Monday, July 16, 2012

How Priorities Affect Writing Style and Purpose

After Rachelle Gardner posted the question "How Hard Should We Make Our Readers Work?" it got me thinking. To me, there's no clear answer, because it depends on the author's purpose.

In my eyes, fiction has three main purposes:

  1. To entertain
  2. To make you think about an issue
  3. To make you think about the story and the writing
These purposes are often (as in somewhere between usually and always) connected, but the prioritization of them determines the overall objective of the author.

I write because I like stories. They're my escapism. When life gets tough, I turn to worlds where the good guys win, evil loses, and amazing things happen to ordinary people. Therefore, I want my readers to get the same thing from my books.

I also write because I want to get people thinking. I enjoy working in underlying issues that I want people to at least think about, and preferably talk to each other about. I include themes that I think are underrepresented in the literature I read, and that I consider important. 

I don't want people to think about the writing itself, at least, not until they've looked at the first two. I want my writing to be 'invisible' - that is, I don't want the reader to notice the writing at all. It's just a vehicle for story.

But, I do slide things like foreshadowing, symbolism, and other subtle techniques into the work, and I wouldn't mind if people noticed these things (especially on the second or third read-through). I put a lot of hard work into them! Like everyone else, I like being appreciated.

For me, my pleasure reading mostly puts #1 (entertainment) first, then #2 (issues), then #3 (style).

But people who really enjoy literary fiction probably put #3 pretty high on the list. They want to work to get the most out of any story; they get their entertainment from the work they put into the story and the meaning they get out of it through that work. That's their fun.

Some kinds of speculative fiction put #2 first. The idea is to get the reader thinking about something and to see the potential consequences thereof. Readers of these sorts of works enjoy vigorous debates. They like to think, and they like to follow chains of logical consequence. "Could this really happen?" is a pertinent and enjoyable discussion.

Your writing will reflect your priorities (1-entertain, 2-issues, or 3-style). Some examples of how this might show are:

(3,2,1): Do you want your readers to have to work when they read your story? You'll pay more attention to things like the rules of writing (every metaphor is perfect, not a single sentence has an unnecessary word, and there's not a single cliche) and inserting deeper meanings and layers of symbolism. Your story may or may not end happily (probably not, actually), and your plot's appeal will be in how it reflects the real world, not in how much it entertains your reader (although that's a positive side effect that will probably arise from your good writing). Your readers will have to read carefully so they don't miss a single detail, and every time they read, they'll get something more from the story. The work is the fun.

(2,3,1): Do you want your readers to think about an issue, such as the moral ambiguities of artificial intelligence? Then you'll probably put deep consequences and moral issues into various aspects of your writing. You story may or may not end happily, but to enrapture your audience, you'll make your plot deep and intriguing. You may be trying to persuade your readers to favor one side of the issue over the other, or make them consider possible consequences of an issue they haven't considered before. You may or may not give them your own opinion, but the what-if structure of the novel still leaves room for debate. Written perfection is a means to an end (I'm seeing a few useful cliches and oddly placed hyperboles in your future), those means being the fact that readers keep reading and, should they see your double entendres, they have more to discuss. On the whole, you want your readers to work through forming an opinion and thinking about the issue, not through reading the story. They'll be discussing your story from now until the end of time, and you might just change the world.

(1,2,3): Or maybe you just want to give your readers an escape. Your plot is first on your mind, so it's deep, intriguing, edge-of-the-seat intense. Subplots abound, but not so many your reader gets lost; everything is connected in a web that doesn't come together until the very end. Your characters will probably have a happy ending (or a tragic but satisfying one). You probably have deeper issues in your work because people enjoy thinking about those and they're extremely entertaining to watch the characters deal with. It's possible that these issues will drive the plot, because dealing with such things makes for good stories. The issues may be less controversial (pollution is bad) or set up to allow your reader to make his or her own moral decision. The rules of writing prevent you from interfering with your reader's enjoyment, but clarity trumps perfection.The goal is to make your reader not have to work hard (so you've got a few more adverbs and that's hanging around than perhaps you stylistically should), but rather to give them a ride they'll never forget. You'll be a treasured bookshelf favorite, the one they turn to time and again, the one that keeps them going when life just plain hurts.

Do you agree with these priorities, and do you see them in different styles of fiction? Do you write fiction? What's your priority order, and how does it affect how hard you make your readers work? 

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