Exposure vs Escapism: What Questions Should Your Reader Ask?

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The Point of Plot

A key polarity in the history of storytelling, certainly in the modern, ‘bourgeois’ era, is between what we might call ‘realism’ and ‘romance’ – the desire, on the one hand, to expose reality, and the desire to escape it.   ~ Middlesex University MA Novel Writing course notes

The thing is, a story can easily do both. The SF&F genre in particular is skilled at doing this. It’s like going on holiday. You go away somewhere exotic, removed from your normal routine, you see new things and experience new things, and you bring back souvenirs. Brian DeLeonard wrote a great blog post about that this week, including the important point that fantasy ‘helps storytellers to highlight one of the most difficult to find emotions in our everyday lives’ – wonder.

Stories can provide escapism whilst looking at ideas in a new light – perhaps even a light which removes the fog of emotion or controversy (oh, hai, religion). The writer can quietly pose questions to the reader through the medium of escapist storytelling, but the reader’s thoughts on the subject will come back with them to real life. It isn’t a question of ‘either/or’. You don’t have to do both, but you totally can. If you do, though, you need to plan your plot accordingly.

Plotting Questions

A plot is a history of consequence.   ~ Aristotle

When it comes to planning your plot progression (mini-fist pump for alliteration), a lot of it comes down to questions. These can be separated into three types:

  1. THEMATIC: the big question your story is addressing (if you have one). In my case, for Corpus, it was what’s the difference between religion and faith, and how far will someone go for the sake of each?
  2. FUNDAMENTALS: things you should have an answer for before even setting pen to page. Who is your protagonist (where ‘who’ encompasses culture, background, time period, etc.), who is your antagonist, what’s the end goal, what’s the inciting incident, and what problems will get in the way?
  3. MICE QUOTIENT: questions specific to your plot. Who killed Roger Rabbit, and why? How can the alien mothership be destroyed?

But, except on the very first page when the reader is first getting acquainted with the type of book they’ve picked up, you don’t want them to be consciously asking these questions. If a reader has to stop and say ‘what’s going on?’ or ‘how is the character going to cope with this?’ then they’ve dropped out of immersion to think about what they’re reading, and you’ve lost them. The role of the writer – the point of plotting – is to pre-empt the questions and drive the story at a pace which doesn’t give the reader time to stop and think about what should come next.

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