I tend to view writing as a series of trade-offs. I’m speaking specifically of genre fiction, which relies as much on craft and deliberate calculation as it does on instinctual artsiness.
First is the trade-off between “interesting” and “realistic.” A slice-of-life narrative will aim for “realistic;” ie, man puts bread in the toaster. A genre piece will go for “interesting,” ie., the toaster is possessed by demons and attacks man.
The second trade-off is “didactic” vs. “ambiguous.” I perceive a constant tradeoff between over-explaining things and leaving things too vague. Other trade-offs are “dark” vs. “light,” “shocking” vs. “predictable,” etc.
A handy tool for calculating these tradeoffs is the TV show “Weeds,” which just had its season finale this weekend. The show centers around a suburban California mom (Nancy) who gets into the pot-selling business, navigating the dark underbelly of crime through a combination of wits, white privilege and amazing legs. My wife and I saw the first 4 seasons of Weeds around the time my daughter was born, and it’s a fun way to pass a few hours.
The show will take the more “interesting/didactic/dark/shocking” option 9 times out of 10. During various season finales, Nancy has become pregnant by a drug lord, watched her youngest son kill a rival, burned down a town, and been shot in the head.
So as we watch other shows, we often ask what Weeds would do. With “Mad Men,” this is seldom predictive. “United States of Tara” will choose the Weeds option occasionally.
This isn’t to say the Weeds option is a bad choice. It’s often the right choice, depending on what piece of genre fiction you’re doing. But the Weeds Test is a useful tool for clarifying what your options are and what they mean, writing-wise.
What tests do you have for good fiction?