Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Follow-up...

Of course, is that adding all those elements of disaster (person rejected, drought imperils the farm, government oppression, tornado), are settings, not story. Story is the action and reaction of human beings, and it had better not be just what we expect. Yes, seeing the rejected person accepted, the mustachios-twirling villain thwarted and then vanquished, the town rebuild, all these things are satisfying, but they're too easy.

Give us a great human character (no, not a "good guy"). We don't need to like or sympathize with them. That's nanowrimo bullshit. We don't need to admire their epic struggle against corporate America or whatever (have you read Franzen's Freedom? Remember any of those "good" cardboard characters? On the other hand, do you remember Anna Karenina, the worst person in the world who only ever killed one person, herself?

Drama happens inside a human being. It is active, not reactive. The worst moment in your character's life should not be running from a tornado. Ideally it could take place while they are sitting quietly on their sofa, alone, thinking. Or in the moment after they hang up their phone, or see a picture, or hear one word. And it will hit your reader while they are sitting quietly on their sofa, alone, reading.

You don't have to send a tornado to impact your reader. You have to send true drama. Know where it lives.

The World You Can't Write.

Can't write seriously, that is. Cannot use in literary fiction (the Serious Stuff). Can use only in satire or humor or tragedy. I hate to tell you, but it's big chunks of the real world. Nobody has ever pulled it off.

What aspect of the real world? I know you've read a lot or you wouldn't be writing. Have you noticed that the real world is slowly (and sometimes in leaps) getting better in some ways? The last place you'll hear about it is in serious fiction. Even in reality, on the news, they'll file it under "human interest" or in a last cheerful story before the sign-off— one minute after twenty-two minutes of disaster interspersed with prescription drug ads to help you deal with the world as presented. But then they don't want you going out in the scary world. They want you to hide at home and watch television.

We are getting better in many ways in our dealings with one another. The latest improvement is gay marriage in the U.S., and the larger spreading acceptance of the LGTB community. Homophobia is becoming the unacceptable stance. And we're making moves to ensure that people in this country who get sick don't have to decide between bankruptcy and death.

We are getting better in many ways in our dealings with the world. Both the physical world (anybody else old enough to remember leaded gas smog and seeing people toss litter out their car windows?), and in our dealings with the rest of humanity. We are just beginning to realize that people who don't speak our language are not barbarians.

Yeah, but...

Global Warming
Drone Warfare
Child Abuse
On and on...

Yep. The world is still a tough stage on which to play. Humans can be shits. But of all the things you can say about the world in fiction, you cannot say it is getting better without your work descending into the absurd and ironic. The character who is happy and satisfied is missing something. The Truman Show and Wall-E are examples (movies often make obvious the messages that are subtle in fiction). He who laughs last has not been told the terrible truth. The character who thinks he has it good is headed for a fall. Poor Mr. Karenin and Mr. Helmer in their happy marriages. If only they knew!

Who can write the story of the gay man finding acceptance and make it a serious story? They must add some other tragedy. Nothing ludicrous— he then is diagnosed with melanoma or a tornado destroys the town and scatters the good residents. His story without a redeeming disaster might be folksy, it might be heartwarming (god help us), but its is a chicken soup story, not literature.

So there's the challenge, writers. Why must we, and literature, and the news all reject the good? Perhaps at the core, information and language exist primarily to warn us, to provide survival tools. The good, the reassuring, is cast ever into the lighter fare of entertainment and romance. The unnecessary.

Maybe we are still growing up. Still getting better. Is that sad or hopeful?