If you’re following this series, and you haven’t decided to protest its assertions too much, you’ve probably determined by now which of the four basic life positions you have adopted.
‘I’m happy in a happy world’
‘I’m happy in a neutral world’
‘I’m sad in a neutral world’
‘I’m sad in a sad world’
You may have either
a) seen how much that life position has affected your fiction
b) realised that you could strengthen your fiction by utilising your life position or changing it.
What does that mean?
Perhaps you’ve been writing dark short stories for some time — tales in which crimes are not resolved, or mysteries remain, or protagonists perish painfully or fail to achieve their goals. You may have thought ‘Well, that’s just the kind of thing I write these days’ and paid no more attention to it. But recognising that it’s possible that these stories have been flavoured by a narrative you have adopted in life, you may feel empowered either to write stronger versions of the same stuff or to move into new fields.
Perhaps all you’ve been able to pen are light-hearted romantic comedies. Seeing that these mainly stem from a ‘happy in a happy world’ or ‘happy in a neutral world’ position, you might feel inspired to try something different.
This is all part of 'connecting the dots’ for writers. The more connected and consistent your thoughts are about Life, the more likely it is that your fiction will be effective for readers.
We tend to think of the act of story writing as a simplistic scenario in which ‘a writer’ sits down and interfaces with ‘the imagination’, producing a piece of fiction. But if we accept the premise that as human beings we are ‘myth-making’ all the time, writing our own life narrative based on experiences that we have had and processed into some kind of shape, then the art of writing fiction is a little more complex. Yes, we still sit down and contact our imaginations — but what emerges onto the page is to some degree coloured by the narrative that we are unconsciously writing all the time, silently, ‘behind the scenes’ as it were.
An analogy of this would be what happens to a piece of writing when it is chosen to become a film script. The writer’s original novel, with all its detail and colour and depth, is taken by the movie director and his or her team and rearranged according to his or her vision, preferences and whims. The film that results is not the same as the novel — perhaps elements of it have been strengthened or removed or altered beyond recognition. But the point is that, through the ‘filter’ of the director’s perceptions, the original material is changed.
In this analogy, this original material is the raw stuff swimming around in your imagination. The ‘director’, in this case, is you, the writer. You take what is available and colour and shape it according to your own vision. That vision will be based largely upon one of the four basic positions outlined above. These correspond to the four basic genres, as we have seen:
‘I’m happy in a happy world’ = Epic
‘I’m happy in a neutral world’ = Comedy
‘I’m sad in a neutral world’ = Tragedy
‘I’m sad in a sad world’ = Irony
Often in moviemaking, or course, a director chooses material to be made into films based on his or her own preferences in the first place. So, for example, John Boulting’s British film noir Brighton Rock was based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name. It’s not that Boulting personally shared Greene’s lifelong philosophical vision — actually Boulting and his brother Roy were famous for comedy films — but that he saw that he could make an effective film from Greene’s material. For the period involved in producing that film, Boulting filtered Greene's novel through a 'dark but ultimately redemptive' viewpoint which amounted to the tragic ‘I’m sad in a neutral world’ position. The director's and the novelist's viewpoints in this case resonated and a classic film was produced.
That resonance doesn't always vibrate so closely. There are plenty of examples of films where the director's and the writer's visions were at variance. But that's another topic. For now, the analogy is useful as an analogy.
As writers, we ‘select’ material from our imaginations based on a viewpoint which we have consciously or unconsciously — and most likely the latter — assumed as part of making sense of our lives. We are like directors searching through our imaginations for the material to make into our ‘films’ — but our predispositions lead us to select certain images, themes, emotions, messages and so forth, and reject others.
Our life narratives bear other similarities to those we see in fiction, though, as we shall discover.