Three Lessons From Fiction Writing


I haven't been writing seriously for long, and it's not like I do it professionally or anything, but having the ability to get feedback from a lot of different people I couldn't help but notice certain patterns. And that got me thinking.

In Western cultures, entertainment operates on the idea that audiences are merciless, and that the slightest imperfection in the show you're putting on will earn you a face full of rotten tomatoes. Everything has to be planned, rehearsed, cosmetized... and ultimately fake.

Well, that's bunk. Most of your public won't even notice small faults, and in any event they'll forgive anything that doesn't outright ruin the fun. If anything, it's artificiality that will drive them away. So dare to act human. I noted before how Japanese cinema ends up feeling more sincere precisely in this way. I used to think involuntary humor was a bad thing. Not anymore.

(On a related note, see this moving TED talk by Amanda Palmer.)

On the other hand, I'm often tempted to leave things unsaid, usually at the end. Let the reader picture things for themselves and draw their own conclusions, you know? After all, if fiction is a dialogue between author and audience, then you have to leave something for the audience to say, right?

Not really. People hate being left to guess. Even when a missing piece of the puzzle is perfectly obvious from the context, they still want to see it there for their own peace of mind. Remember the first Matrix movie? Nobody thought that was a proper ending. And the one in Inception had people arguing for years. You'd think people don't like to draw their own conclusions...

On a related note, what is left unsaid often makes people more curious than what's in the story. As a friend once told me, "your photos make me want to see what's outside the frame". Indeed, after reading my story Second contact?, several readers asked me to write more stories set in that world. Which I would gladly do, only you see, the world isn't really all that interesting beyond the details I put there to make my point. But my readers didn't care about the point.

Last but not least, unless you're writing purely escapist literature, at some point you'll want to put in a character or more who hold beliefs different from your own, so you can discuss those beliefs through counterpoints. Except you can't, because the public can't tell the author apart from the characters.

In an early draft of my latest story, Sufficiently Advanced Technology?, the protagonist was saying at some point: "He's a hacker. Tricking computers is what he does." To which another friend of mine promptly pointed out that hacker does not mean a black hat programmer, that's just a brain bug created and perpetuated by the media. And I know that very well, but you see, my protagonist isn't me. Isn't he allowed to be ignorant, at least until he learns better?

Apparently not; I had to change the line to "he's a hacker; tricking computers is well within his abilities". Which I guess puts my protagonist in a better light, but it also makes him that much less believable. Real people have faults! Are we so unforgiving that one wrongly held opinion would have made him into a villain? Or me, for that matter?

You'd think not, after what I wrote above. But sometimes I have doubts.