For one wild moment, let’s all remember that stories can be told many different ways!
I understand that when someone finds a system that works and sells books and engages readers, there’s good reason to copy that system.
My dad and I were watching an old movie a few months ago and he made a comment about the acting–how it was a little over the top. And I shared this sudden realization with him: “This was in the first days of film. Up until this point theater acting was the norm and you had to do “big” acting so everyone in the audience could be engaged.”
It’s interesting to think how acting has evolved. Because the camera can get up close, actors can convey emotions with great subtlety.
I think the writing industry needs to evolve as well, not only forward but backward. I think filmmaking has made huge bounds forward in finding creative ways to tell stories and I think books can learn from that. But I also think it’s appropriate to go backward sometimes. What do I mean by that?
What about fables? What about analogies? What about stories that are not meant to be realistic, but archetypal? What about myths or legends? In elementary school and middle school, we used to read folklore and mythology from countries around the world and I loved how different they were. They used so many different literary devices to tell the story. I would love to see some of that come back.
“That’s a specific genre,” you say. Pish posh. Realism isn’t a genre, it’s a technique used across genres. What is realism, you ask? Boiled down it’s a writing style that tries to capture the nature of reality and make the reader feel as if he/she is experiencing or witnessing everything. Everything must be “realistic.” Characters must always respond in a way that a real person would. The personal lives of characters are often painted in detail so that the reader understands the choices they make. Because realism started as a reaction to the more “romantic” stories, realism is often characterized by a grim tone, as in, “There are no happily ever afters, this is what life is really like.” This is the type of storytelling dominating our film and book industry. Some people think it is the only way to tell stories. And if you have ever found yourself watching an old movie and thinking, “She would never be that calm in real life,” it is because most of us have come to believe that realism is the only way to tell meaningful stories.
I beg to differ.
What’s so bad about realism? Nothing. It is engaging. The audience can relate to the characters on a personal level because the emotions and struggles and circumstances are so close to what we experience in real life. When done right, stories told with realism are powerful. But I also think it’s a bit overrated.
I think it’s okay to have characters and plots that aren’t necessarily trying to portray reality. I think it’s okay to have characters who are different from anyone you’ve ever known and don’t respond to situations the way most people do. I’ll give you an example.
If any genre has remained immune to the realism obsession, it is arguably fantasy and for good reason. Fantasy already deals with elements outside of reality. I remember when they adapted “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” back in 2005. I heard an interview about how they had added certain scenes and conversations between the children because “C.S. Lewis didn’t really know how real children would behave.”
That made me so mad. When I watched the movie it was easy to see which scenes they were talking about. They were mostly arguments. Susan tries to convince Peter to listen to the wolves and leave Narnia when they are halfway to Aslan. And then later on Peter tries to send the other three home before the big battle, to keep them safe. Is it realistic? Yeah, somewhat. Clearly, the screenwriters thought to themselves: “These kids have been thrust into a foreign land with real dangers. The brother is the oldest and is responsible for them in the absence of their parents. Would he really just let them all fight in a battle without trying to protect them?”
But that’s not the point of the story! The point of the story isn’t, “If I were in their shoes, what would I do?” The point of the story is that these four ordinary kids got swept up in something extraordinary, and they didn’t make normal decisions. They became something MORE than what they were. They became MORE than children. And that’s why children love the story! I didn’t love the story because I thought, “That’s super realistic,” but because it inspired me to be braver than I was and take on greater responsibilities!
“That’s just fantasy,” you say. No. It doesn’t have to be. I don’t think all stories have to reflect reality to the last detail. I think it’s okay to skip over parts. I think it’s okay to make things simplistic sometimes. I think it’s okay to make characters slightly unrealistic so that we can contrast them with reality.
Granted, it is easy to play around with these elements in speculative fiction. But I challenge all writers everywhere to incorporate creative elements into their writing. A great example of thinking outside the box is “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver. She writes in great detail about this family with four daughters and their reactions and mishaps as they try to adjust to living in Africa. But part way through the book you start realizing that the family isn’t just a family, but an archetype for the political state of the nation. You slowly watch this family grow up and go their separate ways. At the same time, you watch the politics of the nation progress, and you can’t help noticing the similarities and differences.
What do you guys think? Do you know what I’m talking about or did none of that make sense?
Do you have any great examples of current fiction that experiments with storytelling elements?