And Don’t Even Get Me Started on “Reality TV”
Last weekend I attended a series of writing workshops led by international bestselling author Gail Anderson-Dargatz. If you have never been in a roomful of aspiring writers, it will be impossible to transmit to you precisely the mixture of fragile-yet-overconfident egotism, timid dignity, and embarrassed self-promotion that characterizes such events. Writers both crave attention and despise pointed scrutiny. We want to be adored from a safe distance on our own terms, kind of like cats. I’m totally projecting here.
One of the more interesting topics that came up was about readers’ expectations of realism in fiction. I’ve always been a bit baffled by the criticism that a certain book or movie is sub-par because it isn’t “realistic”. What do people want, a blow-by-blow documentary of Mr. Ordinary’s daily routine at the styrofoam peanut factory? Here. I’m gonna go watch me some Jurassic Park 3D.
But no, I hear you protest, that’s not what they mean. People simply expect things to make sense within the context of the story. The plot should have its own internal logic and consistency. Sure, fine, that’s all well and good, but it’s not realistic. Reality doesn’t work in neat little packages like that. Reality is random, inconsistent and often nonsensical.
Hell, half the time I can’t even ascribe any sense or purpose to the things I myself am doing. Why did I just spend ten minutes reading a conversation on Facebook between three people I barely know and then twenty further minutes Googling bilateral gynandromorphy in chickens? I have no freaking idea. I bet if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize you do equally pointless things every day too.
Somehow, over the centuries, our collective imagination decided that the messy ambiguities of real life need to be rearranged into sensible three-act plot lines that move steadily and predictably towards a logical climax. This structure isn’t just commonplace, it is literally everywhere in our culture, in every type of narrative that we consume: books, theatre, film, television, video games, magazines, blogs, documentaries, biographies, religious sermons, operas, dance productions, sports events, pop music, celebrity interviews, trashy talk shows, advertisements. It isn’t the only story structure, but it is by far the most prevalent.
It has become so automatic that we even expect it out of actual reality. We expect stories in the news about accidents, crimes and natural disasters to make sense. We expect to learn the set-up of how these things happen, a reasonable explanation about why they happen, and then a tidy conclusion in the aftermath. The media does its best to deliver.
We also expect to find narrative structure in our own lives: purpose, direction, a Hollywood ending. We need to believe that our existence is fundamentally meaningful. We turn to religion, histories, aphorisms, or allegories to make sense – literally to create meaning – out of our lives. The alternative would be to embrace the terrifying thought that what happens to us is mostly totally random.
So in order to be successful, a writer has to hit just the right note on the reality scale. Readers want stories that reflect reality – but not real reality, only the kind of “reality” that humanity has decided is the most palatable.
I didn’t mean for this to turn out so gloomy. Does it sound like I think life is meaningless? I don’t. I think “meaning” is a human concept that doesn’t exist outside of our own definition of it. I think life is its own meaning. Personally, I find purpose in my life by viewing it as an opportunity to learn and experience as much as I can, and hopefully do some good along the way.