Art is self-expression. Writing is art. And while any kind of art will have natural boundaries and limits built in by its very nature, it’s not always healthy to impose unnecessary boundaries.
There are so many things we talk about as cases of “either-or,” when really, what exists is a spectrum between two things, a spectrum that blends and combines elements of opposing styles to varying degrees as the story, author, and scene dictate.
Philosophical fiction versus “Action” fiction
I wrote about this yesterday, in a post that discusses how we approach these two varieties of fiction differently, both as readers and writers.
The thing is, fiction is rarely ever purely philosophical or purely about action, story, and plot. As readers of my last post (rightly) argued in their comments, by the nature of the term “philosophical fiction,” all fiction that tends to be philosophical involves making an argument or developing a philosophy through the use of story. So story factors in to SOME degree, always.
A story can be philosophical to a great degree and still be an engaging, action-packed story. Philosophical fiction doesn’t have to be two characters discussing the merits of adopting the Catholic worldview versus the materialist world-view, for instance, though I suppose it could be.
Even Chesterton’s “The Ball and the Cross,” which has some scenes that could be described exactly as I note above, has a story attached. Heck, there are scenes where the major two characters–the Catholic and the Atheist–both dream that they are “rescued” from an asylum by Satan (whom they don’t recognize at first) and with whom they debate in an air-machine, both refuting the arguments he makes and ultimate deciding to jump out, quite possibly to their deaths, rather than keep on with him.
That is STORY and PLOT attached to philosophy. I was so gripped: was this just a dream, or was it real? Would they really die? Would this experience convert the Atheist when all said and done?
The opposite also holds true: even the most “storied” of stories make a point about life. They argue something. They present some things as good and favorable, and others as worthy of disdain or rejection.
If you are interested in reading about the moral obligation of the author–about the idea that all fiction, all stories, are in essence philosophical and have a moral weight attached to them–I’d direct you to Wayne Booth’s “The Rhetoric of Fiction.” I read this book in grad school. It is really eye-opening.
Don’t get the impression that Booth is preachy. He is not, at all. In fact, I have no idea what philosophies of life he held or what his religious beliefs, or lack thereof, were. This is not a religious book.
It explores, academically, the concept that fiction must, of necessity, make SOME kind of philosophical argument by the simple fact that characters choose some course over another, and that the implied author (more on that here) demonstrates either approval or disapproval of those choices.
Anyway, focusing on philosophy versus story/plot in fiction is truly a spectrum. It is NOT a case of either/or. More than anything it is a balance that we keep throughout the novel as a whole and throughout individual scenes, some of which may lean more in one direction than other scenes, some of which may lean more in one direction than the novel as a whole.
So, what do you think? I expect a lot of people will agree with this assessment, as comments on my last post tended to promote the view of a spectrum. Do you think your fiction leans MORE toward being philosophical or being action-centered? Or is it somewhere in between? There’s no right or wrong here, just personal preferences.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Next time I want to talk about “showing” versus “telling” as another spectrum case, not an “either-or” situation. And if you like this concept of spectrum, you might like this post on the style spectrum of minimalist/ornate (or as I call it, Hemingway/Faulkner).
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”