Fiction is an Argument with a Reader

Fiction is an argument about the nature of the world. The author writes their story to persuade you that their insights, observations, and ideas illuminate or reflect the reality that we all share. This applies to even the most fantastical stories, as they have to still convince a reader that the extra-real additions to the story are convincing within a different context (exo-planets with advanced technology) or alternate physics (magic or multiple planes of reality).

Authors persuade through details. The cracks in the ceiling, the inflection and slang, the other riders on a bus, all these work to sell the reality that contains a story. Regardless of where that story takes place, those details have to be as precise and broadly understandable as possible.

I once stopped reading a book because it described a town as being “like any other small Connecticut town.” On top of the rest of the book, this phrase told me that this was a narrow, insular book, one that had no desire to speak forth and reveal. It was the mark of narcissism. The phrase “small Connecticut town” codes a lot into it and will mean different things to different people. That the author used that shows he can’t escape his own shorthand, that he isn’t thinking of other people when he writes.

To be fair, that book suffered the curse of Hemingway, written in a spare and emotionless prose that came off boring instead of efficient. And it covered the dullest and most worn rut in American literature: masculinity. It did not convince me that it had something to say, or, more simply, that the story I was reading was worth continuing.

The simplest fiction stories, those without any assumed changes to the existing world, are the hardest to make convincing. They speak of you and your world. The more you know the setting, the personalities, the conflicts, the sharper the argument has to be. If a story has an old timer drinking his pension away in your neighborhood with can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, it won’t be believable if you know those guys order Narragansett because PBR is for broke hipsters, while Narragansett is for broken men.

That sort of persuasion comes from a sort of competent authority, that you have shown that you know this world, that you’ve watched and understood people enough to see them in this environment or extrapolate them into it convincingly. Sometimes that takes a sort of domain knowledge, about the location, about the types of people, or about the actions they do. Other times, all it takes is empathy. Writers (and, hell, anybody) can argue their views best when they a well developed sense of empathy.

There’s other ways to persuade with a story. Because an author defines the world you’ve viewing, they can manipulate it and, therefore, you the reader. All writers manipulate their readers, so watch out about judging that word, manipulate. I’m using to mean any time someone hides some amount of information about their intent from another person. An author can use this to great effect by hiding some information about characters or events, for example, to construct a twist that changes the nature of a story. Mysteries rely on some amount of manipulation to be satisfying.

Manipulation only goes so far for a writer. Persuasion, either through demonstrating knowledge or constructing enough believable details, must work hand in hand. Imaging a murder mystery where the killer is revealed to be a character that had not been introduced yet. You’d feel pretty cheated. Manipulation works only if you hide some facts about a story, not all of them.

Some writers, like John Grisham or Amy Tan, use their personal authority as experts in other domains – lawyers and Asian Americans, respectively – to convince you that the details within their stories reflect reality. I don’t know much about either how lawyers operate what Asian Americans go through, so when these authors throw in words, events, or locations that I don’t understand, I still believe them thanks to their personal background.

But woe betide the writer who does not convince. Their story falls flat, runs listless, and marrs their name. What convinces one person may not convince another, even beyond matters of style and taste, depending on their existing beliefs. Our brains are hardwired to defend our existing beliefs even if they are wrong. Smart people – that is, people more likely to read – defend their beliefs harder. So if you want a good story, cram it with details, accurate and heartfelt, and hope that a few them land with everyone.