Fiction is More Than Fluff

writing craft

Post written by Katie Wall.

“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you but the one which makes you think.” —James McCosh

(Note: This quote is sometimes attributed to Harper Lee, but, from what I could find, there is no official record of her actually saying it. However, James McCosh is recorded as writing it in the 1800s, so I am comfortable attributing it to him.)

As someone who writes fantasy and who works with fantasy and science fiction authors, I have picked up on a trend of people talking about speculative fiction as an escape. Some people mean this in the best way, proposing that it’s a welcome and necessary relief to be able to escape from the stress of our lives and into an exciting other world for a time. Others intend it in a more demeaning way, implying that because speculative fiction provides an escape it does not wrestle with the realities of life.

I would argue, however, that any book is an escape into another world. Fantasy and sci-fi are just more obvious about it because the world of those stories can be literally another world, or at least a distant future. Other books are just as much an escape, right? Historical fiction is an escape into a different period in history. Stories in any genre that are set in “now” in “our world” are still in a different geographical location than the vast majority of their readers, from a different perspective than our own, and with events that aren’t actually happening in our lives. Even literary fiction isn’t immune to being an opportunity to escape into someone else's mind and life, as much as people may hold those books on a pedestal.

Those who look down on genre fictionand specifically fantasy and sci-fibecause they believe that escaping our present reality means the books are not wrestling with the realities of life are sadly mistaken.

It is through escaping into stories that we are able to explore deeper truths of life through the trials and tribulations the protagonists experience.

When I read McCosh’s quote—“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you but the one which makes you think.”—I am struck by a couple of things.

First, I don’t want to write a book that tells my reader what to think. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I fully believe in the necessity of intentionally including details about my world, characters, and story on the page. In this sense, I think it is necessary to tell my reader what to think because otherwise they will make assumptions to fill in the gaps in the story and will likely end up confused and frustrated when their assumptions are contradicted. What I’m talking about here is that I don’t want to come across in my writing as instructing the reader that they must think or believe this or that about the world or themselves. My fictional story is not an instruction manual, self-help book, or textbook. Characters can and should take a stance, but it should be just that: the character's stance.

I want these aspects of my story to make my reader think, to have their beliefs and assumptions about themselves or the world challenged. This is the second nugget of truth I see in this quote. My character may believe a certain thing about the world at the start of my novel and by the end have that belief flipped on its head and now believe something else. Or maybe my character’s initial belief is proved correct. The point is that my protagonist’s emotional-level journey through the book’s events should trigger a thoughtfulness in the reader about their own beliefs around the book’s core point.

This is one reason I think it is so crucial to determine the core of your story before you write it: every aspect of your story should weave together in a way that supports this idea. If the threads don’t work together toward this common goal, your book will not have the impact it otherwise could.

So what is your novel’s core point? What is the heart of what you want to communicate by telling this story?

If you would like help discerning your core story point and planning your novel around it, check out our FIRM Up Your Novel for Drafting coaching package.

Here at Craft Better Books we firmly believe that stories have the power to change the world for this exact reason. It is part of our core mission to help you as a writer to reach your readers with the message of your story.

Writing prompt:

If you could change someone’s mind about something through your story, what would it be? Do you think your story currently does that? Why or why not?

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