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We receive many stories in which the writer apparently believes that presenting the normalcy of daily life constitutes good fiction: people going through daily routines, doing their jobs, spending time with family, driving around, grocery shopping… Most emerging writers understand fiction as a representation of real life. In their writing they try to convey the lives of their characters through the events and details of the life they are familiar with. But let’s face it, most of us lead terribly boring lives. Why would anyone want to read about them?
It’s time to redefine what fiction is.
Fiction is not real life. Fiction is the illusion of real life. The difference is that it dwells in the critical moments that create meaning for people.
If you look at fiction that way, then good fiction must focus on the points of potential change in characters’ lives—points of intrigue and conflict. Doing this will immediately increase the tension and momentum of a short story. Anyone with even a basic creative writing education will recognize that I’m not saying anything new here. Great writers have been exhorting this for centuries. So how is it that so many beginning writers weigh their stories down with page after page of boring routine?
The answer, I think, is twofold. First, the American educational system is obsessed with teaching children to not be creative. It’s not just approaches like standardized testing, it’s an emphasis on conformity and accountability, which translates into the societal requirement that we at all times explain ourselves. Children are taught to write essays, works that adhere to a specific form and which rely on factual evidence to support a thesis. I remember those days, coming back from summer vacation, and our first assignment was to write an essay on how we spent those days. No teacher ever instructed me to use my imagination and write a short story about that time. I’ll wager no teacher has ever instructed a student to do that. We carry those early lessons with us into adulthood, but we have to let go of them when we write creatively. The result is fiction that reads like those grade school essays—relying on explanation instead of subtext. It’s fiction that refuses to explore character and avoids taking chances.
Second, many writers have misinterpreted the creative writing maxim about establishing their characters’ “known world.” That doesn’t mean including details of their morning bathroom routine (and yeah, I’ve seen that). I can often tell when a writer is layering mundane detail in an effort to make their characters seem like regular, identifiable people. But this also postpones the story’s tension, and that price is too great when lit journal readers are looking for the story’s hook. It also says the writer does not trust the story to increase tension as it develops. It says the writer has one idea in mind, and that’s the climax of the story, and if they reveal that right away the story will be over in a couple of pages. And so they keep the tension low, expecting the reader will slog through until the “surprise” of the climax. From an editor’s standpoint I can tell you that never works. Start your tension high and trust yourself that you can make it go even higher. Give yourself that challenge and you may be surprised at what you’re able to create—a story not just with higher tension, but also with far greater character depth because the stakes for the character have increased.
And never forget, fiction is also entertainment, no matter how serious its subject. You have to get people to want to read it. What is it about presenting a scene in which characters butter their toast and have a cup of coffee, and then head off to work that makes some writers think it is interesting to other people? Live stream my morning routine to the world and 90% of the audience will move on to something else within thirty seconds—most of the rest will be asleep. (Yes, there’s that one percent who will be engrossed. I feel sorry for them.)
Break out of writing about the normal world. People read fiction to escape their daily reality. Focus on the abnormal, the points of tension and change, and your fiction will stand out.
– Joe Ponepinto