Reward and Punishment in Fiction Writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStories need conflict. This generally means that things must go wrong for the protagonist before they go right. But how far wrong? Bad things must happen, but how many bad things must there be to earn something good? And just exactly how bad must the bad things get?

There is no single simple answer to this, basically because people – readers and writers, both – vary widely in their tolerance for punishment. The characters in stories similarly vary widely in how much they can take, depending on what attributes and resources they’ve been given. The context of any given adverse event varies as well. The death of a character’s mother, for example, might become anything from a life-shattering tragedy to a bittersweet farewell, or even a welcome relief – depending on the context and on the character.

Readers obviously get to know what to expect from different authors and can deal with the reward vs punishment issue by simply choosing what they read. I recently wrapped up the second of two linked fantasy trilogies by Robin Hobb – involving Fitz and the Fool, if you know her work – with a sigh of relief because I realized that Hobb’s punishment/reward ratio is really a bit out of my personal comfort zone. Robin Hobb is a superb writer. Anyone inclined to look down on genre fiction in general, or fantasy in particular, should try some of hers. But she’s awfully hard on poor Fitz in those six books. And it isn’t just physical pain and suffering, either, there are also the mistakes the character makes, the choices that lead predictably to bad consequences, the way other characters are forever being angry with him and blaming him for things. I did enjoy those two trilogies, but I would have enjoyed them more if they were a bit less harrowing – or if Hobb had put in a bit more reward to balance all the punishment.

And this is an important point: Punishment from a reader’s perspective can come in many different forms, as can reward. External events that are outside the character’s control are only the most obvious source of reward and punishment. The decisions a character makes are another source. Are they reasonably intelligent given what the character knows? And are they well-intentioned? Or are they manifestly unwise or self-serving? How the character responds to events is yet another source of punishment and reward that is equally as important as the events themselves. I can put up with a lot of beatings and setbacks if the character displays what I consider to be positive attributes. Is the character tolerant, honest, and altruistic? Or is he judgmental, deceitful, and selfish? Does he admit to and accept responsibility for his mistakes? Does he show kindness? Moral courage? Suffering can be ennobling if borne with grace and fortitude. In short, there are a lot of ways to give me rewards as a reader while still having the hero up to his neck in hot water.

What should one do as a writer, given the range of reader tolerance? Staying true to your own natural inclinations is one option, on the theory that there will be readers out there who will respond favorably. Of course, there will also be readers who don’t. Doubtless there are readers who think Robin Hobb is spot-on, and others who think her writing is too tame. Trying to shape one’s writing to fit the intended audience is another possibility, especially for beginning writers, and especially if you find that you are way out one extreme or the other of the tolerance curve.

So what’s your personal tolerance for punishment when you read? Are your criteria for judging punishment similar to mine, or different? If you’re a writer, how do you balance reward and punishment in your work – or do you just not think about it?

Donnie Dale is dying… and still writing…

Eschscholzia californica
Eschscholzia californica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would you do if you discovered you were dying? If you received a diagnosis of terminal cancer with an estimated two years to live, give or take six months?

What would you do with the time you had left?

A man I know named Donnie Dale is in that position. He’s a man who’s been a writer all his life. He made his living at it – not with fiction, but with magazine articles, mostly. That was his day job. On the side, though, he’s also been writing fiction all his life – novels and screenplays. He’s got a trunk-full of manuscripts. He had one novel published twenty years ago. He did it, I assume, the “traditional” way – which is what I call the “hard” way – but I guess he never struck that luck again.

Faced with limited time remaining, Donnie has set himself a goal.  His goal is to self-publish all those unpublished novels. He has a website set up for the purpose – for his “platform.” It’s at www.donniedale.com

And he’s still writing. He’s started a blog on his website and is posting his thoughts on whatever comes to mind, because he’s a writer and writers don’t stop writing for trivial reasons like impending death. His posts are well worth reading. He says he’s not afraid to die, and you can tell he isn’t lying about that. There’s nothing maudlin in what he has to say. He writes with honesty and with clarity (and artistry), and with pretty darn good grammar and punctuation, too. If you’re building your mental model of what good writing looks like, you could do a lot worse than run Donnie’s postings across your synapses.

I encourage you to visit Donnie’s website and spend some time there. Leave a comment so he’ll know you’ve been. We who blog have all had that sense of, “okay, I’m putting it out there; is anybody reading it?” More than anything else, writers desire to be read, and for Donnie the question takes on an added urgency. So please go: Read some of his posts, follow his self-publication odyssey, maybe watch for his books and give them a read. I think you’ll get something from the experience, and not just the warm fuzzy feeling of having helped a life-long writer achieve one final goal.

I met Donnie Dale because, until this week, he has been leading the joint meetings of the Alameda Writer’s Group and the Altadena satellite of the Independent Writers of Southern California, which meets at the Coffee Gallery on Lake Ave in Altadena on the 2nd Friday of every month.

Writers, readers, and breaking trust

Truth
Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

Among the comments on my recent post about truth in fiction, was one from the norfolknovelist  in which she pointed out, among other things, that if you violate the truth in your fiction, your readers may decide they can’t trust you. This is a valid point, although it’s also clear that fiction writers routinely bend or stretch the truth in some ways without getting into trouble with their readers (not to mention constructing things out of whole cloth). This is because readers of fiction are willing within limits to do something called suspending disbelief. After all, if everything in a fiction story had to be true, it wouldn’t exactly be fiction, would it?

Or, as my teenage son so aptly puts it whenever I start getting bent out of shape over some scientific inaccuracy in a book or movie: “Mom, it’s fiction!

So, what can you get away with, and what can’t you? Well, for the fictitious elements of your story, you can get away with anything from plausible to downright impossible depending on the genre.  You can do angels and demons, magical transformations, time travel – for the right audience. That’s where disbelief-suspension comes in. The devil, however, is in the mundane details – where it comes down to reader knowledge and reader expectations. These, in turn, vary depending both on the setting of your story and on the audience you are writing for. If you’re writing a story involving contemporary life, you’d better get as many details right as possible because your readers are contemporary with your setting and they are going to know details. Every reader may not know everything, but they’re all going to know something. If you’re writing a crime drama or detective story you had better get your forensics right because people who read this kind of story care about that kind of detail. Making an inaccurate statement about the kind of information that can be gleaned from a particular forensic technique is going to lose their trust big-time if they either already know the truth or later find out that you had it wrong. On the other hand, these readers aren’t likely to care if a minor character who is a bird watcher makes an inaccurate comment about the markings of the black-headed grosbeak – unless, perhaps, it turns out to be relevant to the solution of the crime.

BUT, there is another – perhaps even more important – aspect to reader trust.

This other aspect of trust relates more to internal consistency than to consistency with the external world. I’m not talking about saying a character has red hair in chapter 2 and brown hair in chapter 7 because you forgot what you wrote in chapter 2.  That’s an error of continuity. It needs to be fixed, but if it were to sneak through, it would be more likely to make your readers think you were sloppy than to lose their trust. No, I’m talking about lying to your readers. I’m talking about the situation where the writer purposefully tells the readers that A is true in chapter 2 and then has it turn out in chapter 7 that A is not true and in fact the truth is B.

Why on earth would writers do this? Because they don’t want the readers to guess the truth too early in the story! Not surprisingly, mystery writers are some of the worst offenders, but at some level every story is a mystery and so all fiction writers are potentially subject to this temptation.

Here’s the deal: When you tell a story, the reader implicitly trusts that what you say is true is true, within the context of the story. To put it another way, when you are the omniscient narrator, you are the Voice of God – for that story.

So don’t overstate the facts to try to mislead your readers. It’s a lie. It’s a cheat. It’s a violation of the readers’ trust.

Consider your wording carefully to achieve the desired effect without engaging in outright deception. There are important differences between the following examples:

a)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying dead on the floor.

b)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

c)       He looked in the window and saw the body of a dark-haired woman in a blue evening gown lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

In the first case you’ve told us the person he saw was his wife and that she was dead. It had better not later turn out that it wasn’t his wife or that she wasn’t dead. In the second case you’ve told us it was his wife, but while the pool of blood may suggest she is dead, you haven’t actually said so. And finally, in the last case, you haven’t explicitly identified the woman (although the description might match that of his wife), nor have you explicitly stated that the woman is dead.

A skillful writer can have the readers pretty much where he or she wants them to be without ever telling them a lie.

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?