The great thing about writing fiction is that we get to make it up. For me, the only point of making stuff up is to make my imaginary worlds more diverse, hopeful, meaningful and surprising than the world I live in.
Diversity: Although I move in a variety of circles and have the world at my fingertips via mass media and the Internet, I am not out and about all that much (if I can help it). I don’t encounter that many people from other places, and certainly not from other times. When I write fiction, I want to go beyond the comfort zone of describing only those people and situations I encounter in everyday activities. Research is essential, and often sends the narrative in unexpected directions. I like reading books that take me to new places and introduce me to people in unfamiliar circumstances.
Hope: I am a hopeful person, despite being quite aware — and repeatedly reminded — of the inevitability of death and, on a grander scale, of the rise and fall of human civilizations over the course of time. Hope, in fiction, is not the promise of a happy ending, but the possibility of one. Unlike the continuous flow of reality, fiction gets to go exactly as far as the author chooses to take it. If it’s done well, the reader’s mind will wander, or perhaps probe, beyond the ending of the story to consider what happens next. I would like to be left wanting to think about a book more, not with relief that it’s over. If hope can spring eternal in our hearts, there’s no need to kill it with fiction. I do not last long with stories that seem intent on plunging me into the depths of despair.
Meaning: Meaning is redeeming. I’m not opposed to dark subject matter that exposes sordid truths about our human condition, but I expect the author to make something redeeming out of it. In real life, everyone does not triumph over adversity, and everything does not happen for a reason (that is, by design of a busybody superbeing). In fiction there is a higher power (the author), and everything does happen for a reason (or should) because there is a plot (ideally) with a beginning, middle and end (we hope). Writers often strive to create visceral, unequivocal, unforgettable vicarious experiences of immense suffering caused by human perversity or the relentless forces of nature. By bearing witness, the artist demands compassion, if nothing else, from the all-too-comfortable reader. But for the effort to yield a work of art — a piece so compelling that the ugliness and terror of its subject are transformed into a sort of beauty — the author must remain aware of the line between journalism and fiction. The trick is to maneuver around that terrain in a way that gives shape to the desolate landscapes of human experience. Readers who follow to the pit of despair should ultimately be able to find their way back to a more removed vantage, to see with more enlightened eyes the pattern that was always there, our place in it, and why we have to care. Redemption.
Surprise: Not shock. The fact that crime, abuse, poverty and other bad stuff are, sadly, not surprising in real life, often leads writers of fiction to resort to shocking versions of same. To get our attention they give us the worst imaginable grisly murder, fascistic terror, psychological torture, apocalyptic devastation. Shocking, yes, but we’ve seen it all on the big screen already, in 3D no less. Shocking is not surprising. Surprising, at this point, would be anything beyond the standard racial/gender/age stereotypes and popular genre tropes. Surprising would be when the dog doesn’t get killed.
Seriously, what did the dog do? Yet, for some reason, the dog has to die. Whether accident or intentional malicious act, sudden dog death is surely one of the most tired and unwelcome of plot devices. It’s so common that I feel uneasy every time a dog shows up in a novel. If the writing isn’t very good, I may skim ahead to see if the dog will be killed early on; if so, I waste no more time on the book. Even when the writing and story are good, the slaying of a dog will cause me to give up on the book or quickly skim to the end. The author has lost me. If they can kill the dog, they can do anything – how ugly will it get from here? The killing of the dog is an unimaginative and obvious tactic to ramp up emotion in the reader, while providing motivation for whichever character will now be spurred to fierce action by the affront. I expect better. The dog doesn’t deserve to die, and the reader doesn’t deserve to be jerked around with shocking violence that makes us want to toss the book aside, when we were hoping for something creative and surprising that would make us want to read on.
There are other shocking-not-surprising plot twists that will cause me to abandon a novel mid-stream. Kidnapping, rape and torture, especially of women, are places I do not want to go, especially in fiction and especially when occurring purely for the convenience of the plot – that is, the victims are of no more interest or concern to the author (and often less) than the unfortunate dog. The fact that these crimes happen all too often in reality is not a good reason to sensationalize them in fiction. I would argue that it’s all the more reason to model alternative scenarios in our stories. Did I mention that the great thing about writing fiction is that we get to make it up? I made up my mind a long time ago that if I was going to have a plot line about sexual assault, it would be attempted assault, and the intended victim would not only fight back, but prevail.
I simply prefer to read and write fiction that is better than reality, not reality made into an even nastier fiction. While I can’t claim that there is no death or violence in my prose, I give you my word that the dog is safe.
(You can check out my published books for yourself!)