Saturday, October 16, 2010

Learning from Fiction

There are lots of ways we learn through the written word.  Textbooks are the most obvious, though not always very effective in and of themselves.  Nonfiction books can be a great way to learn about almost anything you can imagine--cultures, history, technology, or just the lives of interesting people.

We can learn through novels as well.  Hard-working authors who do their research can infuse factual tidbits seamlessly into the plot, and we can learn through a character's choices and their evolution through the story.

It recently occurred to me that there's a key difference between the nonfiction and fiction approaches to learning, though.  Nonfiction generally sets out to teach--that's the whole point, to be informative.  In fiction done right--in my opinion--it's up to the reader to learn, and what they take from the story can vary.  The parallels they draw will depend on their own worldview and experiences, and that's what makes it so fun--that feeling of finding your own meaning.

What happens, however, when someone sets out to write a novel with the nonfiction writer's intention of teaching in mind?  Does it still work?  I'm not sure.  I haven't tried it myself.  Do you get a "moral of the story" or after-school special feel as a result?  If so, that could be a problem.  I can't speak for all teenagers, but my students are master cynics.  If they sense a story's been contrived to teach them something, brace for imminent eye-rolling.

Does it come down to ensuring Story trumps Message?  Is it more a matter of not talking down to your audience?  Or are those two related?  Something to think about as I dig through the latest YA works to find books to recommend to those charming cynics.



Jemi Fraser said...

Good post. I think fiction writers really have to be careful! I've stopped reading a variety of books because they were too preachy about whatever it was they were trying to teach. Story trumps all!

layinda said...

I incorporated a lot of historical tidbits and a few science things into the MS I'm querying, and one of the themes has to do with forgiveness, but these things are all well woven into the plot, not gratuitous, so I think it works.

Eli Ashpence said...

I think it all comes back to that age-old advice that everyone gets sick of hearing. "Show, don't tell". A reader doesn't have an epiphany if you preach. However, if the reader can live in the character's shoes and experience it for themselves, then they can have a realization on their own. We can't underestimate our readers.
Which actually teaches the message:
"You should be compassionate and generous to others."
"Please, sir, could I have some more?"