Heroes, Villains, and the Narratives We Tell

Something has been bothering me lately. I’ve noticed an increase in the use of the word narrative outside of literary contexts, specifically to describe the stories people tell themselves, and others, to explain or justify their beliefs or actions. I find this gratifying, in a sense, because it supports what I’ve said in the past about the importance of storytelling to our species. I think storytelling is probably as old as human language and I’ve written about how it is the root of both the field of history, which is factual, and the imaginative art of fiction. What I’m coming to understand now, however, is that mental narratives may in fact be fundamentally important to how we make sense of our world.

Events can be complicated, subtle, or obscure, with conflicting facts that push our understanding in different, or even opposite, directions. Because we don’t like to be confused or uncertain, we try to establish a thread that winds around and connects the facts to form a coherent narrative. And then we tend to pull the thread straighter. We try to make the story clearer or simpler – or more pleasing. In the process we edit it, dropping facts that don’t fit the narrative, or embellish it by adding presumptions that fill in gaps, or even pseudo-facts that make it a better story – one that’s more impressive, more emotionally satisfying, or that presents us (or other people involved) in a better light. This process would be fundamentally dishonest if we did it consciously. But the fact is, we often aren’t very aware of what we’re doing. We’re not paying attention to the process.

There’s probably a purpose to the construction of edited mental narratives – an evolutionary function – as there is to most of the strange but commonplace features of our thought process. It may contribute to how we maintain a positive attitude and self-image, how we keep our hopes and dreams alive, how we find our purposes and rally each other to our causes when we tell our narratives to others. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this may not have been a problem: Life was short and there were no fact checkers. In the modern world, things get more complicated.

Basically, I think we all need to be more aware of our tendency to edit our perceptions of reality.

Being a fiction writer causes me to worry about the effect that fictional narratives may have on the thought processes of readers (or movie-goers). Creators of fiction construct their works in a very conscious way, of course. Assuming we’re not bent on probing the ambiguities of the human soul, this usually means we’re in the business of creating heroes and villains (among other things). To give our characters depth, we know it’s a good idea to give the hero a flaw or two and to give the villain a back-story that explains his or her motivations. But all of that aside, the nitty-gritty of character development mostly involves showing good guys being good and bad guys being bad. And our readers (or movie viewers) immerse themselves in our fictional narratives. They come prepared to buy into stories – at least for the duration – that are prime examples of “edited” narratives designed to be good stories, to be clear, dramatic, emotionally satisfying, etc.

And the thought keeps nagging me: Are fiction writers showing people how to edit their real-life narratives? Are we teaching people how to make storybook heroes and villains out of people in the real world? Further, are we giving people emotional practice in loving their heroes and hating their villains?

Looking for the good in people can be a positive thing, but seeing people as heroes of fictional stature is unrealistic. No one is that perfect, and we shouldn’t expect, much less demand, that people always be right or always be in the right. Hero worship can lead to getting conned, or following the wrong leader. The same thing goes for those – both individuals and groups – that we might seek to cast as villains. Vilification is easy to do, especially if you know the tropes and have become insulated from the facts. Hating people can be very emotionally satisfying, too, but it’s actually quite rare for people to be genuinely or completely evil. We need to be both critical, and forgiving, of ourselves and of our fellow human beings.

I’m not suggesting that writers are to blame for the polarization of our society. Our current poisonous political climate has many contributing causes. What I’m wondering is whether creators of fiction might inadvertently be feeding it when we take the easy path by setting up black-and-white moral situations or casually creating larger-than-life heroes or villains for readers to either love or hate. It’s worth considering whether writers – especially of the more popular genres – might actively work to make things better by humanizing their characters and creating conflicts that are morally more complex. Stories need protagonists, but does every story need a villain to be emotionally satisfying? Might it be just as powerful to watch an antagonist (or protagonist if there are no antagonists) come to understand his or her error and find redemption? What if more writers made a point of celebrating the act of realizing and admitting that one is wrong? Might that help to make a better world?

That’s it, basically. As always, tell me what you think. What about your own favorite fictional heroes and villains? Or ones that you have created?

I should take a moment to analyze the characters I created in my recently released first novel, Gift of Chance. These characters evolved over a long period of time and well before I started thinking about the content of this post. I’m guilty of creating, in Nagaro, a hero with a well-developed moral compass who rarely makes serious mistakes. He’s a bit of a paragon. In my defense, he is also a thinking man, one who critically examines and worries about his own actions and those of others. I perhaps did a little better on villains. There is no single villain whose actions create a central conflict that is resolved only upon his/her defeat. There are several minor characters who act as villains for a limited purpose and who I made no effort to humanize. There are more characters, however, who are mixed. They may begin by acting badly but come to a better place in the end, or their histories, once revealed, cast them in a more sympathetic light.

Lessons in the Past Perfect 6: Flexibility and Control

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople experience life as events in time – present, past, and hypothetical future. To me, being able to clearly define the temporal relationships of events in a story is essential for effective storytelling. And verb tenses are part of what we use to do that. That’s why you need to be skillful with verb tenses if you want to be a skilled writer. You want to master the full arsenal of verb tenses so you can use the best one for every situation. And you want to be able to shift tenses at will to reveal information in the most effective order. This is how to achieve control over your readers’ experience of the temporal aspects of your story.

English has a lot of verb tenses. Not all of the variants are time-related, either. Some indicate conditional or hypothetical situations, like the ones that use “would,” “could,” or “should.” Consider the following, which my linguistics prof in college said was about as complicated as it can get:

Well, he should have been being paid.

That’s five words that are part of the verb, everything after “he.” It’s complicated, but we understand it. We also understand that it’s different from all of the following:

He should be being paid.
He should have been paid.
He is being paid.
He was being paid.
He was paid.
He has been paid.
He had been paid.
He had been being paid.
He would have been paid.
He will be paid.
He will have been being paid.

That’s not even all the possibilities. The point is that a writer should be able to use whichever tense best serves his or her purpose. I think people are pretty clear that the addition of “being” makes the action “progressive” – that is, in this case more than one payment is involved, ongoing over some period of time. That period could be in the past, present, or future. Without “being,” the reader is justified in assuming that only one payment is involved. People understand that “is” means present, “was” means past, and “will be” means future. “Should” and “would” or “could” tell us that the payment didn’t actually happen, or hasn’t happened yet – that it is in some way hypothetical. The “perfect” tenses represent completed (perfected) action. “Has been paid” is present perfect: the action is completed, but recently enough to be viewed as part of present events. “Had been paid” is past perfect, the action having been completed in a time period preceding whatever might be considered present events. Past perfect is used specifically when that distinction is needed: an action was completed prior to whatever is happening now. “Will have been paid” is future perfect. There is some future time from the perspective of which the payment will be in the past. Example? “By the time we next meet, you will have been paid for your services.” Which is distinctly different from: “When next we meet, you will be paid for your services.” The temporal relationships between the meeting and the payment are different in those two cases, and you wouldn’t use one if you meant the other.

I know I harp a lot on the past perfect. It’s because it’s frequently given the cold shoulder these days and I’m always disappointed when I stumble over a spot where a writer should have used it but didn’t. Past perfect is important in fiction because past-tense narration is the most common approach to storytelling. If your current storyline is told in past tense, you need the past perfect to distinguish events that occurred prior to the current storyline. Apparently it throws some aspiring writers for a loop, though: they’re used to using the simple past tense for past events, or they hear some editors say the past perfect should be avoided because too many had’s are cumbersome and repetitious. So they think they can do without it. The result sometimes is temporal mush.

Consider this simple thought:

Jake was paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits.

In a past-tense narrated story, we can assume that Jake’s preference for Galactic Credits is an ongoing state of affairs – at least in the absence of any more specific information. He does prefer, has preferred, and probably always will prefer to be paid in Galactic Credits. (Preferences tend to be like that.) But the first sentence could mean at least four different things depending on the context:

1) In the course of the unfolding story, a point has been reached where Jake gets paid once for something and the payment is in local currency.
2) Jake gets paid in local currency on a regular basis during the time period of the story. (He’s on a salary.)
3) There was a single instance in the past when Jake was paid for something in local currency.
4) There was some period of time in the past when Jake was regularly paid in local currency.

Of course there would normally be context, and context can go a long way:

Three weeks crawled by and Jake finally got paid for the job. He was paid in local currency. Jake preferred Galactic Credits, but here on Chalcion you took what you could get. (case 1)

Or:
Back on Regulus, Jake worked in the shipyards. He was paid in local currency then. Jake preferred Galactic Credits. Life here on Chalcion was good. (case 4)

In these two examples I deliberately didn’t use verb tense for clarification. I stuck to the simple past tense. The result is a bit “flat,” temporally speaking, but you can figure out the meaning from the time tags and other clues that I’ve added. (Note that it’s only “here on Chalcion” that pins the first example down as being current ongoing action. Otherwise it’s just an assumption that this is the case, since simple past is the default for current action in past-tense narration.) In the second example, “back” and “then” tell you that the local currency payments were in the past relative to the current action. “Here on Chalcion” implies that he is now being paid in Galactic Credits.

If you’re not afraid to use other verb tenses, you can get away without time tags altogether:

When he’d been working in the shipyards on Regulus Jake had been paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits. Life on Chalcion was good.

The point isn’t that using time tags is bad. In fact, you can use a mixture of time tags and verb tenses in a paragraph for clarity and variety. And that’s my point. With the other verb tenses at your disposal, you have more alternatives for achieving clarity – or grace, or emotional impact, or whatever. That’s flexibility. After all, having to constantly repeat your time tags can get just as cumbersome and repetitious as too many had’s.

The past perfect tense also gives you more flexibility in how you reveal things. You can slip back and forth between present and past effortlessly without confusing your reader. You’re not tied to telling events in the order they occur:

She walked from room to room, treading evenly and taking inventory of the spaces and furnishings until she came to the last bedroom at end of the hall, at the top of the stairs. She stepped over the threshold and instantly she knew. She had not realized what she’d been missing until that moment. The room was alive; she could feel it. The living room and parlor, kitchen and dining room, below, the other bedrooms along the upstairs hall; all were perfect, tidy, pristine. But they had felt dust-dry, hollow, as she passed through them. Empty as husks. Only here in this room, with its worn oak furniture and faded curtains and ancient writing desk, was there a fullness, something still green, a sense of her husband’s spirit.

Try doing that passage justice without the past perfect tense. The past perfect lets me wait until after she’s entered the last room to tell you what was different about her experience of the other rooms, then shift back, and back again, in a blink. And I can do this with perfect clarity (I hope) within a paragraph where my focus is on emotional impact.

And that is enough about the past perfect. (Collective sigh of relief, I’m sure.)

Keeping the reader guessing

stack of booksIt’s usually considered a good idea not to have your story be too predictable. Some genres, such as mysteries and thrillers, really require this. Others, like fantasy, not so much. Personally I think that striking writing can trump plot – that a work with a fairly conventional story line can be so poetic or poignant or hilariously funny as to be thoroughly engaging because of the way it’s written. Most of the time, though, plot matters and if the reader thinks he can guess exactly where the story is going, he just might decide not to bother to read the rest of it.

I’ve noticed there are a number of things that writers do to keep readers guessing, some of which I like better than others. Basically they can be broken down into four categories. Of course several of these can be used at once, and some of them can grade into each other, but I see them as distinct enough for purposes of discussion.

1) Plot twists: There’s no doubt that plot twists are effective – when they’re well done. For me, one hallmark of a good story is that it can be unfolded in a completely natural, straightforward way – without any gimmicks – and hold my interest throughout because the events in it are simply interesting or in some cases surprising. Basically this uses whatever plot twists the story naturally has to keep the reader guessing. I think the only way to go wrong with plot twists is to work so hard at making them unexpected that they feel contrived. If everything in a story suggests it’s going in one direction and then it suddenly veers in another, there can be a problem if there’s been literally nothing to make the new direction feel remotely logical – even in hindsight. Obviously this criticism doesn’t apply to the “inciting event,” which comes at the beginning of the story and frequently comes out of left field. I’m especially annoyed when a writer pulls something out of a hat right at the end of a story that is in conflict with everything I thought I knew about what was going on – just so he or she can say, “gotcha!”

2) Withholding information: Actually, writers always withhold information because the writer knows everything at the beginning of the story but obviously can only give information to the reader one bit at a time. As long as the order and pace of information delivery feels natural and logical, this is perfectly fine. A well-written mystery story told from the point of view of the sleuth is a good example. The reader gains information in a very natural way as the character uncovers clues. I start to have a problem, though, when a writer clearly is picking and choosing what to tell me just to keep me in the dark – for example, when the story is being told in retrospect and the narrator simply neglects to mention things to keep the end in doubt. That makes me feel manipulated. The same is true when the writer conveniently doesn’t show a character thinking about something he obviously would have been thinking about at the time simply because the writer is trying to protect some planned surprise. Writers have essentially complete power over what they reveal to readers and when, and I think there is an art to using that power in way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed.

3) Misdirection: This is the preeminent tool of the stage magician but I usually find it annoying when it’s obviously being used in storytelling. A lot comes down again to naturalness and finesse versus heavy-handedness. Mystery readers are generally forgiving of the use of red herrings – it’s a trope of the genre – but even a red herring shouldn’t be clumsily pasted in. There should be cross-connections to the plot that make it seem to naturally belong in the story. Outside of the mystery genre I personally feel that deliberately putting in a red herring is just a mistake. There’s a more subtle kind of misdirection that occurs when a writer abuses his power to influence the readers’ attention or perceptions. Readers judge the importance of things by how much the writer dwells on them. I get thoroughly annoyed when a writer expends a lot of words making some object, event, or action seem important and it turns out to have been merely a distraction. Similarly, if that blue-and-white vase is going to turn out to be vitally important five chapters later, barely mentioning it along with half a dozen other unimportant objects in the room is going to have me crying foul. The writer should at least have had the character notice it because his mother had one like it, or something like that.

4) Deliberate obscurity or ambiguity: I say “deliberate” because unintentional obscurity is always a problem. I’m sure there are readers who don’t mind this technique in fiction nearly as much as I do. It probably comes from my having been a scientist, and a text editor, where clarity is really at a premium. There are, however, some writers who simply like to keep things purposefully vague or ambiguous or unexplained. Any story can naturally have specific points of uncertainty because the characters’ knowledge is incomplete. That’s fine. So is having a character whose nature is to be deceitful, cagey, or hard to pin down. What I personally object to is feeling like I’m constantly moving in a fog of hints and subtle suggestions or standing on a shifting surface that never settles down. It keeps me guessing, yes, but at what cost? If I’m never sure about anything, how much of a surprise can anything really be? The best thing for me is to simply avoid writers like that, but there are other writers whose stories are mostly quite clearly told but who resort to obscurity at some specific point in an obvious attempt to prevent me from guessing where they’re going. I tend to lose respect for writers who do that.

That’s the end of my rant. As always, comments are welcome. Do you have similar pet peeves? Am I completely full of it? Or is it all just a matter of taste? Are there other approaches to keeping readers guessing that I haven’t thought of?

Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.

Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

Writing and the Unconscious Mind

Do you ever walk away from your car in a parking lot, then stop and go back to check because you can’t remember locking it—only to find that you evidently had? Do you ever do something and wonder why you did it? Have you ever agonized over some problem for hours and finally given up, only to have the answer come to you some time later out of the blue while you’re doing something else entirely? Or, if you’re a writer, would you swear that your mind works on your story behind your back or while you’re asleep? All of these are examples of your unconscious mind in action.

Some recent events have motivated me to look into what is known about the subconscious mind. Among other things, this involved using PubMed, the search engine of the National Library of Medicine, to look for relevant published papers on the subject. The first thing I learned there is that the term “unconscious” seems to be what is used in academic discussions, not “subconscious,” so that’s what I’m going to use here.

It seems the unconscious mind is credited with a large measure of our creativity, especially when it comes to certain kinds of problem-solving. And it definitely works behind your conscious back, and while you’re asleep. I’ve actually seen it recommended that people put their work aside, after first examining all the relevant data, and go do something completely unrelated—even something frivolous—to give their unconscious mind time to work on the problem.

Of course you never know what your unconscious mind is up to—by definition—because it is unconscious. And I’m sure this explains why writers sometime feel they are “channeling” their characters, or that the world they’ve invented must actually exist somewhere. It probably also explains the Greeks’ invention of the Muses. It was their way of dealing with the sense that creative inspiration came to them from somewhere outside of their conscious selves.

And there’s more—and this is where it really gets freaky. Your unconscious mind is fully capable of initiating and carrying out actions using your body without any conscious input. In fact, this is apparently one of its principle functions—and not one it shares with your conscious mind. Yes, that’s right: Your conscious mind is not actually in charge of moment-to-moment decisions and actions, it only thinks it is. Research shows that the preparation in your brain to take action precedes your conscious awareness of having decided to act—by about 300-400 milliseconds. The decision, therefore, must have been made unconsciously.

But how can that be? (you protest)  That’s not how it feels!
Ah, yes, I know. But what about those things you find yourself doing “automatically,” or without thinking about it. Mostly they’re pretty basic, routine things—the unconscious excels at those. But every once in a while, don’t you do something really inexplicable and find yourself asking, “Now why on earth did I do that?” I know I do.

Here’s the deal: Your conscious mind may not be in charge, but it does have influence. For one thing, it has veto power over unconscious decisions, which it can exercise in the split-second window (150-200 milliseconds) between becoming aware of the decision and the action actually being carried out. In other words, “will power” is actually “won’t power.” (No, I won’t say that word, pull that trigger, take that second chocolate chip cookie…) And your conscious mind also indirectly influences the choices your unconscious makes by imagining simulations of possible outcomes—good or bad—to hypothetical actions. That, in fact, is apparently one of its main functions. Unlike the unconscious mind, which “lives” in the moment, the conscious mind can remember the past in order to learn its lessons, or imagine the future to suggest things that might come to pass. Which means that your conscious self has the opportunity to persuade your unconscious. Most of the time, if the advantages and disadvantages are pretty obvious, your unconscious is probably going to be pretty much of a pushover.

Suppose you look in the refrigerator, see the empty shelf, and think, “Gee, if I don’t go to the store there won’t be any milk for my cereal in the morning.” If, shortly thereafter, you grab the car keys and drive to the grocery store to buy milk, you may be forgiven for assuming that you consciously made the decision to make that shopping trip.

To get back to the matter of writing, it seems to me that this function of exploring possibilities by spinning hypothetical scenarios makes your conscious mind a natural born story-teller. Your unconscious mind? Not so much, despite its vaunted creativity. Which, in turn, means that writing is of necessity a collaborative venture between your two minds. There’s another reason for this as well: Your unconscious can only process one word at a time (according to my sources). Handling language at the level of sentences is another primary function of the conscious mind—possibly why it evolved in the first place.

So if you’re stuck on some aspect of your story, it may mean that your conscious mind needs to take a break to let your unconscious work on the problem. And if you’re having trouble getting yourself to put your butt in the chair, it may mean your conscious mind needs to be a little more persuasive…

That’s more than enough.

Thoughts anyone? Got any good stories about things your unconscious mind has done to you? Or is this just another load of manure?

Lessons in Past Perfect 3: Filling in gaps

Time is an important dimension in any story, and verb tenses are a major tool by which writers assert control over the dimension of time in their storytelling. If you’re a writer, I believe you owe it to yourself to master the verb tenses, regardless of the approach you take to telling your story. It’s part of what it means to be skilled in the craft.

When I see problems with verb tense in the work of aspiring or self-published writers, by far the most frequent issues involve the past perfect tense, specifically the failure to use it when it’s called for. People try to make the simple past do the work of both past and past perfect. The result is a noticeable loss of temporal “depth” and sometimes a loss of clarity. It’s like looking at a photograph where some things are out of focus that aren’t meant to be, making it hard to distinguish the relationships between objects.

Most stories are told in the past tense. They use the simple past for ongoing action, so the past perfect is needed to set off events that occurred prior to the current action. Many people aren’t very comfortable with the past perfect, and if you know you’re one of them, this post is for you.

This time I’d like to explain one very common use for the past perfect in a past tense narrative: filling in gaps created by jumping from one scene to another.

When you’re telling a story—anything other than a very simple one—you can’t show everything that happens because there just isn’t room. You have to decide which actions and events to put into scenes and which to skip over, but skipping creates gaps that can be informational as well as temporal. How do you fill the reader in on events that matter for continuity but are too minor, too brief, too boring, or just too isolated in time to justify fleshing-out in a scene? The past perfect tense is perfect for this, especially if you like to make “clean” jumps between scenes instead of linking them through brief passages of narration.

An example:

Let’s say the last scene involved the hero’s escape from some adversaries while crossing a plain to reach a range of mountains he has to climb. The next scene skips to him being in the mountains, where there are no trees, and its climax will involve fighting off an attacker with the aid of a stick. Since he didn’t have the stick in the previous scene, I want to explain how he acquired it. Here goes:

Aron paused halfway across a steeply sloping field of scree to catch his breath and assess his progress. He judged he was a little more than halfway to the pass. These mountains were too arid to support trees at this elevation and he had a clear view of the plain he had left, spread out below him, and of the ravine-like valley where he had picked up the trail that led to his present location. He glanced at the sun and took a swallow of precious water from his bottle, then started forward again. As he went, he used a stout stick to steady himself on the slippery slope. The stick was about five feet long, light but strong. He had cut it from one of the trees that grew sparsely along the stream in the bottom the valley. He had thought it might prove useful and he was very glad of it now. The trail he was following was sketchy at best. Even when the path wasn’t covered with loose fragments of rock, as it was here, it was steep, rock-strewn, and uneven.

Analysis: Okay, there are four past perfect verbs in the above passage. The first, “had left,” refers to the plain in the previous scene and comes midway through the third sentence after some introductory current action that is in simple past tense. This first use helps link the action to the previous scene as well as filling in an action that was skipped. “Had picked up the trail” places another detail in the gap. Finally, “had cut,” and “had thought” refer directly to the stick. (“Grew,” referring to the trees, doesn’t need to be past perfect because the trees are still growing in the valley. Past perfect is used for events that were completed in the past or conditions that no longer exist, not for ongoing conditions.) “He was very glad” is simple past tense that returns you to the current action. The passage also illustrates how switching back and forth between ongoing action and description of past action can avoid the repetitiousness of too many “hads” in close proximity.

In this particular case, substituting past tense in the first three instances feels “flat” and I know it’s ungrammatical, but I would have little difficulty deducing the meaning. He must have left the plain at some time in the past since he was there in the last scene and isn’t any longer; since he is currently following the trail, he must have picked it up in the past; and since he currently has the stick, he must have cut it in the past. In the last instance, however, “he thought it might prove useful” implies that he is anticipating a possible future use for the stick as he is crossing the slippery scree, rather than having anticipated the present kind of use at the time he cut the stick. The rest of the sentence and the subsequent details might cause one to question this interpretation, but do not clearly resolve the issue.

Another example:

The preceding scene in this case could have been one that established a need to build the “device” mentioned, and the current scene skips to the building of it, leaving a day-long “shopping” expedition undescribed. I could have made a scene out of the shopping, and might have gotten some good mileage out of it, but let’s just say that the need to move the story along more rapidly has left it on the cutting room floor. There are never-the-less some aspects of that trip that are relevant to the plot, specifically the need for secrecy…

Simon waited until the last sounds of movement in the rooms below him ceased before emptying the contents of his pack onto the table in his loft room and sitting down to attempt to assemble the device. The process was going to take some time and he couldn’t afford any interruptions. The assortment of wires, switches, chips, and circuit boards didn’t look like much, but it had taken him the better part of a day in the tech bazaar in Sol City to purchase them. The task could have been accomplished much more quickly if there hadn’t been the need for total secrecy. He had crisscrossed the bazaar repeatedly, putting plenty of both time and distance between each pair of purchases so as not to draw attention to himself, and he was quite sure that he had not been followed home. He smiled with grim satisfaction as he plugged in his soldering iron.

Analysis: I’ll let you hunt down the past perfect verbs. I count four of them. In this case, the repetition of “had” verbs is diluted by a couple of infinitives (“to purchase,” “to draw), a “could have been,” and an “ing” verb (“putting”)—in addition to a simple past tense verb. To my ear, this passage would sound really bad with past tense substituted for past perfect—except for the reference to the need for secrecy. In that one case I think I could have used simple past because the need for secrecy is, in a sense, ongoing. The situation isn’t quite analogous to that of the growing trees in the first example. I come across such ambiguous situations from time to time where something, such as a character’s reaction, could be viewed as both in the past and ongoing. In such cases the writer has latitude. You can decide which aspect of the action you want to emphasize—or which verb just sounds better.

This post has gotten plenty long enough. I would love to hear from you if it was helpful, of course, but also if you have any related suggestions to offer to aspiring writers who are working to improve their craft.

On wolves, sheep, and truth in fiction

A while ago, G M Barlean (author of Casting Stones, and story-telling blogger extraordinaire) mentioned in a comment to one of my posts that the nonfiction writers in her writers’ group often asked the fiction writers about truth in fiction and that the ensuing discussions generally came around to the subject of the genres of fiction. The subject has been kicking around the back of my brain ever since, so I’ve decided to post on it.

So what about the idea of truth in fiction? I mean, if a story is fiction, it follows that it isn’t true. And yet I think every fiction writer knows that every story has to contain elements of truth.

Truth has to be in there at some level or the story cannot make sense. Even if it did manage to make some sense, it wouldn’t be a very compelling story if it had little or no truth in it. This is because, if there isn’t enough truth to anchor a story to the reality of our experience, the characters and events in the story simply won’t matter to us. Example: As a child I once discovered that some neighbors had a huge cache of Superman comic books, and I went on a binge. I was young enough and unsophisticated enough in my experience of the world to initially buy into the rather shallow characters and horribly contrived plot lines. Eventually I began to see the glaring plot flaws, however, and the endless repetitiousness of the character interactions. At that point I walked away and never went back because I had just stopped caring about any of it.

So if we are to care about a story, it must contain a certain amount of truth, somewhere. Also, I think more truth generally makes stories more meaningful.

Consider the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It’s a very old story. It’s attributed to Aesop, which takes it back to about 600 B.C.E. (How’s that for immortality?) Everyone (or almost everyone) knows the story about the shepherd boy who gives too many false warnings about a wolf menacing the flock and then isn’t believed when there really is a wolf. To “cry wolf” has come to mean to “give a false alarm.” But was there ever really an Aesop? If so, did he make this story up? Is it based on a true incident that he knew of personally, or one that he just heard about? Does any of that matter?  No: The story stands on the strength of the inherent truths it contains. We all understand, in principle, the behavior of wolves (preditors) with respect to sheep (prey). We all know about little boys who will do just about anything to gain attention or to see adults running around making fools of themselves, and we also know that when there have been too many false alarms, people may very well disregard a real one. The story is positively riddled with truth even though the incident it describes may never have actually happened. The story has become so iconic that “cry wolf” has entered the lexicon, and this is because it uses elements drawn from the real world to teach us a lesson that rings true.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Project Gutenberg ete...
The Boy Who Cried Wolf – Project Gutenberg etext 19994 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story wouldn’t work if the boy were standing on his head when a sheep came out of the forest and ate a wolf that wandered by, after first running around in circles whistling Dixie – because that story doesn’t contain any truth to speak of. It may be extremely creative in an off-the-wall kind of way, but  its elements just don’t connect – to each other or anything else.

I’d like to return for a moment to the image of our story-telling hunter-gatherer ancestors from my earlier post (Why we create fiction). In that post, I explained that I believe storytelling is fundamental to our nature as a species. It’s fundamental to our ability to pass our understanding of the world on to others (cultural transmission), and it’s fundamental to the nurturing of imagination and to creativity.  I’m sure it didn’t take our story-telling ancestors long to realize that stories could teach valuable life lessons and provide models for behavior. They would also have realized that, while true stories can serve this purpose, fictional ones can work just as well, provided they ring true for the listeners. And fictional stories have the advantage that you don’t have to wait around for an appropriate event to happen that will illustrate your point. So was born the fable and the parable, the epic or hero’s quest that illustrates noble behavior, and any form of mythology that seeks to explain why the world is as it is or to justify a culture’s customs, values, or beliefs. Also heir to this legacy would be any modern work of fiction that serves as a cautionary tale. (A legend, on the other hand, began life as a true story but has been embellished and tweaked to such an extent over time that its relationship to the truth has become obscure or uncertain.)

At this point I’d like to digress a little bit to talk about the relationship between history-keeping and storytelling. I just attended the first annual LitFest Pasadena this last weekend (a nice little book fair held in a Pasadena park). There was a panel discussion on “History, literature…..and the truth.” My husband and I arrived too late to hear the discussion, but since I had already been thinking about truth in literature, it jogged some more brain cells. So here goes…

It’s like this: Out of the human propensity for storytelling are sprung two broad fields of human study/endeavor: history and literature. I use both terms broadly here and don’t restrict them to written forms. “History” deals with the factual recording of past events (and other aspects of human life) for the edification of posterity and includes biographies, memoirs, journalism, and documentaries. “Literature” includes all forms of creative storytelling, from comic strips, to novels, to drama and motion pictures.

Both activities are concerned with truth, though in different ways. To put it in a nutshell:

History deals with the art of truth; Literature deals with the truth of art.

(Yeah, I know. Way too cute. Feel free to groan.) I use the word “art” here, by the way, more in the sense of artifice (something constructed) than of artistry (the creation of beauty).

History as the art of truth:  I know a bit about what historians do, since my father was a professor of English history and I currently have a college age son who is majoring in history.  There is an art/science to uncovering what is true about the past, to preserving the information, interpreting it, presenting it in an understandable and meaningful form. It is important work, and the day we cease to value it will mark the beginning of the decline of our civilization. (The majority of Americans are already far too ignorant of history – and unconcerned about the fact – for my comfort.)

Literature as the truth of art: I don’t have any specific credentials here. Mostly I’ve just experienced literature in all its many forms – what I’ve sampled of each, that is. (Remember, “art” here is the artifice of the constructed fictional story.) Basically, any story you construct has the potential to expose some truth or truths about people, life, the human condition/predicament, etc.  The more important (non-trivial) that truth is, the greater is the story’s significance. The more broadly the truth is appreciated across people of different cultures and times, the greater it’s universality.  Of course, stories are valued by humans for the entertainment they provide as well as (or instead of) for the factual information they contain (a point from my previous post), but either way, they must contain elements of truth. Authors writing solely to entertain their audiences need not be particularly concerned about things like significance or universality, but they still need settings that feel real, events that are plausible, and characters whose actions, motives, and responses are believable.

And now, finally, I’m going to get around to the subject of genre. Genre relates to the writer’s purpose, which in turn relates to the interests and expectations of the intended audience.  Writers of literary fiction are concerned with the kinds of truth that yield significance and universality (and also with artistry – the other kind of “art”; the one that means beauty in language.) This is what their audience is looking for. Writers of historical fiction that is entertainment-oriented may not be concerned with significant or universal truths, but need to be very attentive to the accuracy of its depiction of the chosen time period. Authors who write romance must focus on the inevitable convolutions of boy-meets-girl, but (presumably – I don’t read in this genre) still need plausible characters, settings, and events. Mystery writers need those things too and also have to reveal their plot in a way that keeps the reader guessing right up to the end without pulling any hat-tricks. (At least that’s what they should do if they’re doing their job right. I hate hat-tricks.)

Speculative fiction is a category that is considered to include both science fiction and fantasy. One could argue that these authors have the fewest limitations on their creativity. They can take you anywhere. They can create alien creatures, new technologies, whole future societies, or entire worlds. They can dabble in magic and the supernatural. But still, still, they need to tie their tales to truth. Even in the far future, the laws of physics must prevail (or if not, you have to plausibly explain why not.) Even in a fantasy world that is entirely your own invention, you must have characters whose actions, thoughts, and responses to events ring true.

So, you can’t get away from truth any more than you can get away from grammar. At least that’s the way I see it. What do you think?

Why do we create fiction?

I strongly suspect that human beings have been telling stories for about as long as we have had language that was complex enough to make it possible.

(One of the defining characteristics of complex language is that it allows you to talk about things you and have not seen, and be understood by a listener who has never seen them either. “I never saw a purple cow. I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.”)

I picture our hunter-gather ancestors huddled around the campfire at night telling stories.  I’m sure it began with the simple recounting of the teller’s experiences. (“I crossed the stream, and went over the hill, and I met a…”) The first simple stories would not have been fiction. They would have been accurate accounts within the limits of the storyteller’s understanding. I imagine that storytelling would have conferred a selective advantage because the stories served a purpose: to convey information about the world – such as where to find food, or how to avoid danger. And I’m sure the information was more likely to be grasped and remembered if the stories were interesting – if they drew the listeners in and held their attention. In other words, these early stories were learning opportunities that would have been more effective as such if they were good stories to begin with, and also if they were well-told. Their power would have come partly from their realness – and I don’t mean the fact that they were true stories. I mean that they felt real to the listeners because the listeners could vividly imagine the storyteller’s experiences – even imagine themselves moving through the story in the storyteller’s place.

I believe we often learn better from stories than from dry recitations of facts because a good story makes the useful information it contains more concrete and more personal. The story creates a more real experience in the mind of the listener or reader because it engages his or her imagination.

These, then, are the three components that are essential to successful human learning-from-storytelling:

  • A good story (interesting content)
  • Good storytelling (language skills, dramatic sense, etc.)
  • Imagination (on the part of the listeners/readers)

Why is imagination important for the listeners? A really bad telling will ruin a good story, and even the best storyteller will be a flop without good material. But you could have a great story that was superbly told, and it would still be wasted if your listeners were unable to picture in their minds the people, places, and events of the story.

Well okay, you say, that explains the origin of narrative nonfiction – but, what about fiction? Your title sort of implies that you were going to talk about that. (Ahem!)

I’m getting there.

So the question is: when did our hunter-gather ancestors first start making things up?

I’m sure this happened pretty early, too. It would have started with simply embellishing an otherwise factual narrative. One obvious motivation would have been self-aggrandizement. If the storyteller were relating his own experiences, he might wish to make himself appear smarter, more competent, or more heroic. And if several other people sitting around that campfire had good stories to tell that night while his day had been dull and uneventful, he might just be inspired to concoct something out of whole cloth. Does that mean that fiction got its start from people lying?  Well, not really. Lying has the intent to deceive, and, while I’m sure there were some who tried to do that, they would have ultimately been caught in their lies and would have lost standing in their tribal groups as a result.  No, I’m sure a lot of those early spinners of fiction were motivated by a desire to entertain their listeners – because stories do definitely entertain.

Stories entertain because they offer vicarious experiences. Entertainment consists of experiences that we seek out because we  enjoy them, rather than for any obvious practical benefit – and vicarious ones seem to work almost as well as real ones. In the case of stories, the listener or reader can follow the adventures of the hero or heroine without having to actually face the dangers, or endure the hardships, and without having to possess the knowledge, skills, or prowess necessary to successfully deal with the problems encountered.  Through stories you can travel – via your imagination – to places you have never been, or could never go. You can witness wonders beyond anything the mundane world has to offer.  People do crave novel experiences, but they naturally (and sensibly) shy away from dangers and try to avoid hardships, and the mundane requirements of their lives tend to prevent them from traveling unnecessarily or going adventuring.  Stories conveniently get around these limitations.

Magazine cover of Imagination December 1952 issue.
magazine cover of Imagination, December 1952 issue.
wikipedia

The components essential  for the success of an entertaining story are the same as for an informative one: good story, good storytelling, and imagination. The difference, in the case of fiction, is that imagination is required on the part of the author as well as the listener/reader. And this is part of the reason why I believe fiction provides a positive benefit to human beings – why it isn’t just a byproduct of the fact that humans benefit from the telling of true stories.  Nothing exercises the imagination quite like the process of concocting a good piece of fiction. The rest of the reason is that this exercise-for-the-imagination benefit extends beyond the author to touch the readers/listeners as well. It’s this simple: True stories are limited by what is true, while fiction is limited only by the restrictions of one’s imagination.  And imagination is what takes us beyond what is concrete and visible, beyond what we already know. It is the basis of all future vision and all creative enterprise.  Without imagination, humans would not be human.

If you can imagine more elaborate imaginings, you can dream bigger dreams. And if you dream bigger dreams, you are likely to achieve greater achievements.