What We Tell The Reader

Late in the day as I type this. Sunday, Fathers’ Day here in the USofA, and I wasn’t as focused on producing my monthly column as perhaps I should have been. (Which, in my native southern dialect is rendered: might should’ve been.) Local family members produced my favorite dinner – grilled steak, grilled veggies, potato baked on the grill, crunchy rolls, and un-grilled salad. My son – who these days lives too far away to get down here and celebrated at his home with his wife and daughter – posted a testimonial on Facebook about what my example had taught him about being a husband and father. Mostly it had to do with responsibility.

This got me thinking about responsibility as a writer. Not the responsibility to meet deadlines or produce columns in a timely manner, that’s more a reliability issue. I mean our responsibility to use our craft well. Not just in telling a story, but in the stories we tell. Our words have impact, as anyone who’s been furious at a fictional injustice or mourned the death of a fictional character can tell you. We as writers can have unintended effect on our readers.

I was discussing this online with fellow writer Jason Hansa a few weeks ago. Jason and I have written paired stories before – the same battle told from opposing sides in self-contained, stand-alone narratives for BattleCorps, an online publisher of military sci-fi. (How a radical left-wing tree hugging do-gooder built a name and career in military sci-fi is a topic for another column.)

This time around we are both part of a shared-narrative anthology: a chronological collection of stories following a single BattleMech (think giant, walking tank) from its construction through its career in a dozen militaries and two centuries of war until its eventual destruction. Two dozen combat stories would be a bit monotonous, so the battle stories are leavened with an espionage story (mine), a medic’s story, a mechanic’s story, a murder, a romance, a divorce, and – I think – a conscientious objector. All of us on the project keep in loose contact to ensure continuity and keep the through narrative building from story to story.

Jason and I were chatting on FB, as is our wont, about elements of our respective tales. I was debating how explicit the torture of a civilian should be and he was wondering whether his recipe for an improvised weapon should be accurate.

“After all,” he said, “we don’t want to give our readers any ideas.”

“Right,” I agreed. “We’re not writing erotica.”

Later, while working on the second volume of my Dirt and Stars YA series it occurred to me that giving our readers ideas is a lot of what we do, no matter what the genre.

In my story of how young people deal with exclusion, elitism, racism (from both sides), and trauma I strive to model for readers who have hopefully not yet been damaged irreparably by these forces how to get through one undramatic, heroic, baby step at a time.

In my military sci-fi I tell stories of courage, loyalty, commitment, sacrifice, integrity, and fear in which combat – impending, happening, or in aftermath – provides context; is the medium through which these themes are examined.

Romances – the ones I like – are about identity, integrity, and commitment. (So, like military sci-fi with fewer ray guns.)

Crime – with the exception of cozies and puzzles – is often about victims overcoming trauma, defenders sacrificing for the sake of others, coming to terms with self, or redefining/rebuilding self in the face of change.

This list could go on for quite a while, but you see the point I’m making.

Of course a lot of stories are just stories. Entertainment. Escapes. Respites.

But even the lightest tale carries in its narrative DNA elements that the writer cannot help but pass along to readers. Assumptions about culture, right and wrong, good and evil (which is often completely different), the value of humanity – a hundred elements of ourselves and the people, the culture, and family that shaped us.

It’s no good trying to not pass along our intellectual/spiritual/personal DNA. It’s who we are and the only way to keep ourselves off the page is to never write. But being aware of what we’re doing – of what parts of us we share and how we share them – can give our writing a focus and effectiveness beyond the mechanics and art of our craft.

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Posted in Writing.