Does Your Story Need That?

A lot of these blog posts are fairly light, but we’re about to dive into some more serious subject matter. Prejudice, Sexual Politics, and Violence. I’m not planning on getting too specific, but if it’s the thing you might not want to read about, you have been warned.

Part of writing a story is knowing what you need to put into it and what you can do without. Among all the talk of plotting and character arcs and worldbuilding and theme, we often don’t get down to specifics. Every story is its own animal, and every story has its own needs.

The foundation of fiction is that it is imagined. This truth is usually sidestepped by both author and audience because if we acknowledge that a story isn’t “real” in even the smallest way it can be seen as robbing of it of its value. It’s not hard to see where that notion comes from. Bad storytelling often has the author’s hand reaching down and pushing things in clumsy directions, but good storytelling actually does just as much pushing. It’s just more subtle about it. Or maybe it does it in a way that the audience doesn’t mind or even likes.

Think of any story you’ve ever liked that’s broken the fourth wall. Before Deadpool became the poster boy for that sort of storytelling, John Byrne did it with his She-Hulk series, where the breaks were even more overt and undeniable. In one issue, She-Hulk escaped being trapped in a TV show by tearing a hole in the comic page, walking through a page of ads, and then tearing her way back into the “real” comic book world.

Yes, comics back then had ads. They were also $1.25. Because I’m old.

Fiction is not real. It doesn’t matter if it takes on the trappings of reality, it isn’t because everything in a story is decided by someone outside of the story. Usually the creator, though other things can influence a story. The recent tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, a real event, shaped the future of the MCU films. These sort of harsh realities highlight the difference between fiction and reality.

Most of fiction writing advice is about creating a sheen of realism to help the audience (and the author) forget that fact. There’s a sort of mental partition at work, where we allow ourselves to pretend fiction is real so that we can enjoy it. It’s surprisingly easy. So easy we often forget that we’re doing it.

There’s a recurring phrase among writers. “I can’t get this story to do what I want.” It means that the story has hit a dead end. Maybe a character won’t do what you need them to do. Maybe you can’t figure out a way to get some vital plot point to happen. Regardless, it’s a feeling most writers get at some point or another, and it suggests that a story has become beyond our control.

But no story has a will of its own. If I write a brilliant first chapter of a novel, walk away to make a sandwich, go for a car ride, hang out with my wife, and come back a few hours later, the story did not write another chapter on its own. The story has no will, no impetus, no drive. The story is just an elaborate project born from my own imagination and without my imagination and drive, it ceased to go on.

What a writer often means by “I can’t get this story to do what I want” is that they can’t figure out a way to do it in a way that they find satisfying, which is a different problem. There is no problem that an author can’t magically solve with the power of a sentence or two.

I could write a Batman story where Batman gets stuck in traffic as the Joker prepares to nuke Gotham City. And I could resolve that conflict by having the Joker have a spontaneous heart attack just before he presses the detonate button. It just isn’t likely to be a classic Batman story if I do that.

Shakespeare had a guy get chased offstage by a bear.

Dickens had a character spontaneously combust.

The point is that the “reality” of fiction isn’t about reality. It’s about themes and characters and satisfying resolutions. Or unsatisfying resolutions, if that’s what you’re into.

Because fiction isn’t real, but it wants to present itself as “real”, it’s easy to mistake the necessities of reality for the presentation of “reality”. Injecting real world elements into fiction isn’t bad, but it isn’t necessary. Science-fiction and fantasy are especially capable of this.

If I’m writing a second world fantasy based on a generic medieval-ish setting, I don’t need to actually include medieval-ish politics in it. If I want to create a fantasy world where kings don’t exist and women are warriors, I can. And you can’t stop me. And I don’t even need to justify it.

If I have a nasty villain, I don’t have to make him a rapist. He might be a power mad tyrant, but he doesn’t need to be racist.

I don’t need to have mutants in my world be second class citizens. I don’t need every third supporting character hate my robot hero just for being a robot.

I don’t need to have someone underestimate Constance Verity because she’s a woman. I don’t need to threaten her with sexual violence. I don’t need to include it in her backstory. I don’t even need the threat of it.

The counter-argument will often be that this isn’t realistic. And, no, it isn’t. But neither are robots or dragons or super powers or time travel or a thousand other elements in my stories. But even less fantastical fiction isn’t any more real.

It’s not that I haven’t dabbled in many of these topics in my fiction. Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest has some discussion of racism and prejudice in it, both from the orcs and from Helen and Troy’s perspective. There’s also a bit of class commentary in The Automatic Detective.

ASIDE: A lot of readers get the mistaken impression that mutants are downtrodden in The Automatic Detective, but there’s actually no indication of such. The narrative even talks about the mutant mayor and how, in a world where anyone might become a mutant, any strong prejudice didn’t take root. There is anti-robot bias, but even that is relatively minor.

ASIDE 2: I have never included sexual assault, nor do I ever plan on it. Not only would it not fit tonally with what I tend to write, it’s also often only a tool of cheap drama by lazy, insensitive authors.

Don’t misquote me here. I’m not against these unpleasant elements in fiction. I’m only against them employed without care and thought. And I’m especially against them when they’re there for no clear reason other than the author couldn’t imagine a world without them. Or worse, because they just inserted them by unconscious reflex rather than conscious effort.

This is why I stopped reading Batman comics. At some point, it was decided that since Batman was a “realistic” superhero, he would fight rapists and serial killers and that even the goofiest members of his rogues’ gallery would suddenly be a cannibal. And some people like that, so it’s not a black-and-white thing. But I always prefer a Joker who uses laughing gas to rob the city to one that eats babies because he’s “CRAZY!”

When considering the needs of a story, it never hurts to ask “Why is this element here?” And, often, even the ugly, repellent, unpleasant elements have purpose. But sometimes, they’re just there because the author never asked the question.

I look back on some of previous books, and there are choices I regret now because I made them thoughtlessly. I’m sure time will reveal more of these flaws in my writing as I go on because that’s the nature of time. If I didn’t look back with regret, then I’m probably not learning and growing.

Never be afraid to ask “Do my story need this?”, especially of those elements you take as a must. Your writing will always be the stronger for it.



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