Writing is an interesting profession because it’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer.
Sure. There are certain aspects or tools that might enhance a piece’s quality such as theme, mood, irony, tone, characterization, imagery, voice, etc. However, there’s no one “right” way to write. Some authors might emphasize dialogue and voice more while others might focus on imagery, setting, and atmosphere. The idea of there being no correct way to write brings up the debate of genre/commercial fiction versus literary fiction.
And I have a confession. I despise literary fiction since some of the preconceived notions about it are true.
Plot is one aspect that literary fiction sometimes fails to understand because there’s nothing wrong with a book that has things happening in it. One example of the perils of literary fiction is the book Lolita.
Yeah, a person can argue that reading the book could be helpful in learning how to center a story on a “monster.” However, Lolita contains numerous internalizations, which can make the reader feel lost since the plot stalls. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the book Gone Girl is plot heavy because it’s about a woman (Amy) who frames her husband for her murder. The idea of twists and turns being seen as melodramatic for people that prefer literary fiction is unfathomable since saying that a book cannot have an engrossing plot is maddening. After all, people do read books for escapism. Madame Bovary is another novel that’s held in high esteem for fans of “highbrow” culture despite how the book has the same problem as Lolita in that there’s a lot of internalizations. And the ironic thing is that Madame Bovary might be a “classic”, but the novel is written in third person. That causes it to come across as a summary since it feels like there’s a lot of telling.
The biggest problem with literary fiction isn’t even that it’s quiet or boring. It’s that literature is seen as “serious” if the book is old like Madame Bovary or Lolita because the status quo determines what becomes literary cannon. In this case, the status quo would be people in the education field who choose what books students read. The point of bringing up “the establishment” isn’t to get caught up in a blame game―it’s about emphasizing how contemporary commercial/genre fiction books can have merit too.
For instance, the Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard might exemplify the epitome of “lowbrow” culture for people who prefer literary fiction. But such a thought would be foolish. That isn’t to say that the Pretty Little Liars series is perfect. Because it isn’t (and that’s coming from someone who labels that series as one of his favorite series of all time). I even take issue with the overabundance of adverbs in Pretty Little Liars. However, reading Pretty Little Liars taught me how to write engaging dialogue.
And that’s a good thing.
For example, occasionally writing sentences such as, “He furrowed an eyebrow,” “A tear rolled down her cheek,” “She parted a lock of her hair out of the way” before a line of dialogue makes lines of speech easier to read by illustrating action. Dialogue standing by itself can make the reader become lost and using “he said,” or “she said” all the time might also induce sleeping.
Yeah, using a generic reaction isn’t wrong before a line of dialogue because most things evolve over time. And if the general leads to the specific (i.e. the line of dialogue), then that’s okay.
However, the divide in the literary community is troubling.
I mean, sure. People will have their preferences and biases, and nothing can change that since writing is subjective and people make qualitative judgments based on their unique perceptions (as opposed to math and science when it’s clear when something is right or wrong). But people on both ends of the writing spectrum fail to see the “bigger picture.” Writing should be about having as many tools as possible, not choosing “highbrow” over “lowbrow.” And that means showing imagery and establishing setting/atmosphere is just as important as snappy dialogue and plot.
Because I’ll be the first to admit how I gravitate towards snappy dialogue and plot. But taking a more “literary” approach last year helped improve my setting/atmosphere, imagery, characterization, and world-building. And that signals the problem is in the “old school” way of thinking.
Having a scene that illustrates characterization doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Yes, the scene needs to reinforce character, but it should move the story forward―just in a different way. Like in the previous mentioned example from last year, writing the first dinner scene in the project establishes the characters right away through subtleties. Doing so enhances the project because the main character reconnects with her extended family since she hasn’t seen them in over a decade and is thus new to their town.
However, my plot suffered as a result of shifting towards “highbrow” elements.
And guess what? That meant going back a little in the other direction on the next draft. While I kept the “good” new additions, remembering plot is crucial.
As a result, setting/atmosphere, imagery, world-building, characterization, snappy dialogue, and plot need to work together, and a writer shouldn’t just focus on one of those aspects alone for 50 pages.
Make no mistake though. I might sometimes appreciate “highbrow” elements, but I’ll never be impressed with a writer who spends copious amounts of pages describing one thing. Doing so is just boring.