Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Writing for Entertainment Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t Writing about Critical Issues

In a nation, and a world, that seems to become more and more divided every time I turn on the news, there is no wonder that people turn to books, short stories, various TV shows and movies to escape from the political and social realism that surrounds our everyday lives. As a writer of fiction, my number one job is to entertain. Though this entertainment, I want my reader to sit or lay back and relax, delve into the universe of my creation and leave their world behind for as long as they have the pages open. I want them to turn the pages and feel suspense or to laugh. I want them to come back time and time again to read the story that I have written and to share it with friends and family members. While this is my number one job, it is not my only job as an author.

Have you ever sat down at a table for a meal and all you were served is junk food? If all I ever did as a writer was to serve up stories of just pure entertainment I would be as guilty as the person who served up such a meal—and soon you would decide it was time to go on a “literary diet” and maybe never return to my stories. While entertainment is the number one job, it must serve as the base for more critical issues such as social justice, viewing the world through the eyes of another, educate and to make the reader think—even if they are not aware they are thinking. If it doesn’t do that, then the story is not often remembered.

While I admit I am oversimplifying things, every genre of storytelling, as well as every writer, has a different approach to the critical issues. Science Fiction and Fantasy have a way of looking at society(ies) and history by recreating them and looking at them a new. Mysteries and Thrillers look at the roles of crime, acts of terror, and the role of the police (or other investigator) has on the world and the disrupted lives in that society asking if that world can ever be brought back into balance. Romance looks at the gender roles and explores the conflicts between two people who are in a romantic relationship while trying to keep a normal life—work, family, whatever society tosses at them. Paranormal can blend all of the above and use “other” beings to represent some part of our society (like Science Fiction and Fantasy does with aliens or mythical races). Horror explores the macabre and society.

Each story explores character change and some aspect of social issues. For some stories the social issues are blatantly exposed to the reader. Other stories interweave and disguise in the background the social issues or define the universe in which the characters are in. These issues can be equality, racism, sexism, human rights, caste systems, liberty, education, war, health care, elder care, diseases, scientific discoveries and pushing the boundaries, redemption, restoration, social classes, prison reform, drugs, crime, slavery (traditional, child, sex, or mental slavery), teen pregnancy and so much more. It seems to me that the writer who leaves the social issues out of their story disappoints the reader and is soon forgotten, while those who bring it in to the story are often remembered even after the writer him or herself have turned to dust.

I understand that there are doubters who may be reading this blog, so let me indulge in a small list of authors or entertainment (radio shows, movies, and television shows) that explore social issues. See how many of these you recognize, still see on bookshelves or in reruns.

Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Charles W. Chestnut, Kate Chopin, Alex Haley, Michael Crichton, Alexandre Dumas, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Alex Haley, James Clavell, Star Trek (any), Babylon 5, The Wire, The Shield, Dragnet, The Rockford Files, Maya Angelou, Georges Simenon, Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, Lin Yutang, Umberto Eco, Hill Street Blues, Josh Wheadon, Battlestar Galactica (either version), H.G. Wells, Law and Order (any), Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, PD James, The Shadow (Radio Drama), Suspense (Radio Drama), William Faulkner, M.A.S.H., Psycho (movie or book), Vertigo, John Le Carre, John Grisham, Qiu Xiaolong, Mary Shelly, Miami Vice, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elmore Lenard, To Catch a Thief (movie or book), and Harper Lee

This is a list I developed in two minutes of brain storming. It is by no means exhaustive, nor does it contain every writer, TV show, movie, or radio show that I can think of. (Honestly, I am fighting the urge to add to it.) Please feel free to add to this list in the comments. It would be fun to see what fellow readers (and writers) come up with.

If you are a fellow writer and you haven’t broken in yet, ask yourself if you are handling and how you are handling social issues. I do it all the time as I work on breaking in myself.

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  1. Wow, David! What a thought-provoking piece - and so timely for me, personally. I was sitting here trying to get myself motivated to make some progress on my word count and questioning the entire concept for my novel. After reading your post, I feel rejuvenated. What I am writing addresses the importance of community and explores several of the issues you mentioned. Thanks for putting the meaning back into my efforts.

    I blogged about one tiny facet of the town I chose as my setting here:

  2. Thank you so much for your comment. Knowing that what I wrote helped a fellow writer is like receiving a surprise gift. I will read your blog this weekend.