Monday, June 24, 2013

Entertain, enchant, enthrall: the three E's of fiction


The irony of the sermon I’m about to give is not lost on me—the teacher preaching the literary commandment, “Thou shalt not teach or preach in your fiction.” And I’ve written about this before on my website.

But it bears repeating. I don’t know what it is, but working in the field of children’s literature for lo these many years, I’ve encountered a lot of didacticism, also known by the more pejorative term preachiness. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that so many people who want to write for children are teachers, who can’t get out of the habit of writing lessons. Many of my writing students and manuscript clients are classroom teachers, either in the public or parochial schools. [Note: by parochial, I mean any religious school, not just Roman Catholic. I’ve had students who taught in evangelical Christian schools, Lutheran schools, Anglican schools, and even Hare Krishna schools. I’ve also had a few preachers as students, as well as students who taught as part-time volunteers in Sunday or Hebrew school. Why, I once had a student who led weekly devotional programs for Wiccan children.]

Many children’s writers come to their desks with a passion to convey either information or life lessons to their young readers—and let me stress that there is nothing wrong with that. All writers write because they are burning to share something that is important and meaningful to them.

However, when it comes to crafting fiction, anyone who is a teacher or preacher needs to set that particular hat down outside the door. Forget about writing those sermons or lesson plans that feel like second nature to you. You need to remember that when it comes to writing fiction you are first, last, and always a storyteller—which is an ancient and noble discipline with strong traditions of its own.

One of those traditions involves a prohibition against the three E’s. Fiction is most emphatically not about educating, exhorting, or even empowering readers. [See what Harry Potter’s US editor Arthur K. Levine has to say about empowerment in the companion article on my website.]

If there is some topic about which you want to either teach or preach, you can do that in non-fiction. But if you choose fiction as your genre, then it is all about another trinity of E’s. At every moment, what we as fiction writers must do is  entertain, enchant, and enthrall. That’s the goal in every line, every scene, every chapter. Along the way our readers may pick up some information that they didn’t have before, but if so, that’s simply a bonus. And if they are inspired, well, that’s even better.

But if you sit down to write your novel with the express purpose of informing readers, you will bore them. And if you sit down with the express purpose of inspiring them, I can almost guarantee you will fail.

Your task as a storyteller, a writer of fiction, is singular, if not simple. It is to make your story world so real, so compelling, that readers want to crawl inside and experience it right alongside your characters. And then you need to stand back and allow readers to discover for themselves any meaning that there is to be found. You can’t force feed them your passions; you can only cook the food, lay the table, and hope that they like what you've given them to eat.

Think of a novel that inspired you—and then read it again, to see how the author managed that. I’ll wager that he or she didn’t try to inspire you, not directly. One book that springs to mind is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which I’ve clutched like a life preserver as an Ohio Buckeye struggling to keep my head above the backwaters in the rural Georgia town where I have made my home for years. Though Lee’s novel has many strong themes about racial equality, sexual violence, and standing up for what is right, even when it’s unpopular or dangerous, she doesn’t try to teach a history lesson or preach a sermon about any of that. Instead, she lets us experience all this through Scout and her father Atticus Finch as they struggle through their day-to-day lives in a 1930’s Alabama town.

It’s true that there are many novels for young people that do impart information along the way. Take historical fiction; I’m dating myself here, but how many of us learned about the American Revolution by reading Johnny Tremaine in school?

To take a more contemporary example, look at any one of the many wonderful historical novels written by two-time Newbery medalist Karen Cushman. The author has often been praised for her well-researched, authentic historical detail, so kids can certainly learn a lot about time periods from the Middle Ages to the McCarthy Era from her books. But not a single page in any of her novels reads like a lesson from a history textbook. Instead, Cushman brings the time period to life through lively writing in chapters where her characters don’t act like they know they’re living in the past, because to them, they’re not! This is just ordinary life for them, so any history readers pick up is almost by osmosis, as they are caught up in Cushman’s plots.

Inspiration doesn’t always come in the form you expect either. Look at the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. [SPOILER ALERT: do not read further if you haven’t finished all seven books.]

When these books first came out, they were a lightning rod for debate in the Bible Belt where I live because they center around magic. However, I think there are also strong religious elements in the books, especially in the final installment. Rowling wasn’t trying to preach or to teach in the closing chapters of the seventh novel, The Deathly Hallows. Her primary purpose at the end was to tell a gripping, emotionally-charged story in the scene where Harry walks to his death—a death he freely though painfully chooses, in order to defeat Voldemort and save Harry’s family, his friends, Hogwarts, and indeed, the entire world, Muggle and magic alike. Rowling didn’t try to explicitly teach a message here on the power of love and sacrifice, though that is implicit in every line. She could even have quoted John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (NRSV translation)

But Rowling left the teaching of ethics and the quoting of scripture to others whose job that is. She is a novelist, and her charge is different. Her task—and that of all of us who write fiction—is to put our characters in situations where they are forced to make often impossible choices and then deal with the consequences. It is up to readers to decide what to glean from those consequences. Are they "just" messy, funny, sobering, joyous, or heart-breaking? Or is there any redemptive, transformative meaning to be found therein?

Our job as writers is only this: tell a damn good story. Beyond that, we must trust readers to get the rest.


Vijaya said...

Preach it, Nancy!!! Great art always points to the Source of all that is good, true and beautiful.

Nancy Butts said...

I guess I don't need to say, "Can I get an amen, brothers and sisters?" I'm smiling here, as I can just hear your voice in this comment. But you'll laugh—after working on this all morning, I thought I had saved it for later; I didn't even realize I'd published it!