Choose Your Own Adventure – Kate's Rules of Commercial Fiction Part One
I had one that was meant to take you through the Maze at Hampton Court palace and I never got the the middle. Frustrating. But can you imagine writing one? It takes a strange, mathematical kind of brain. According to Wiki, the books are being relaunched, and there have been more recent women's fiction examples, which I must admit I’ve never felt the desire to buy. It just seems too much like hard work, all that flicking back and forth (might be significantly easier and more fun on the Kindle or the Sony Reader, though, I guess).
At this year’s Romantic Novelists' Association conference in Chichester, we were discussing what makes fiction compelling and I remembered those CYOA books. And suddenly it occurred to me why I always preferred linear fiction to these books…
Because all fiction is choose your own adventure.
OK. Maybe I need to qualify that – all commercial fiction has a strong element of choose your own adventure.
Women, studies show, read more fiction than men, and though the kind of fiction I write is often derided, women still read it in their millions. Why?
I think it’s because we want to live vicariously though our heroines or heroes – we want to face the decisions they face (maybe they echo the ones in our lives, or perhaps they’re against the backdrop of another time in history or another place in the world) and ask ourselves constantly – what would we do in his or her shoes?
None of this is rocket science, but it was a really interesting thing for me to think about, because it made me understand why it always works to increase the drama or tension or difficulty of the situation or choices my heroine faces – the reader loves to see the character on the rack, because it challenges her too. I have a hunch that this identification is greater with first person narration, which is why it is so often used in women’s fiction.
As writers we need to keep this in mind, raising the stakes so that our characters’ dilemmas are as engaging as possible. What would you do it…you lost the job that is the only important thing in your life? Your domineering mother dies and now you can stand up for yourself – if you dare? You come close to death – and realise you need to reconsider whether your old life is still the one you want now you’ve been given a second chance?
In real life, we frequently do nothing. We hate being overweight, but we hate dieting more. We internalise arguments with our family rather than facing up to them. We stay in jobs, relationships, situations we don’t enjoy, because we’re scared.
Fiction allows us to contrast our choices with those of a heroine who MUST do something, who is placed in a situation where inaction isn’t an option (a story must have action, after all). Even if we don’t have the option of choosing between kissing or kneecapping the handsome prince, we feel her dilemmas and we wonder if we’d have done the same…Critics of women’s fiction (horrible term but I haven’t found a better one) say it’s pure escapism. Of course, escapism can be an element – and what’s the problem with that anyway? – but I think it’s about more than that. It’s about trying out other people’s lives – and choices – on for size.
Next time: why passivity is the kiss of death for your heroes and heroines.