Forums Club Ed Editors’ Forum Fiction requires cruelty

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    • #52158
      Jennifer Lawler

      My daughter Jessica is my biggest fan, and she thinks it is very wonderful when I write a book, and even more so when it gets published, and not just because I take her out to dinner to celebrate.

      But she cannot understand why I am so mean to my characters.

      She thinks that the best story is the one in which everyone gets along and hugs each other and they all hang out together and have conversations about the things they love, and it’s even better if they take a few minutes to say some nice things about each other and if there is some Diet Coke in the refrigerator, that is especially desirable, and also if someone remembers to bring her some princess stickers, then that is perfect. But really all that is needed is some people who are kind.

      I tell her that such a situation is lacking in dramatic tension, and that conflict drives narrative, and that in a story such a situation might be the happily ever after, just before the end, but it is quite hard to get there, and many challenges and obstacles must be overcome first.

      “I see,” she says. “And that is how fiction is different from real life.”

      She is a wonderful daughter but she would make a terrible editor. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve worked with who don’t put enough conflict into their stories.

      But here’s what fiction is about: it is about people wanting things, and not being able to get them, and what happens because of that. Don’t forget. Ever.

    • #57176
      Jake Nicholls

      I’ve been thinking about this in relation to a book that I read and absolutely loved last year: ‘Leonard and Hungry Paul’ by Irish writer Rónán Hession. (Incidentally, it’s just about to be published by Melville House in the US, and I highly recommend it to anybody and everybody!)

      It’s a lovely book, very gentle and quietly witty. When I’m talking to customers in the bookshop about it, I often describe it as ‘slice of life’ because nothing overly dramatic happens – it just follows the steady friendship of the two title characters. But – and here’s where it proves your point, Jennifer – things do change, and the characters do face challenges and conflict. It’s just on a small, everyday scale. That’s what makes it so charming!

    • #57309
      Jennifer Lawler

      I think this is a great point, and it’s often overlooked by authors who are trying to create slice-of-life or impart a memoir feel to a novel (and the editors who edit them). Conflict does not mean blowing things up or stumbling over dead bodies in the library. In fact, often blowing things up and stumbling over dead bodies in the library doesn’t necessarily fuel conflict, it’s often just noise to cover up that the author doesn’t have a plot or a point.

      And a goal doesn’t have to be “defeat the Russian terrorists before they blow up Grand Central station.” Who was it who said it can just be the character wants a glass of water?

      In a quiet novel, the goal can be the longing to have things stay the same forever. This is harder to write effectively than a more proactive goal, but it can be done.

      “Movement” and “change” may be better words to apply in less, well, aggressive novels.

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