This applies to many people, about many things, but especially so for novelists. No matter how literary or curious the reader, pleasure remains the novel’s purpose. If readers want judgment, there’s plenty of philosophy or scripture to peruse. If readers seek information or education, there’s plenty of stellar nonfiction out there. Where does fiction fall on this continuum?
Tip: Share what’s on your mind, so long as it doesn’t feel like school or synagogue.
Don’t let anything upstage the entertainment. That’s easy to forget, because storytelling grew from painfully didactic roots: Greek drama threatened the dire results of hubristic arrogance, and Samuel Richardson (Pamela) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) respectively outlined how to be a virtuous woman or man. These plays and novels remain historically and aesthetically valuable, but today’s audience usually rejects an onslaught of oversimplified morality.
Because many see a broad of expanse of gray where exclusive good or evil once resided. And even on polarized issues, today’s readers prefer understatement. According to playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America):
I go into any movie that's historical fiction thinking, 'OK, I'm here to watch a work of art, something delivering a series of opinions, and if it's a good work of art, these opinions become so deeply embedded in complexity and richness that I won't even be bothered by the opinions. I'll make my own mind up.
Some would insist that to accomplish this, you must never “tell.” But what exactly does that mean? Most writers occasionally “tell,” sometimes quite intentionally. All but the most inexperienced writers know this already, so this judgment against judgment often sounds patronizing. The reminder to give your audience the exquisite pleasure of inference seems far more useful.
The “teaching” aspect of fiction is a more ambiguous than the “showing” component. After all, superb novels like Life Mask (Emma Donoghue), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), A Conspiracy of Paper (David Liss), or Galatea 2.2 (Richard Powers) convey vast amounts of information. Does it feel like being educated? Not at all. Does it feel like school? Never.
And this is why.
~ Put characters foremost.
Guy Vanderhaeghe reminds that “History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt.”
~ Harness the power of plot.
Integrate facts about the environment with the events occurring there. As Hilary Mantel puts it:
Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world.
~ Stay in voice.
The thousands of superb creative nonfiction books out there prove that facts needn’t bore. It entirely depends on tension, characterization, tone, word choice, humor, lyricism, even sentence structure.
How do writers reach you? That’s no different from how readers want you to reach them.