4

Here's an example from my own writing:

Watching the ceiling fan stir my thoughts, I said, “His favorite thing was to tell me about his day.”

Mrs. Saeki gawked at me behind her square glasses. “Unusual from a husband.”

I nodded. “And they were all about little things. You know, how he picked his polka tie instead of the stripped one. What mobile games he played on his way to work. Why he called me at four and not at five.”

“You didn’t feel bored?”

I shook my head. “When you love someone, nothing that person does is boring.”

I could have written the bolded part as: "Because I loved him, nothing he did was boring to me."

What's usually better* in fiction? The original version of the passage or the second one? (a personal statement or an universal one?)

`* By better I mean which one touches the reader more deeply? Which one is considered better writing?

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    This heavily depends on the character itself. Is this someone that is known for speaking rhetorically? Someone that is very intelligent? – Kyle Li Apr 1 '17 at 15:54
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    As a matter of interest, don't you think 'unusual from a husband' is as much a universal statement as the one about love? – Spagirl Apr 3 '17 at 12:03
  • Interesting. When I read this I found the 'unusual from a husband' statement to sound sarcastic. Also the general statement 'when you love someone...' to sound like an insecure platitude that she is saying to convince herself. The individual version I would have read as sincere. – NomadMaker Jun 28 '18 at 13:18
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The point of fiction is not to make statements. If you want to make statements, write an essay. The point of fiction is to give the reader an experience.

The reader may, of course, reach a conclusion as a result of a fictional experience, just as they may reach a conclusion as the result of a real experience. In fact, we are far more often convinced of the truth of an idea when we reach it by experience, rather than simply being told it. Actually, it is very hard to get people to accept an idea, however well argued, if it does not match their experience.

So what you should be asking yourself in the passage above is, do you really want to drag your implication into the open in the way you would be doing in either version? By doing so, you move from persuasion by experience to persuasion by argument, which is a much weaker form of persuasion. Even though the words are in the mouth of a character, and even though people might actually say things just like this in real life, the effect is still to drop up out of the story world into the world of authorial preaching. We recognize that here it is the voice of the author coming from the character's lips.

There are a couple of reason why authors drop into authorial preaching:

The first is that they do not trust the reader to draw the right conclusion for themselves. Making their argument is, to them, more important than really examining what lived experience is really like. They have a point to make, and they want to make sure the reader gets it. But this always results in weak storytelling because the writer's focus in not on story but on argument.

The second is to pander to the audience. People have a tremendous appetite for having their opinions and prejudices confirmed. In fact, there is a pretty strong movement in the criticism of literature, TV, and movies today to demand that a certain set of orthodox opinions be directly and strongly affirmed. (This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. The demand for authors to demonstrate orthodoxy and piety is as old as humanity; only the gods change.)

So, if you want to pander, the universal statement is probably stronger. But if you are inserting these comments because you don't trust the audience, then trust them and focus more of your energy on portraying the lived experience as truthfully as you can, rather than forcing conclusions on the reader.

There is something very powerful about restraining yourself from overt authorial preaching and sticking to the creation of an experience. If you create a genuine experience then even those who would draw a different conclusion from the experience can still be moved by your work. If you force your argument into the open, however, you will lose all those readers. You can only preach to the choir, but people will sing songs they don't agree with for the sheer joy of singing.

For example, we can read The Grapes of Wrath and be moved by it, even if we don't share Steinbeck's socialist sympathies. We can read Dickens and be moved by him, even though most of the social causes he espoused are moot now. Although both authors had a point, they focused on creating an experience and let their audience draw their own conclusions. Thus their influence lives on long after their causes have been settled. And thus, also, they changed a lot of minds by experience that would never have been changed by argument.

To hold the attention of those who oppose us by the sheer compulsion of the experience we create is our greatest privilege and power as novelists. We should not squander it by making our arguments overt.

  • Could you please create an account and post on: medium.com? You're creative insight deserves more audience. – alex Apr 1 '17 at 17:56
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    @alex: A serious writer cannot afford to confuse your with you’re. – Tom Zych Apr 1 '17 at 18:51
  • @Tom Zych A serious writer is not the one who doesn't make mistakes. It's the one who corrects them. This applies to being human too. – alex Apr 1 '17 at 20:00
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    Good thing Mark posted his lengthy and worthwhile reply. When I read the question (and before I read any replies) I was tempted to write "Stop making statements!" in bold capitals (result: 20 downvotes, I'm sure). But to echo @KyleLi 's observation (above): Some characters might resort to cosmic generalities when they speak. This is not necessarily a sign of intelligence. – user23046 Apr 1 '17 at 21:59
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    ' We recognize that here it is the voice of the author coming from the character's lips.' But is that necessarily true? I can think of people in fiction for whom it is characteristic to make 'personal statements' which are clearly not the views of the author. Perhaps we have different understandings of what @alex meant by 'personal statement'. – Spagirl Apr 3 '17 at 12:00
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It depends on what you want to accomplish with the scene, and the character.

Neither one is better writing per se. They do have slightly different tones, and slightly different meanings.

"When you love someone" is your first-person narrator speaking in second person to make his/her sentiment universal. S/he is saying "when any person loves someone, nothing the beloved person does is boring to the lover." It's casual and doesn't portend anything — it's descriptive. It's also in the present tense, so the implication is that the description applies right now, at the moment the story is taking place.

"Because I loved him" is your first-person narrator talking very specifically about his/her emotions towards his/her husband. While I realize we're seeing this snippet out of context, the past tense makes me wonder if the husband is dead or if the couple is separated/divorced. I loved him, not I love him. There's a wee bit of negative foreshadowing here, which intrigues me.

If you want to "touch" your reader, again, it depends on what you want the reader to feel. If the narrator still loves his/her husband, and this is part of showing that sentiment, I'd go with the universal wording. If they are not together for whatever reason, then you'd need the specific phrasing, because the experience of love not being boring is in the past for these two.

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