Over the last several years, I have had many discussions with many other writers about fiction. Some writers will say that they are writing to entertain. When I hear this, this always makes me nervous because what usually follows is the author defending their work by saying that they are writing what they would like to read. Often at this juncture they also really do not want to examine their own writing for its merits and what might need to be worked on more. While I applaud their conviction and belief in their work, many times this conversation comes up in the context of them talking about trying and failing at getting published.
In my opinion it is a foregone conclusion that we as writers are writing to entertain. It needs to be kept central to what we are doing as authors, but it doesn’t need to be stated. While I don’t think we should slavishly follow trends and try to write with these trends in mind, I do believe that it is important to remember that we are writing for an audience. Further, I am an optimist deep in my soul. I believe that people are intelligent and feeling, want to be challenged, and desire to have their hearts touched. I think to entertain means to keep challenging the reader.
When a person is learning a new skill, there needs to be the right blend of familiar and predictable and risk. Books that are memorable and great books follow this in some ways. There are characters whose lives and reactions to events the reader can relate to, but there is enough courage in the portrayal, logical and surprising events, humor, or whatever that the reader wants to keep turning pages. There is the blend of familiar and unknown.
I was speaking with a fellow writer earlier today and I was exploring some of the ideas of what could be classified as “entertaining” fiction. By this, books that really are a good, light read. Something that one takes on an airplane or to the beach. I began thinking about novels that I think were written solely for entertainment. As I began to analyze them, it occurred to me that they weren’t merely pieces of shallow entertainment. At least the memorable ones that I liked enough that they stood out in my memory. It wasn’t so simple. They were not that flat. For example in Kim Harrison’s Hollows books, genetically modified tomatoes brought about a plague that killed swathes of humans. This dying off of a portion of humanity not only caused all the pizza parlors to be owned by vampires, but it also meant that witches, fairies, and other beings could come out of hiding. Harrison did not employ just goofy writing to convey her fantasy world, she riffed on our reality, took the fear of genetically modified vegetables to a state of hyperbole, and ran with it. This adds dimension to what I consider a popcorn read. Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files books portrays a wizard turned detective who is decidedly both powerful and uncomfortable with his place amongst humans and other wizards. Dresden is a very human character that the reader can relate to despite being a wizard. To add to this, Butcher pulls from pop culture to enhance his novels and make them comedic. So when the purple demonic monkeys are chasing Dresden, throwing flaming poo at him, and suddenly come together to form a giant demonic, purple, monkeytron every reader who ever raced home to watch Voltron after school blinks and busts out laughing. It is this brilliant combination of the expected and the unexpected that makes the books rich and entertaining.
The ability to create fiction and tell a story is a very powerful thing. Fiction must first and foremost be entertaining, but this is not so simple in and of itself. Further, fiction can evoke a sense of pathos for the characters of a story and cause the reader to contemplate their own situation in light of the ideas and themes raised in the fiction. Because fiction touches the hearts of readers, it has a unique ability to influence their minds and thoughts.
If one wants to put forth an idea, the most straight forward way to do this is in non-fiction form. A persuasive, argumentative essay can be written with passion and conviction to influence people and politics. Most journalistic articles begin with a human example that sets the stage for what the writer wants to present. Non-fiction can be written with humor and feeling. All this being said, there are historical examples of fiction that caused social change and altered history. One example would be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was influential in spreading the Abolitionist movement. While Charles Dickens wrote as a journalist, his novels such as Oliver Twist were influential in bringing about child labor laws that restricted children under the age of 12 from going into the coal mines and from working sun up to sun down in work houses. Fiction can influence thought as readily as non-fiction and perhaps has more power to do so because the things that people connect with with their heart hold more meaning.
Does writing fiction that holds a powerful message mean that it is not entertaining? I believe fiction that has deep meaning to it can be expansive, gripping, and entertaining. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a book frequently listed as one of the books that is considered a favorite by people. It is not a light read and Holden Caufield’s journey speaks to young adults coming of age. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird talks about rape, racial prejudice, and the loss of innocence. It often has a profound effect on readers. These books are entertaining and meaningful because they challenge people’s beliefs and preconceptions.
I am still working out my thinking about all of this and what I write tonight might be amended in a few years time. In my opinion, in writing stories and novels that are entertaining, challenging, and meaningful, I think the writer has to follow a few guidelines.
1. They must on some level write what they know. This doesn’t mean that writers are limited to writing only what they know, but on an emotional level they need to be able to slip into the skins of their characters. The author needs to very authetically and fearlessly write from a place that is emotionally close to what their character might experience. This is necessary because if a writer is going to challenge a reader’s ideas, they must give the reader a place of universal emotional familiarity to reach out from.
2. No soap boxes. Soap boxes are offensive. If a writer wants to convey their ideas in such a straight forward way, they should write a non-fiction essay. To imbue fiction with powerful meaning, the ambiguities must be explored. The characters via the action of the story should show the different sides of issues and whatever idea is being presented or explored. One fellow writer that I know suggests that if an author wants to write issues driven fiction, their point of view character should have views or do actions that are opposite to the stance of the writer to resist making the story a soap box.
3. Keep in mind that people will come away from a piece of fiction with their own meaning. If the author has done what he or she intended and raised a particular issue to explore, they have done what they set out to do. People are wonderful and unique individuals and they create their own meaning. Hopefully the meaning that the writer intended is what the reader comes away with, but often it is good enough that the author stirred thoughts and challenged the reader. Because the author wrote about and raised whatever theme, issue, or idea that was raised, it tickled the readers’ consciousnesses and made them aware to think about these themes, issues, and ideas. This is a huge accomplishment.
Entertainment is not just escapist and flat, a written work really has to capture the reader’s attention, heart and imagination.