Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ask a question and delay the answer

I've been thinking about Lee Child's column in last Sunday's New York Times. For writers who want to learn how to create suspense, he provides a simple answer: ask a question, then make the reader wait to find out the answer. Because human beings, he says, are hard-wired to seek out answers, this set-up is all but foolproof. You can't put the book down until you know.

Obviously for the thriller genre--to the extent that such a thing exists in a pure form--that's a no-brainer. Who killed X? Will the spy get out of the country or be caught? Same with romance: here, perhaps the question is not whether the lovers will get together, but how.

But does this formula work for literary fiction? Child seems to imply that it does: writers are "told they should create attractive, sympathetic characters, so that readers will care about them deeply, and then to plunge those characters into situations of continuing peril, the descent into which is the mixing and stirring, and the duration and horrors of which are the timing and temperature." The focus on character is the standard definition for what constitutes literary fiction, although genre fiction surely benefits when its characters are believable and compelling. Yet Child says the matter is much simpler: ask, delay. That's all.

I've said before that I have trouble with the idea of character as the central feature of literary fiction. More to the point, I have a lot of trouble with the advice to "start your story with character." I know that many people do this--come up with one or more vivid character first, and then see what they start doing. But I can't do this without knowing what circumstances the character exists within. What situation, what milieu? In other words, what questions are they going to respond to? How have such questions already shaped who they are? That's one reason I feel comfortable with Child's formula. I write to try to understand something--a belief system, a moral dilemma, a relationship between people or between people and place. Yet I know that I will never really understand it. Conversely, if I believe I can fully grasp the matter, I know I shouldn't write about it. Otherwise the piece will be didactic, self-righteous, and boring.

There's no doubt that literary fiction does ask questions; in fact, you might argue that this is all it does. Unlike a whodunnit, literary fiction opens out at the end, rather than closing down. You set down a work of literature feeling satisfied, but also wondering, ruminating, generating more questions of your own. This is not necessarily a more enjoyable experience, though it may be a more edifying one. (Not that we always want to be edified.)

In other words: yes, the formula does work for literary fiction, I believe. But somehow the answer you provide also has to also be a non-answer--a believable, satisfying, and fair non-answer. Not a trick. Not a deflection, and not a refusal to grapple with the issues you've laid out. The answer should not just be unexpected in content (as it should be in any kind of suspense fiction), but also, perhaps, in form. It might call the original question into question. It might raise the question, what is an answer, anyway?

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