also sensitive of our flaws. Readers enjoy this tension. They’re aware of their limitations and are as guarded about them as anyone, but they enjoy seeing art made out of it. It’s cathartic, even fun, to see what literary writers do with our foibles as a subject. It’s wonderfully bittersweet.
I’ve used the term dramatic fiction, and literary fiction interchangeably. They’re often the same. But as the term literary suggests a style goal, such as sophistication, culture, and finesse, dramatic fiction is a bit more specific.
Here’s a definition from website The Book Genre Dictionary:
“The drama genre is strongly based in a character, or characters, that are in conflict at a crucial moment in their lives. Most dramas revolve around families and often have tragic or painful resolutions. Drama depends a lot on realistic characters dealing with emotional themes.”
Sounds heavy. But consider this.
If the last five years of someone you knew were written as fiction, it may sound a lot worse than it seemed to them. All fiction ramps up conflict on purpose. Dramatic fiction takes us through admittedly-heavy topics, but one page at a time. When it’s done well, it doesn’t throw us into chaos page one.
What defines dramatic fiction, for me, is the “crucial moment in time.”
What defines dramatic fiction, for me, is the “crucial moment in time.” A novel recounts a significant series of events. In a dramatic story, these events are pivotal in a character’s life. It’s as if the person is looking back on a crucial journey that changed everything. Often, the character is coming of age, waking up to a larger world. Contrast this with other genre stories where an external event sets off the novel. It’s more of a time capsule.
Vs. wish fulfillment
Of the dozens of fictional genres, many of them revolve around action that is largely external, with conflicts arising from outside forces. In dramatic fiction, the problems are often internal, springing from a character’s flaws. Both types of action are necessary for a story to work. One is usually foremost.
I always prefer internal conflicts to external ones.
I always prefer internal conflicts to external ones. Whenever a character’s problems are mainly external, it’s a vacation from our complex lives. A buttoned-up and capable character who can fix everything, with enough time and good luck, is attractive for appealing to our vanity. The thriller genre is often this type of story. There’s tension, yet it comes from the way the hero masters his situation. The answer is never in doubt. It’s safe danger.
Stories based on external action are admittedly satisfying. We need the escape. They’re an example of power fantasy, wish fulfillment, fan service.
As a writer, and a fan of less-popular genres, my concern lies with people who only seek stories with external action—who avoid the mirror altogether.
Dramatic fiction isn’t more popular, why? A certain reader is uncomfortable with internal tension. This reader may prefer to see the world in black and white. Or, a reader is extra-sensitive to real-world conflict. Whatever the reason, a percentage of the population avoids a story that deals in gray areas. When the outcome is unexpected, things get claustrophobic, quickly.
When the outcome is unexpected, things get claustrophobic, quickly.
For an earlier generation, a hero that typified a black and white worldview was John Wayne. Today his name is a clichéd symbol of self-satisfaction.
In dozens of earlier John Wayne films, the enemy was literally another person, either on the frontier or the battlefield. A John Wayne movie was not a truthful mirror but a flattering portrait of America for a proud audience.
Then John Wayne made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A dramatic narrative, this movie features characters who battle interior flaws.
The story deals with an imposter whose fame comes from taking credit for another man’s heroic deed. The man who deserved to be hero, John Wayne, allows the falsehood to stand for the greater good. The imposter, James Stewart, becomes a great man and gives back to society. He can’t find peace even though the man who deserved credit is OK with it. The outcome of a story like this isn’t preordained by the plot. Moments are filled with tension.
Viewing the reflection
Why does a dramatic story need to have tension? For one thing, a well-told story makes it easy to put yourself in the shoes of struggling characters. Should James Stewart confess that his reputation is based on a lie? Should John Wayne be ashamed for approving the deception, for lying to the public?
You could ask a hundred people this question and get different answers. You aren’t following the story for an outcome, but for an emotional resolution. It isn’t about how a story ends. We want to know how the story should end.
We want to know how the story should end.
What you believe the resolution should be in a dramatic story says something about you, your biases, your sense of fairness and justice. You can use this information to amuse yourself, or to go deeper. You might question your motives, your values, even your life’s direction. It’s up to you.
If you’re brave enough to express your personal thoughts in an online book review, or at a book club, you’ll gain even more from a fictional story.
How to find dramatic fiction
How do you know a novel is dramatic fiction? You can often tell by what is missing from the story. If it lacks the bells and whistles often needed to make stories interesting—espionage, murder, wizards, space aliens, time travel, or a character who is the chosen one—it might be dramatic fiction.
You can often tell by what is missing from the story.
More seriously, novels labeled “classics” always have a dramatic core. Classic novels, both modern and historical, achieve their status precisely due to their simple, gripping, and universal conflicts. These books aren’t based on fashionable gimmicks that a future generation will reject. They stay with us.
I wrote this long post to share why dramatic fiction is worth reading. It’s an amazing thing. Some memorable life experiences have come from peering into the mirror crafted by talented writers. I have a love-hate relationship with tension as much as anyone, but I feel the need to look.
This post first appeared at The Writing Thing Press.