On Compelling Fiction

You guys, I don’t ever go in the romance section.

No–that came out wrong. I totally spend time in the romance section when I’m alphabetizing and updating the front list with new books and pulling books to send back to the publisher.

So I guess I go into the romance section if I’m getting paid to do it.

And here’s the weird thing: my aversion to romance doesn’t make any sense. I like love stories and I like sex. I mean, these are good things, right? So what the hell, man? Why does the thought of reading a romance novel make my eyes roll so hard that they’re in danger of getting stuck?

It comes down to tropes: romance, unlike science fiction, fantasy, or western, is an actual plot type. When you tell me a book is a romance, I know a few things about it. I know that there are two leads, [generally] a male and a female. I know they’re either going to have ICA (a little thing J.R. Ward graciously introduced the world to–“Instant. Cosmic. Attraction.”) or they’re going to hate each other for a third of the book and then have crazy hot monkey sex. I know that at some point there will be a sundering of our lovers. And I know, without a shadow of a breath of a doubt, that they will get back together, they will make whatever didn’t work before work, that they will ride off into the sunset on a pretty Appaloosa pony and live happily ever after.

Or something like that.

My beef with it isn’t that the genre has tropes–every plot type does. Revenge plots have a person who was wrong, the offending party, and some kind of societal-law-enforcement representative. Quest stories have a MacGuffin. Thrillers have a ticking clock. Mysteries have a crime. The classical definition of comedy requires a joining with society at the end; tragedies call for a separation from society. I could go on, but I won’t. (You’re welcome.) So TROPES aren’t the problem–it’s the certainty of the tropes.

Where’s the risk? Where’s the danger? The unnecessary heart-pounding acrid-tongue adrenaline rush of uncertainty? And if you make the circumstances shaky enough, if you let your readers know early, often, and hard that you’re all out of fucks to give and you might not kill Hermione, but you will sure as shit kill Cedric Diggory who was just a sweet Hufflepuff and never did anything mean to anyone so Dumbledore better WATCH THE FUCK OUT–your readers don’t know what you’re going to do in pursuit of those things we know you’re going to do.

Come on. It’s not like Voldemort was ever going to win. No one ever thought that. But that’s not the point. That’s not what made Harry Potter compelling stories. It was all that other messy shit on the fringes. It was Snape’s has-he-hasn’t-he double (triple?) crossing, it was that bitch Delores Umbridge, it was Fred (or George, I can’t ever remember) dying. It’s Ron and Hermione. It’s all THOSE things, all those messy little lives getting in the way of The Quest.

The mention of romance novels has a point, little ones: I finished Tiffany Reisz’s THE SIREN last night, and damn but if that wasn’t good. Smut alert–it’s BDSM erotica done fucking right. It’s erotic fiction and very much not a romance, despite the fact that it is published by Harlequin and sits merrily twiddling its thumbs and practicing its half-hitch knots in the romance section. The author said she thought of it as “dark like Story of O but funny like an Aaron Sorkin tv series. I’m really mixing my genres here.” And while I usually do whoa-hands when people compare themselves to Sorkin, I get it on this one. And you know what? That’s LIFE, folks. Life is dark and funny and tragic and beautiful and desperate. That’s life, and that’s good fiction.

And that’s compelling fiction. We’re writers, here, so let’s just stop beating around the bush. What we do is serve up life to people. Maybe it’s about the best musician on a planet that has genetically engineered dragons, or it’s about what might have happened during the missing 27 years of Jesus’ life, or it’s about a wizard private eye who’s just had his family threatened, but it’s all life. We serve up a slice of life-pie, and sometimes pie has a long manky pubic hair lying on top of that frothy canned whipped cream, and you know it’s from a line chef at that Waffle House on I-85 in central North Carolina that you know is housing some kind of demented inbred clinic-bombing hair monster, but damn, but you wanted that pie.

So you stopped. You ordered pie. And now here it is. That’s life. That’s what happens.

And since we’re here just in time for National Novel Writing Month, here’s some free advice, my little mustardseeds: do not ever, for one bloody goddamn second, forget that your characters are PEOPLE. They are human beings and they are assholes and sweethearts and racists and lazy and generous and wonderful and messy. God, we’re messy. Write your characters as messily as you live–people cry and when they do it’s hideous, faces red and blotchy and upper lips covered in snot and you cry so hard you think your ribs will break but that’s what the fuck happens. So that’s what the fuck you write.

They say “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” That doesn’t mean you have to cry while you write–or laugh or throw things or whatever (though it helps)–it means you find that emotion you’re writing and you mine the everliving fuck out of it. You dredge up nasty memories, if you have to, to put your readers through the same painful, numbing, heartcracking thing your character’s going through. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been pissed off and frustrated and in love and so sad that even pictures of pigs in pajamas couldn’t make us smile.

Use it. Use it hard and use it without mercy. The reader picked up your book, didn’t he? It’s his fault, then, really. Because he wants to feel this shit. So make him. Make him feel it, every last breathless inch of it, and make him hate you and beg for more.

That’s how you write compelling fiction. You make people, real people, and you put them in situations where they have to make hard decisions, and they fuck up, they do, but that’s okay because they’re people. They have sex with strangers and pull the trigger when they shouldn’t–or don’t when they should have–and they say things they can never take back because it’s all down on paper now, they’re totally fucked. Your reader has to care about your characters, and readers can’t care about what isn’t real. (Secondary characters are people, too!)

Your job, as the writer, is to ruin your protagonist’s life in any way you can manage. Characters stuck in a tree? Chop it down. Set it on fire. Have the face-eating slothbeast that lives in its upper branches come rollicking down and start eating faces. Everyone knows that. Oldest advice in the book.

But it’s also pretty gratifying to hear one of your readers tell you they just want to shake you because they’re so mad and oh my god when will you be finished with the next one?!

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