Viewing Creative Writing Choices as a Spectrum, Rather Than “Either-Or”

1285311_direction_signsWhen we talk about writing, there is so much discussion about “This” versus “That.” Today I wanted to get a discussion started about how faulty and how limiting that kind of thought is.

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.

Think about:

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.”


17 responses to “Viewing Creative Writing Choices as a Spectrum, Rather Than “Either-Or”

  1. Your posts are very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Good post. People should be able to write freely!

  3. Great post. I couldn’t say my stories lean in either direction. They have a lot of action, but each character has a philosophy that they abide by. One is determined to be a great hero, another struggles to decide if she’s a true being or a living weapon of the gods, and the list keeps going. I think philosophy helps flush out characters and deepen the world and story, so it’s almost a necessity.

    • ooh the whole “does having a divine purpose destroy free will” argument. Fun. Personally I know how I feel about that but it makes a lot of sense to think someone could struggle with that and struggle a lot. Especially someone doing “big” things.

      • It’s a big part of the series because the God of Destiny is the major player in Windemere. Yet it’s not so cut and dry. The heroes are destined to enter the final battle in some form (ghosts and damaged bodies count), but there is no guarantee that they’ll win or survive. So all of them wonder if there’s a point to planning a long life and making connections if they’re going to die within a year or two. It makes for some interesting character interactions since each one is handling it differently.

  4. Both this post and your last have clarified a great deal in my mind as to how I’ve been writing. In fact, in trying to describe my fiction, I’ve been inclined to list “philosophical” as one of the genres (“religious” tends to scare people).

    I have a 15-year-old who reads 4-5 YA books a week during the summer, and she’s become more attuned quite recently to the underlying morals presented in the storylines. While many of her friends love certain series, she’s been putting them away after the second or third chapter because she’s put off by the philosophies and morals (or lack thereof) being promoted.

    I feel keenly that I have a duty in what I write to promote that which I personally believe, and if that is “off-putting” to some, so be it. However, I’ve also heard from many readers–not of my particular religious persuasion–who have found my approach and stories to be “refreshing,” “surprising,” and “a welcomed change from everything out there.” (I keep those responses in a special file!) We have to write true to our beliefs, our ideals, and our philosophies; I think that’s when writing becomes truly cathartic and shockingly fun.

    • Love what you say here. And I feel the same way about my fiction. I write about a fantasy world, but the characters I admire and I hope my readers admire share my values and beliefs, and their actions demonstrate that. So they don’t jump in bed with one another at every opportunity (for instance), though they might feel tempted, because they recognize that might not be the wisest decision for any number of reasons. You daughter sounds wise beyond her years. Kudos to her!

  5. I had never really thought about it before but now that I am, I see that It’s true that every story has at least some small bit of philosophy in it.
    I think it would be hard to impossible to write anything as pure action, your readers would have to be kept in the dark about who was fighting and why… possibly even with what kind of weapons too, because wouldn’t a battle between arrows and machine guns be a bit of philosophy?
    Just my odd thoughts, thanks for the thought provoking post.

  6. Great post. I view stories as unbiased truths. I find that authors that embrace the idea that each choice a character makes is insight into their beliefs tend to have more mature works.

    A good example is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of The Fallen series. Philosophy and action go hand in hand; any action has a philosophy behind it.

    The fact that we chose to comment and the content we provided is insight into our own beliefs. Very thoughtful post you’ve given me something to think about while I read tonight. Thanks!

    • thanks for sharing your thoughts! this was really insightful and I think what you say here is very true. We see characters grow and evolve as they begin to question why they are making the choices they are making.

  7. Pingback: Narration vs Dialgoue: A Clear-Cut Distinction? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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