Here’s a somewhat belated addition to my series based on insights from writing my first novel, No Going Back. For the complete list of columns in this series, .
If art is, in part at least, the imitation of reality, it’s an imitation that’s largely bounded by and grounded in artistic convention. That’s something I’ve long been aware of from a literary/critical perspective, but writing a novel myself — and then seeing the reaction of different readers to the specific choices I made about where and how to be “realistic” — has borne that truth in on me in a particularly vivid fashion.
No one actually writes scenes, dialogue, storylines, and internal thoughts to match the way things happen in real life. Stream-of-consciousness, that most famous of experiments in literary style, tends to strike readers (in my experience) as self-consciously attention-drawing rather than realistic: yet another way for the writer to get between the reader and the experience. Attempts at realism can, ironically, make readers all the more conscious of the writer’s craft.
And then there’s the fact that what strikes one reader as realistic isn’t the same thing that strikes other readers as realistic. Case in point: the dialogue of my teenage character in No Going Back. I’ve had reviewers comment on the awkwardness of their dialogue as a negative thing. Other readers described the realism of my teenagers as a particular strength. It’s occurred to me that both may be true, since one of the things I was trying to imitate was the awkwardness of teenagers in grappling with serious subjects. They start and stop sentences, they interrupt themselves, they dance around what they’re saying. I’ve wondered if that attempt at realism is part of what irritates some of my readers, and whether a smoother and (to my mind) less “natural” style might have kept them more engaged. It’s hard to know.
Listening to my children talk, I’m struck by how repetitious and bizarre a transcript of their speech would look, lifted verbatim into a story. And then there’s the matter of capturing intonation, tone of voice, gestures and other signals that accompany speech. Which details do you include? Frequently, I wound up cutting pieces of information just because they made a scene or paragraph or sentence go on too long. Less is more.
Thinking about this now, I’m reminded of BYU professor Steve Walker’s insight into the invitational nature of J. R. R. Tolkien’s prose: that by including only a few key details, he invites readers to co-create his characters inside their own minds. It is, as he points out, a rather different approach from the values of the realistic tradition in fiction, where the goal is seen as creating a picture of life that is so detailed and real readers can imaginatively step directly into it.
Extending this thought, the value of an approach like Tolkien’s may lie in its implicit acknowledgment that stories are not independent realities created by the writer and passively experienced by readers, but rather negotiated interactions that take place within the space of the reader’s mind. Of course, there’s a certain irony in applying such an insight to Tolkien, the great proponent of story as sub-created experience and one of the most detailed world-creators in all of fantasy…
Writing my novel, I was struck by just how little real time is depicted in a typical narrative. Looking at the timeline I created of scenes from the year and a half covered by No Going Back, it’s quite common to see gaps of a week or more during which there’s simply nothing written.
Decisions about which life-details to include serve several masters. One is realism, which I think is essential to feeling sympathy for the characters in a story. We have to believe they are humans like ourselves before we can care about what happens to them.
The other is strategic importance to the story. Events and details that don’t play a part in advancing the story inevitably take time and attention away from that story. Stories (and readers) can take only so much of that before distraction sets in. Just how much varies, depending on the story, the genre, and (most especially) the tastes and mental/information processing habits of the individual reader.
Personally, I’m the sort of reader that rather likes a meandering storyline. I like the time that the hobbits spend in the Old Forest and the house of Tom Bombadil. One of the attractions of story reading, for me, is spending time in worlds and with characters I enjoy.
An author’s judgment in such areas is inevitably suspect. How much detail is needed to bring one’s characters and settings to life? The author can’t possibly know, because for him/her they already exist. On the other hand, as their creator, the writer is probably the last person who will tire of spending time with them.
There’s a fair amount of detail I wrote that didn’t make it into No Going Back. For example, given the age of my characters, it occurred to me at one point that they almost certainly would be getting driving lessons during the course of the novel. I decided this could provide fodder for some entertaining parent-child interaction, and drafted a couple of scenes based on that. And then I went back and took them out, because no matter how I tried to fit them in, they felt like a distraction to me.
It’s likely that I should have done the same thing on a few other occasions. Details about video games and teenage music and the like were (for me) a way of giving a more concrete sense of how my characters filled their lives when they weren’t working on homework. (I actually had included a reference to watching YouTube videos until my editor pointed out that YouTube hadn’t been founded yet at the time of my story. Hurray for Chris!) It’s my impression that some readers like those details, but I’ve had more than one comment on how distracting they can get.
And then there are the details I had originally left out that Chris forced me to put in. Most often, these were stage details, as I think of them: information about where people are physically situated, how they move and where they go while conversations and other interactions are taking place. Thinking about the way I read, it makes sense that I might miss these small details, since I tend to process scenes auditorily rather than visually. With more practice, I hope to gain a clearer sense of just how much of this kind of stuff to include. In the meantime, I’m glad I had a good editor.
Stories — even nonfiction stories — are different from reality. We all know this, I believe, no matter how much we may allow our vision of reality to affected by the stories we hear and read. As Patsy says in Monty Python and the Holy Grail after they’ve been oohing and ahhing at their first glimpse of Camelot: “It’s only a model.”
The thing I hadn’t truly appreciated until I tried to do it myself was just how arbitrary and unintuitive the choice of details can seem, in trying to tease readers/viewers/listeners into supplying what’s missing to create the internal illusion of reality. Over and over, I found myself deliberating quite basic questions, from whether to accent a bit of conversation with an accompanying eyebrow lift to how much detail to include about a boy’s physical reaction to a hormonal moment. Something that had appeared quite seamless to me from a reader’s perspective was revealed to be the result of considerable craft, at a nuts-and-bolts level. Maybe that’s one of the things they talked about in all those creative writing classes I never took…
The next time I undertake to write a story, hopefully I won’t be quite so clueless about these things going in. In the meantime, I feel that I’ve gained a greater understanding of one of the things that makes narrative writing such a complex and judgment-driven endeavor. I hope it’s made me not only a more wary and alert writer, but a more appreciative reader as well.