Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure – Kate's Rules of Commercial Fiction Part One

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure novels from the eighties? Low-tech fictional Dungeons and Dragons copy-cats where you theoretically had control of the outcome of the book: e.g.
Do you: a) kiss the handsome prince? (turn to page 71)
or b) kneecap the handsome prince (turn to page 4).

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).

It's all about choices...

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.
Let me explain why I think that. Why do we read fiction, rather than useful non-fiction on carpentry or household budgeting? I’ve done some reading about story-telling, and the reasons why stories recur in different cultures, (for the experts on this, try googling The Hero’s Journey or Christopher Booker’s huge and slightly exhausting book, The Seven Basic Plots), and one strong theory is that stories provide a way of understanding the world, and perhaps a map or model for children to enable us to grow into adults who will make calculated risks? Obviously, there’s much more to it – community bonding/sharing, etc. – but this theory that stories work as a framework to help us understand what it is to be human is a compelling one.

Science has the answer...or does it?
Now, of course, we have unprecedented access to information about the world – we’ve got Google Earth and Robert Winston and Stephen Hawking and the Met Office to prove that thunder isn’t caused by angry Gods, and that our planet is spherical and we won’t fall off the end if we get to the rainbow. But each generation has new challenges – for women in the west, the last few decades have been all about juggling, about career, and friendship, and travel, and fitting it in, or choosing to ignore, the ticking of that biological clock.

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?
The status quo

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.
And maybe, just occasionally, reading something that changes the way you see your own....

Next time: why passivity is the kiss of death for your heroes and heroines.

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Blogger Jan Jones said...

That's one hell of a good theory, Kate. Trying on other people's lives.

Shall think about that some more.

1:03 pm  
Blogger Calistro said...

Excellent article Kate and really thought provoking. I think you're right - we do look at the character's decisions and wonder if we'd do the same thing (often urging the character on to do what we think she should do or mentally shouting at her if she doesn't!). I also think a lot of fiction is about living vicariously. It's like when you're in a relationship and one of your single friends is dating. You hang onto every word when they reel off their latest dating hell story, partly because it's fascinating, partly because it's not something you'll probably never experience again (if your relationship is solid!)and partly because it makes you relive your own dating memories.

1:53 pm  
Blogger Melissa said...

In TSUNAMI by Gordon Gumpertz, I was able to really place myself into the main characters mind and life. It seemed so real, I canceled my walk on the beach this evening. LOL

It's definitely a thrilling experience if that is the sort of thing you like.

10:12 pm  
Blogger Mummy said...

Excellent and thought provoking blog, Kate and I think you are probably right. I think escapism coupled with the heroine's decisions and actions are the two main ingredients. I certainly felt like that when I read Brown Owl's Guide to Life. It was lovely to escape to the lives of the characters but the heroine's feelings were very close to my own in many ways. You did an excellent job :)

12:57 pm  
Blogger Becky said...

I will have to agree with you Kate. I think we do read fictional books to try on other people's lives for a couple of hours- whether their lives be better or worse. I just finished reading Linda Overman's newest novel "Letter's Between Us," scheduled to come out October 6th (I was able to preread before it's release date :-)). I would have to say that the reason why this book enthralled me so much is because of the friendship that the two main characters had, and the drama that they went through! I don't know if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I like drama, but since my life is not as exciting as theirs- I loved it!

8:40 am  
Blogger jh said...

Hi Kate

A very interesting post about writing issues I'm facing at the moment - thanks for this. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on why letting your characters be passive is the kiss of death! I'm sooo guilty of letting my characters be tossed around by the external plot and am glad to hear it’s a common problem with new writers. Now I think about it, I can't believe how obvious it is. Who wants to live vicariously through a character who's doesn't do anything?

J x

11:01 am  
Blogger KAREN said...

I'm definitely guilty of creating characters who are far too sensible and reasonable - I need to shake them up a bit. Great post :o)

5:24 pm  
Anonymous Scott Pack said...

I bought a bunch of these books, the original ones, for my son last Christmas. He didn't really go for them so I am going to recycle them on his younger sister.

Aren't all novels really just these books but with the choices made by the author? It would be fascinating to read the alternatives they rejected.

10:45 am  
Blogger Kate Lord Brown said...

Dear Lord that book jacket is terrifying - look at the fear in that little boy/girl's face! It wouldn't be allowed now ... Brilliant post, lots to think about.

6:58 pm  

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