Fictivity and the Path Out Of The Labyrinth
Writing fiction is a wild thing.
Writers who just want to write can do whatever they like. They can take words, or even letters, and put them in any order; they can even make up letters of their own. If they form words, they can string them together randomly for as long as they like. Whole paragraphs, chapters, page upon page, can be devised in whichever way they wish, if they just want to write.
Just like a painter can take a brush and splash colours at random over a canvas, so a writer can ‘scribble’ whatever he or she wishes, if the primary desire is simply to write.
However, if the desire is to communicate, then other factors enter in.
Whatever is written has to use symbols that are recognisable and translatable to another, hence letters; those letters need to form words which will be spelled in such a way that another can interpret them. Sentences have to be constructed using some kind of transmittable syntax; they have to be strung together following the principles of a common grammar, using recognisable punctuation. And to communicate anything beyond the obvious or bland, to have emotional impact, lasting or not, they have to make use of the often-hidden patterns which readers crave when they read.
Writers can by all means write for themselves, alone. This is worthy and can be therapeutic. Most writers, though, write in order to communicate something. Usually this isn’t ‘just’ an idea - if it were, they could simply scribble the idea on a piece of paper and have done with it. It’s more often than not a theme or set of ideas or a viewpoint which they need to communicate not just literally but figuratively - in other words, not merely using the language of logic and reason, but using the symbols and imagery of the imagination and emotion.
There are four aspects to this thing called ‘writing’. The first is, in essence, reading - having words, language and ideas flow inwardly and become assimilated; the second is writing with the intention to communicate to another; the third is the observation of other writing affecting other readers; and the fourth is writing for oneself alone, without expectation or need of others.
When writers have difficulties, it is usually because of some misunderstanding to do with these aspects. Perhaps they have failed to take in and process enough from the writings around them (which is why many master authors suggest that a writer who hopes to be successful should read profusely); perhaps they have written to communicate to others but haven’t developed the skills to do so; they may have failed to observe what other writers have done and its effect upon other readers; and - and this is very common - they may have written something which pleases them but which doesn’t communicate to others. There are other tangles amongst these four aspects, too. But it should be clear that a writer who has not read nor observed enough writing may jump to conclusions as to how it is done. One may also and easily fall into the trap of thinking that what is considered adequate for oneself to read will be welcomed by others.
What many writers need is a pathway out of the labyrinth of delusion into which they may easily wander: they need a set of guidelines which are based on a) having read enough of others’ work to establish some basic principles and b) observations of the effects that other writers have created on others over the ages. They need basic training in how to put words, images and ideas together in long-established patterns so that readers will be affected in the way in which the author intended.
Fictivity - the physics of fiction - is a workable pathway out of this potential maze. But writers must first recognise that they are lost before a guidebook will assume its correct importance.
Forty years of close study of literature has gone into the subject called Fictivity It has been shown to lead out of the labyrinth. Having understood its basics, a writer can look at any piece of fiction and immediately tell what it is about that piece which is working - and what it is which is not. That includes a writer’s own work.
A competent editor, knowing these principles, is going to be obliged to point out to any writer those things which are working in that writer’s work and those things which are letting that writer down. A writer’s self-satisfaction with a piece of writing is often not enough of a guide to judge whether or not its basic ideas and power will communicate to readers - as we have seen above, writers can get confused between writing what pleases them and what pleases another.
But here’s the magic: when the principles of Fictivity are applied, the result is not that a writer feels as though his or her ‘integrity’ has been violated. Fictivity does not demand that. If applied correctly, Fictivity produces stories which are not only more satisfactory to the reader, they are far more satisfactory to the writer. In other words, Fictivity teaches the writer the underlying principles which he or she was searching for all along.
How does it do this?
Stay tuned for a step-by-step breakdown. But if you're keen, read How Stories Really Work as a primer.