Friday, February 15, 2019

Warning: Writer's Message Ahead! The Dangers of Platforms in Fiction and Memoir

One of my students is writing his first novel, a work of historical fiction that he has researched carefully.  He became interested in the real subject of this story many years ago and has been on a fast track ever since, learning how to create a strong and engaging tale while staying as true as possible to the facts behind it. 

When he attended my writing retreat last February in Tucson, we discussed ways to integrate the facts of the era and politics into his story.  So much good material, so many great bits to bring in, but how much is right for the story--and what's just for him, in his own fascination with it? 

Nonfiction writers (not memoirists, but those writing about facts and the interpretation of facts) have a lot of leeway here.  Readers expect information, are reading for it.  But with novels and memoirs, readers read for story--to engage with character, time, place, and dilemma. The facts behind the story must be woven in seamlessly so the reader doesn't come out of the "dream," as novelist John Gardener once called it.  But writers are bursting to share what they know, from all that research.  

Here's another dilemma:  the subject of the story carried weight in his era, maybe changed many lives, maybe influenced history.  The writer has an opinion about that--the subject was good, not so good, downright awful.  But if the writer presents his opinion as he tells the story, it leaves the reader out of the equation.  We can't make up our minds; we have someone "interpreting" for us.  This often makes readers mad, at worst.  At best, they become disengaged emotionally, because the writer is already providing all the emotion.  

But you need to write with passion.  You need to be invested, even fascinated, in your topic, right?  How do you infuse the writing with this passion yet back off enough so there's no sense of "platform" communicated to the reader?

By "platform" I mean a message the writer intends to impart.  An opinion or strong belief about what we should take away from the story.  

Again, how do you divest yourself of opinions about your story?

Say you're writing a memoir or novel about abuse or another terrible event based in your past.  Maybe you initially write for the catharsis, the revenge of saying, at last, what you wanted to say years ago.  But the reader feels a message, a platform, a kind of preaching inside the story.  It says, This is what you should take away from your reading.  It's good if the writer can acknowledge this initial stage as writing more for the self than truly for a reader.  It might take years to pass through this portal, to let go of the need to have a message, a platform, and allow the story to tell itself.  

Or say you believe in the evil or goodness of your real-life main character.  You want to make sure the reader gets this quality, above all others.  Again, you are stepping between the story and your reader.  It's tricky to write both pure heroes and villains.  Very few engaging characters are that black or white.  It's up to the writer to dig deeper and find the balancing traits to make this character human to us.  Weaving in flaws and small kindness into the person's story allows us to engage as readers.

I write with platform, intention, message early in my writing process.  It's inevitable--I have opinions and enthusiasms I want to convey.  Eventually, as the drafts mature, I release my need to stand on anything and be heard as the writer; I let the story tell itself.

If you can recognize when and how you are doing this in your own book journey, it is a sign that you're bringing the reader into the conversation.  A very good sign.  

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