In my fiction workshop last week, I received a story in which a character speaks with directness, clarity, and precision, comparing his mother’s parenting style to his wife’s parenting style, much to the chagrin of his wife. It’s a key moment in the story. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the least believable. The problem is the directness, the clarity, and the precision.
This may seem counterintuitive. Like many writing teachers, I am forever urging my students to be more direct, clear, and precise. Just not in dialogue. This gets at a fundamental difference between fiction and non-fiction and their relationship to reality. (NOTE: For the remainder of this letter, when I speak of non-fiction I am omitting “creative non-fiction,” which is usually defined as non-fiction that uses the techniques of fiction.)
When we write non-fiction, we take the complex and impossibly messy stuff of the world and boil it down to something manageable and think-about-able. Persuasive writers plunge into the thicket of argument and counter-argument, informative writers plunge into the jungle of history or psychology or string theory or biology, and they cut a path where the reader can follow. The non-fiction writer engineers obviousness where obviousness doesn’t otherwise present itself. (Indeed, where obviousness does present itself, you don’t need a writer.)
Consider how a diagram works: it takes information from the world God made and puts it in a form that looks and feels nothing like real life–but a form that the human mind finds much easier to grasp. A diagram doesn’t purport to mimic human experience. Indeed, the clarity and precision of a diagram derives from the very fact that it doesn’t attempt to create the illusion of reality.
In a much less exaggerated way, non-fiction tends to move in the same direction–from multifarious, often confusing reality toward clarity and precision. In an important sense, non-fiction doesn’t claim to re-create experience–which comes to us through the senses–but to translate experience into something that the cerebral (non-sensory) brain can grasp.
Fiction, however, moves in a different direction. In fiction we are trying to mimic experience. The fiction writer is a prestidigitator, creating the illusion of reality by presenting information to the reader the way it comes to us in real life–through the senses. A good fiction writer is always trying to move from the cerebral (the outline, the plot diagram, the checklist, the idea, the moral, the message) to the sensory.
If you’ve lived very long in the world, you know that experience and understanding tend not to come to us with directness, clarity, and precision. You receive sensory inputs, and then the figuring-out parts of your brain go to work. You see the empty cereal box in the cabinet, and then the understanding dawns on you: Aha! A teenager has been eating breakfast in this kitchen. (Someone has observed that an empty cereal box is the only thing a teenager ever puts back where he found it.) You smell smoke and it dawns on you that the house is on fire; then it dawns on you that it’s just the salmon you left under the broiler while you went to fold a few clothes.
More to the point, when you talk to people, you listen to what they say, but you don’t truly take their words at face value. You are always interpreting their body language, judging their reliability, guessing their motives, determining whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Even when people are trying to be direct, clear, and precise in their speech, they aren’t very good at it. And much of the time, they aren’t trying.
So then, for a writer who is trying to create the illusion of reality, directness, clarity, and precision can be a liability–especially in dialogue.
I’m not letting you fiction-writers off the hook. Your sentences need to be clear and precise…mostly. But whereas a non-fiction writer values directness, clarity, and precision above all, the fiction writer must value the illusion of reality a little more highly. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if fiction doesn’t convince at the sensory level–if it doesn’t feel like experience in the world God made–it’s not going to convince at any other level either. No matter how good your ideas or worthwhile your message, none of it will get through to your reader if you break the illusion of reality. Where directness and clarity break that illusion, they have to go.
I started this letter by talking about a story in which a character’s directness breaks the illusion of reality. I want to end the letter by returning to that story in order to solidify the ideas I’ve been discussing here.
Picture a dining room scene with three rowdy kids, an exhausted, stretched-thin, stay-at-home mother, and a father who has breezed in late from work, just in time for supper. The mother tells the father that their son has gotten in trouble at school again. She’s hoping that this is the time her husband will finally step in and join her in the day-in-day-out grind of managing these kids. Instead, she gets this speech from him:
“Actually, that reminds me…My mom mentioned something last time I talked with her about our problems with Sam. She said she really couldn’t understand what we’re going through because the teachers always raved about how good we were. She thinks maybe it has to do with her volunteering at the school so much and just being around, always keeping an eye on things. She was our school cook for a while, you know?”
Boy, did Sarah know. None of this came as surprise. Jeff had a stellar resume as far as his mom was concerned. Sarah, not so much.
Ok. I love the relational dynamic that the writer has set up here. The ideas are good. This speech tells us a lot about motive, backstory, relational baggage. But these things are expressed so directly and clearly that it feels as if the writer is talking to me. It doesn’t feel like I am overhearing a married couple talking to one another.
Watch what happens when Jeff is less direct:
“Have you thought about maybe volunteering at the kids’ school?”
Sarah stared at her husband, her mouth half-open, her forkful of meatloaf hovering at chin level.
“Like, in the lunchroom or something?” Jeff continued, with a little less confidence.
Sarah put down her fork. Slowly. Deliberately. Her eyes narrowed. “Let me get this straight,” she said. For the first time since they had gotten home from school, all three kids were still, quiet, listening. “Let me get this straight,” Sarah repeated. “Your solution is for me to get more involved in the kids’ lives. Not you. ME.”
“I’m just saying, I remember what it was like when Tim and I were in school. We were scared to get in any trouble.” He chuckled. He seemed to think this was amusing. “Because Mom was always up there, volunteering in the lunchroom or PTA or something.”
“Yeah, my mom. Last time, when we got that note about Sam, she said maybe it would help if you were at the school more.”
“Is that right?” There was menace in Sarah’s voice. “Well, here’s an idea, Jeff. How about if, instead of talking to your mother about our child-rearing, you talked to me every once in a while.”
That version, I think, conveys all the same ideas, but because it is indirect in the way that real-life conversations are indirect, it maintains the illusion that we are eavesdropping on a conversation. Ironically, sometimes by writing with less directness, clarity, and precision, we end up conveying more information, not less.