Last summer at a workshop in Portland, I asked the facilitator what she thought about addressing politics in fiction. She told me, “You have to come at it sideways. It should sneak up on the reader.”
Maybe I was just put out because this writer (whom I idolized!) had given my story a tough critique, but something about what she’d said didn’t sit right with me. My attempts to figure out the source of my discomfort led to the lecture I would deliver eighteen months later, at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in satisfaction of the requirements for my MFA. This post is both a condensation of and an expansion upon that lecture.
I think there’s a real danger of arbitrariness in the conversations we writers have about how to write about politics. I’ve been told that it isn’t literary to write about current events, that I’m supposed to veil everything in ten layers of irony and allegory; I’ve been told that a work of fiction which takes a definitive stance on moral issues must necessarily be preachy. But I found out as soon as I started actually reading political fiction that the things I’d heard weren’t true.
Rather than trying to “sneak up on” the reader, the literary landscape is full of works that address contemporary issues head-on, books that boldly protest, call out, lament, and rally using a variety of approaches, not all of them subtle — and these books enjoy both commercial and critical success. The problem isn’t whether to address politics in your work, but how.
Virginia Woolf writes, in “A Room of One’s Own”: “When a subject is highly controversial — and any question about [gender] is that — one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold…. Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.”
This quote, for me, suggests the purpose of politically involved fiction: to communicate political truths as you see them, in such a way that the reader will see what you see.
What is essential to political fiction is the subjective nature of its commentary: It is rooted in the singular life of a well-developed character, and that character’s life acts as a lens which must inherently refract — and sometimes fracture — the work’s portrayal of real-world issues. When accomplished with originality, complexity, sophistication, and even fun, particularizing politics through story invites the reader into empathy and fresh insight in a way that mere facts never could.
As one of my professors, Robert Vivian, put it in a lecture about the lyric mode in poetry, “You have to feel it first before you can think about it.” The same is true of politically involved fiction: If you succeed at making a reader feel, you can trust that they will walk away from the story thinking. You don’t have to teach a reader — your privilege as an artist is to move them.
What follows is an inventory of the craft choices you can make to develop political commentary artfully within a work of literature, with examples drawn from novels, films, and theater. I hope you will adapt these ideas to suit your own style and preferences; take what you need and leave the rest.
Some genres lend themselves naturally to political commentary because the tradition itself is already invested in depicting social circumstances, institutions, and/or power dynamics. The list includes comedy; satire; dystopic, utopic, and apocalyptic fiction; afrofuturism; the polemic; LGBT coming-out stories; religious conversion or de-conversion narratives; historical fiction; retellings and reimaginings (of the canon, mythology, popular art); war stories; own-voices stories; and zeitgeist portraits.
ex. 1984, George Orwell (dystopic fiction)
Depicting a conversation between characters about a political subject allows you to filter statements that might otherwise sound “preachy” through the subjective perspective of a character, whom you’ve hopefully written to be multi-faceted and lifelike. These passages earn their keep when they serve multiple purposes: not just a vehicle for political commentary, but also a characterizing detail, also a plot event, also a tool for verisimilitude, etc. Write political dialogue the same way you’d write any other kind of dialogue — if a character’s speech needs to be tangential, messy, pointless, or flawed, let it be.
ex. Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney
3. Monologue and summarized monologue.
The same rules apply here as for dialogue; a speech must earn its keep.
The summarized monologue, in particular, condenses a speech by presenting some or none of it in quotation marks, and summarizing the rest in narration. The advantage of a summarized monologue is that it can make well-trod territory more palatable and entertaining — you don’t have to repeat the same rhetoric that readers have already heard a million times. Summarizing also gives you greater flexibility to interweave description and action within the speech, characterizing the speaker — and by extension the viewpoint they’re expressing.
ex. Red Clocks, Leni Zumas, p. 51: “Last year one of the seniors threw herself down the gym stairs, but even after she broke a rib she was still pregnant, and [Miss Ro] said in class she hoped they understood who was to blame for this rib: the monsters in Congress who passed the Personhood Amendment and the walking lobotomies on the Supreme Court who reversed Roe v. Wade. ‘Two short years ago,’ she said — or, actually, shouted — ‘abortion was legal in this country, but now we have to resort to throwing ourselves down the stairs.’”
Exposition is one of the more obvious vehicles for political commentary because it’s an excuse to get talky as you explain the world of the story, including its politics. Of course, the same rules as always still apply: don’t info-dump, include only what’s interesting and necessary, keep the priority on storytelling through scene.
ex. Red Clocks, Leni Zumas: Zumas stretches the exposition out in brief snippets sprinkled throughout the book’s first act, taking her time to explain, little by little, how the reproductive dystopia of Red Clocks came to be. In this way, she keeps the priority on the present action and the lives of her characters, avoiding an info-dump.
5. Treat politics as verisimilitude.
For many characters and many stories, politics are essential to the setting and the context of the characters’ lives. In writing such stories, you can treat politics as a naturalistic feature of worldbuilding and character development, just another consequence of verisimilitude (lifelike-ness).
ex. In Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, a coming-of-age tale about an artist’s childhood and adulthood during the time of second-wave feminism, the protagonist encounters the changing political landscape through her interactions with other characters and her movement through various spaces, from grade school to church to art school and artists’ collectives.
6. Incorporate current events directly into the story.
This is a hard one because depicting a super-recent event in a fictional plot can come off as on-the-nose. The danger is that when writing about events that have just happened, your emotions about it will be fresh and potent, making it harder for you to evaluate the quality of your own writing impartially. Write what you need to, then set the work aside and come back to it when you’re level-headed enough to revise it ruthlessly. Write hot, edit cool.
ex. Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet is a series of stand-alone novels, published once each year, that respond to the political events of that year within a foregrounded literary story that may not be explicitly relevant to those events. As one example of that super close relationship between real time and the novels’ time, in Autumn, cable news plays in the backgrounds of many scenes, bringing headlines from 2016 into the novel as a detail of setting.
7. First-person POV.
When well-executed, first-person narration presents the political commentary as belonging to the protagonist’s perspective, rather than yours, and readers may be more forgiving towards an opinionated protagonist than they tend to be towards opinionated authors. First-person narration can also make certain kinds of characters more approachable.
ex. Last Days of California, Mary Miller: The first-person POV possesses an unguarded, innocent tone here, consistent with the narrator’s personality, and it allows the book to portray her naivete, religious indoctrination, and eventual awakening with compassion instead of cynicism. The effect is especially pronounced regarding the character of the father, who fits the stereotype of the kooky religious nutjob perhaps a bit too closely. Because the story is narrated by someone who loves the father, his portrayal, which could so easily become flatly comical, is softened by compassion as well.
8. Fragmented or multiple POV.
Narrating in more than one point of view, or a point of view that breaks traditional conventions, allows you to contrast the multiplicity of subjective interactions your characters may experience with the story’s political questions.
ex. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi: destabilizes the narration as part of its consideration of “personal and cultural displacement,” according to The New York Times. In keeping with this displacement, the protagonist herself is never allowed to narrate.
9. Observer-hero narration.
Observer-hero narration is a particular point-of-view style in which the first-person narrator or, when the story is in 3rd person, the character whose perspective controls the narration, is not the same as the protagonist. This POV style holds the reader at a distance from the protagonist, called the hero, who is generally someone enigmatic but irresistible. The observer’s experience watching and thinking about the hero becomes the story, as they obsess over the hero with a combination of worshipful attention and queasy ambivalence.
ex. Much of All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is narrated in this style, but of course the classic example is The Great Gatsby, in which the socioeconomic disparity between the observer, Nick Carraway, and the hero, Gatsby, facilitates the novel’s consideration of class and the American Dream.
10. Indirectness and suggestion.
Approaching the thing you want to say, or the emotion you want to express, but never quite coming out with it can be a way to mitigate sentimentality or avoid being “on-the-nose.” One reliable way to achieve this kind of subtlety is to whittle away minimalistically at whatever element of the text isn’t necessary to get your point across.
ex. Erasure, Percival Everett, p. 40: The narrator, Monk, reads a racist review of a racist book called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. Rather than telling or depicting how Monk feels about the review, the author presents the entire text of the review so the reader can see its racist content for themselves; then the text suggests Monk’s anger this way: “‘Is something wrong?’ the woman seated beside me asked.” End scene. It simply isn’t necessary for us to know exactly how Monk reacted to understand that he did, in fact, have a negative reaction to the review.
11. Run-on sentences or paragraphs.
A long, unbroken, breathless stretch of writing is a classic technique to convey the speaker’s rage, indignation, exhaustion, or feeling of being overwhelmed.
ex. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen uses a passage of long sentences and long paragraphs to express rage about how the American government’s decision to scatter Vietnamese refugees across the country prevented them from supporting each other and kept the refugees economically and socially subjugated.
Use allusions to draw connections, highlight similarities and parallels, contextualize the point you’re trying to make within a cultural reference familiar to your audience, deepen or add layers to the discussion, or otherwise flesh out your commentary.
ex. Erasure by Percival Everett references real-world novels about “the ghetto,” namely Push by Sapphira and Native Son by Richard Wright,in service of his commentary about how the publishing industry pigeonholes black writers.
Techniques of analogy — including allegory, metaphor, and simile — support political commentary in the same way as allusion does, through comparison. Comparison is useful for commentary because it allows you to extend the reader’s typical emotional reaction to one circumstance to cover a second circumstance. If I say the current president is like dog poop on your shoe, you’ll associate the feeling of being grossed out with that president.
ex. Throughout The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, an extended metaphor compares Nathan Price to a colonizer and his wife and children to the colonized land: “Guilty or innocent, [wives and mothers] have everything to lose [in wars of conquest]. They are what there is to lose. A wife is the earth itself, changing hands, bearing scars” (p. 89).
14. Antagonistic scenes.
Trap two people with contradictory views within a scene they can’t leave; let the inherent tension between them build until it explodes.
ex. In American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Rita, a communist radical, tricks the Swede, a wealthy factory owner, into believing she’s in contact with his estranged daughter. Desperate to hear from her, the Swede continues meeting with Rita. In one scene, Rita lures him to a hotel room, where she attempts to seduce him, then berates him: “You’re nothing but a shitty little capitalist who exploits the brown and yellow people of the world,” (p. 133).
15. Tense or POV shifts.
A change in verb tense or verbal person can be used to indicate to the reader that they should interact with the narration in a different way, e.g. a change in the reading experience from light entertainment to serious thought, or from comedy to tragedy.
ex. In All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren uses shifts from past tense into present tense, and from third person into second person, to indicate a shift from specific narration — scenes and action and storytelling — to general commentary that reaches beyond the world of the story. In this passage, a crowd of populist voters listen to a Trump-esque politician’s stump speech:
“‘God helps those who help themselves!’ He gave them that, and they stood there in front of him, with a thumb hooked in the overall strap…. They watched him, and if you watched close you might be able to see something beginning to happen. [Shift to present tense:]They stand so quiet… they’ve got a talent for being quiet… but sometimes the quietness stops. It snaps all of a sudden, like a piece of string pulled tight…. Or one of them presses his finger on the trigger, and the sound of the gun surprises even him” (p. 143–144).
16. Tonal variety.
Modulating the tone of your narrative voice, from frank to coy, tragic to comic, blunt to gentle, wrathful to lamenting, can prevent your reader from becoming emotionally desensitized to the points you’re trying to make. Shifts in tone, besides making a text more interesting, can surprise the reader, allowing you to slip in under the walls of their apathy.
ex. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith tends to narrate queer romance with a frank tone, but shifts to a more coy and delicate tone to narrate queer sex.
17. Sex scenes.
Sex scenes are political in that they depict the mutual yielding of power between persons — the willing submission to risk that is required to bare your body in front of another person. The caveat here is that scenes of rape or other sexual violence do not count as sex scenes, because rape is not sex.
The memoirist Melissa Febos, best known for her book Whip Smart about her experience working as a dominatrix, said in her 2013 interview withGuernica that sex scenes succeed or fail according to the same aesthetic standards as any other kind of scene. Febos contends that our tendency to “isolate” sex scenes as a separate category of writing reflects our tendency to isolate our sexuality within our own lives.
It is exactly because sex scenes are more banal than we give them credit for that they hold the potential to subvert the metafictional power dynamics which have tended to warp the portrayal of sex in media. By writing sex well, you can wrest the erotic away from the fetishizing influence of capitalistic institutions and return it to the power and autonomy of the individuals involved.
ex. In the 2017 film Disobedience, directed by Sebastián Lelio and based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, the quiet intensity of a forbidden love between two Hasidic women culminates in an extended sex scene which, in its acting and choreography, subverts Hollywood’s history of portraying erotic love between women through the smuttifying male gaze. The scene is neither prudish nor objectifying; it is simply empathetic, as Lelio situates the sex naturally and believably within the emotional and plot arc of both characters. This believability is no more than you’d expect out of any scene, but the fact that Disobedience’s lesbian sex scene is noteworthy at all underscores the movie’s commentary about the silence and conformity that a conservative culture imposes upon matters of sex and gender.
Defamiliarization is a whole category of craft techniques characterized by an approach to storytelling that makes the familiar strange. It encourages the reader — and yourself — to abandon your assumptions, reconsider the known and the taken-for-granted, and question your understanding of your reality in order to re-see the same things you’ve always seen, sparking fresh insight and helping you overcome apathy and desensitization. As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun; but techniques of defamiliarization allow you to leverage the same old, same old for a new emotional impact.
ex. The Sellout by Paul Beatty, p. 19, achieves a defamiliarizing effect with an extended joke about the 1963 March on Washington wherein the marchers are “civil rights zombies” and MLK Jr. is the “head zombie,” because they’re resurrected “each time someone wants to make a point about what black people should and shouldn’t do.”
19. Blur the boundary between fiction and nonfiction.
One technique of defamiliarization is to blur the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, personalizing political events by turning them into drama and personal stakes for your characters. Because the reader already has an empathetic connection with your characters, they will care more about the events a character gets swept up in as well, inviting your reader into an individual experience of shared history.
One approach is to depict true historical events through the action of the plot. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, plot events such as the banana company’s takeover of Macondo and the massacre of war veterans who were protesting the withholding of their pensions are fictionalized depictions of true events from Colombia’s history. See also Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa.
Another approach is to include real-life people, places, and institutions in a story which does not otherwise depict true history. For example, The Sellout by Paul Beatty features cameos from Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, and other notable black Americans whom Beatty wishes to criticize for their politics.
20. Unconventional narrative forms.
As another technique of defamiliarization, unconventional narrative forms are another way to add interest to your political commentary, including anything from frame constructions or stories-within-stories to hermit crab stories, in which you tell your story through the format of a different kind of writing: a grocery-store receipt, a 911 transcript.
ex. Erasure by Percival Everett embeds another entire book within its pages, as the narrator, a black writer, struggles with his moral qualms about having published a book that caters to racist stereotypes of “the ghetto” in order to advance his career. This unconventional narrative form, the book-within-a-book, allows for a vivid depiction of Erasure’s themes. The Power by Naomi Alderman achieves the same effect by including a “folio” of invented historical research about the events of the book’s own plot, printed on gray paper, and devoting a chapter to reproducing the style and rhetoric of an alt-right internet forum.
21. Absurdism and surrealism.
Portraying politics through an absurd or surreal lens allows you to point out how ridiculous the things we take for granted really are. As a technique of defamiliarization, it allows you to make familiar experiences interesting again by weirding them or by blowing them up into a more-extreme version of themselves.
ex. Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You gives familiar leftist arguments about capitalism and exploitation a face-lift when, in the final third, it veers from satire about a black man who gets ahead in telemarketing using his “white voice” into the territory of the wildly surreal. If you’re okay spoiling the plot twist — which involves the wildest animatronics I’ve ever seen — here’s a clip from the ending, when a certifiably evil CEO get his comeuppance at the hands of the product he created.
22. Do the Twist (a new twist on an old story).
You can put a new twist on an old story that many readers are already familiar with, such as a classic movie or a book from the canon, to bring out elements of the original that were implicit or ignored before. The possibilities include parodizing that work, retelling it from a new perspective, writing a sequel or prequel, or writing a parallel story that fills in the gaps and silences of the original. These are all approaches that defamiliarize our shared mythologies.
ex. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen contains an extended passage which satirizes Apocalypse Now, the classic Vietnam War movie which was itself a riff on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With this satirical passage, The Sympathizer positions itself as a corrective to the canonical literature of the Vietnam War: Where those books are written by, for, and about white people, and traffic in stereotypes of the Vietnamese people, The Sympathizer is by, for, and about the Vietnamese perspective. In its picaresque plot type, The Sympathizer also pays homage to a forebearer, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, with which it shares a theme of societal marginalization.
ex. Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones and Simple Murders contains several short stories which retell Shakespeare stories and children’s fables from the perspective of a different character to reveal the gender politics and emotional politics that were always implicit in the original.
23. Play with stereotype.
Defamiliarize a tired cliché to draw renewed attention to its unfairness: acknowledge the stereotype explicitly within the text, focus the reader’s attention upon it, then subvert it — make a joke of it, contradict it, or force us to look at it until we’re made uncomfortable with our own biases and the effects that our biases have had upon the people around us. But please note: This is not a license to write something racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., then claim you were “playing with stereotype.” Art that contributes to real-world phenomena of harm is not good art.
ex. At the beginning of Erasure, the main character, Monk, introduces himself according to the stereotype of “the black male,” pointing out the areas where he does and does not conform to it: “Though I am fairly athletic, I am no good at basketball. I listen to Mahler [and] Aretha Franklin…. I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard… I am good at math. I cannot dance. I did not grow up in any inner city or the rural south.” The riff continues for a full page, leaving this reader overwhelmed and blushing.
24. Speculate based on current circumstances.
Choose a current political or cultural circumstance and illustrate what it would look like if exaggerated to a more extreme version or carried forward to its logical conclusion. This is the premise of the Netflix series Black Mirror, a sci-fi anthology in which each episode speculates what might happen in our near future based on the technologies we have today, such as smartphones, social media, online rating systems, Uber, and dating apps.
Or, illustrate the inverse of a current political circumstance, as Naomi Alderman does in her novel The Power, which questions whether the world really would be less violent and more harmonious if we had women in power rather than men, as, in her novel, women all across the world suddenly acquire the ability to shock people with electricity and use that newfound power to remake civilization in their image.
You want to complicate your characters, because when a character is simple or flat — when their portrayal complies too easily with an archetype or cliché, or serves too conveniently the needs of the plot and the political agenda of the story — your readers will complain. They’ll say, “This character was cartoonish,” or, “I felt like I was being hit over the head with the point the author wanted to make.” Haven’t we all heard that critique at least once? Be sure to treat your characters fairly; treat them with moral decisiveness and clarity, sure, but also with compassion — because no one is ever only one thing, in fiction or in life.
This is basic stuff, but it bears emphasizing: If a reader is never surprised by a character’s actions, dialogue, or emotions, then you’ve written that character too simply. Complicated people do unexpected things and react in unexpected ways; and for political commentary to be meaningful and original, it must proceed from a complex understanding of people and their choices.
ex. Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others takes a metafictional approach to the technique of complication, as the novel both characterizes its own cast in nuanced ways and considers, through the action of the plot, whether it is always moral to do this. The plot follows a documentary filmmaker named Meadow through the rising of her career until its peak, when she makes a nuanced biopic about a former official from the dictatorship that murdered thousands in Argentina during the Cold War. Meadow’s decision to complicate her genuinely evil protagonist — she portrays him as a loving family man and a generous host — provokes criticism so severe that Meadow, ashamed of her ethical lapse, quits filmmaking forever.
The counterpoint to complication is anonymization, a technique that gets its power from deliberately breaking the rules of character development.Anonymization is a literary form of “us vs. them” rhetoric that involves setting up a contrast, in-scene, between a fully developed character (the sympathetic “us”) and an undeveloped or under-developed character (the unsympathetic “them”). The reader will be primed to sympathize more with the opinions or actions of the fully developed character simply because they know them better.
ex. R.O. Kwon does this in a scene of The Incendiaries where the narrator, who is pro-choice and a fully developed character, attends a pro-life rally with his religious girlfriend. The pro-life marchers around him are never described in any detail, reduced instead to an anonymous crowd that seems to move and think as one unindividuated mass. This choice centers the narrator’s thoughts and feelings about the political subject at hand, encouraging the reader to empathize with the pro-choice perspective rather than the pro-life one, if only for the space of a few pages.
Doubling is a common technique wherein a writer aligns a pair of things — two characters, two scenes, two images, a main plot and a subplot — to reveal something through the comparison or build a combined effect. In political fiction, doubling is a natural choice for discussing hypocrisy, double standards, moral blindspots, and the like — situations whose most salient feature is contrast: The contrast between what is and what should be, between the haves and the have nots, or between what is said and what is meant, what is promised and what is done.
ex. The books in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, published one a year in response to current events, are largely plotless, but they derive forward momentum from the converging of two characters who are very different from each other — a different odd pair in each book. This doubling of characters acts as a conventional plot canvas upon which Ali Smith paints her political commentary in unconventional passages of lyric prose. Autumn, which was published in 2016 and responds to the Brexit vote, contains another shocking use of doubling in the very opening pages, the doubling of two images: While dreaming that he is walking along a beach, the narrator sees, to his left, the corpses of Syrian refugees decomposing at the water’s edge, while on his right British vacationers relax on their towels, completely apathetic.
28. Humor and wit.
The documentary filmmaker Michael Moore says about nonfiction, “If you can’t accept that you are an entertainer with your truth, then please get out of the business. We need teachers. Go be a teacher. Or a preacher.” I think the same is absolutely true of political fiction. Reading should be worth the while! And what better way to entertain your reader than with humor?
ex. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is very good at being both political and fun. In one example, the narrator makes a witty quip to criticize the stupidity of people who admire wealthy people just because they’re wealthy: “Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise” (p. 83, 50th anniversary ed.).
Irony, as you probably remember from high-school English, involves a contrast between what is said and what is meant, or what is expected and what actually happens — a natural choice for highlighting how far a nation has strayed from its founding ideals, for example, or for lamenting the distance between what is and what should be. This technique overlaps with the previous two because irony is so often funny, and because it depends upon implicit or explicit doublings.
ex. In Autumn, Ali Smith uses irony to lament the financial precarity of life as an adjunct professor: “Living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago” (p. 15).
30. Thematic passages.
According to Douglas Glover, a thematic passage is any passage of narration, dialogue, or a character’s thoughts which provides a thematic interpretation of the story by suggesting what the story might be “about.” A thematic passage often comes at the end of an important scene as a sort of emotional climax to match the climax of the plot. A thematic passage may also tie together multiple plot threads or multiple motifs to suggest their combined meaning.
ex. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin, concerning the narrator’s internalized homophobia: “I long to crack that mirror and be free. I look at my sex, my troubling sex, and wonder how it can be redeemed, how I can save it from the knife. The journey to the grave is already begun, the journey to corruption is, always, already, half over. Yet, the key to my salvation, which cannot save my body, is hidden in my flesh” (p. 247).
Epiphanies, like thematic passages, often come at the conclusion of an important scene or in the final third of a book, but where thematic passages indicate to the reader an interpretation of what the story is “about,” epiphanies depict the moment a character learns something about themselves or the world — a plot point that lends itself, naturally, to expressions of political truth.
ex. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren: One epiphany first introduces the protagonist, Jack, to the idea of the “Great Twitch,” the emotional, irrational impulse that controls people’s actions, which, to his mind, excuses people of responsibility for their uncontrollable actions; then another epiphany dismantles the first, as the action of the plot leads Jack to reconsider his ideas about choice, responsibility, and blame.
32. The Undercut.
Undercut is the best word I can come up with to describe something that a lot of authors do, which is to end a passage of political commentary by disavowing it — turning it into a joke, turning away from it, or otherwise undercutting the seriousness of the moment. It’s an act of false humility that acknowledges that readers might be annoyed by political talk and emotional earnestness and aims to provide relief from the intensity of the scene. One example you may have seen is the TV trope where a character stands up to give an impassioned speech but then, at the end, they lose their nerve and say dismissively, “But what do I know.”
At the heart of the undercut is self-deprecation: the urge to discount our own knowledge because we’re afraid of seeming sentimental, uncool, or pushy. The undercut, in capturing this common experience, does double duty: it provides a moment of psychological realism for your characters and injects the scene with some tonal variety so you don’t lose your audience.
ex. In Autumn byAli Smith, one of the characters gives a monologue complaining about partisan polarization and the protagonist interrupts her to correct her word choice:
“‘… I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity,’ [her mother says].
“‘I don’t think that’s actually a word,’ Elisabeth says.
“‘I’m tired of not knowing the right words,’ her mother says” (p. 57).
33. Interrupt the “fictive dream.”
The fictive dream is a phrase coined by the novelist John Gardner to explain the way that readers lose themselves in a well-written book, so that you almost forget you’re staring at an object that was painstakingly crafted by another person with a life and agenda of their own. However, there is much to be gained by putting the lie to the fictive dream — by turning the tapestry around to show all of its stitches, the labor and life of the weaver.
Interrupting the fictive dream can look like deliberately pulling the reader out of the page-turning mesmerization of plot, for example with a flight of fancy, a dip into the surreal, or a break into the lyrical mode. A radical shift in the language and style can fracture a story into its parts — plot and prose, action and character — an abrupt change that begs the question, Why did the writer do that? What are they trying to tell me right now? The reader, in attempting to answer these questions, is invited into a personal, subjective encounter with the story’s themes and metafictional process.
It can also look like authorial intrusion: metafiction, frame constructions, breaking the fourth wall, addressing the reader, and other devices by which the author inserts themself into the story alongside the narrator, asserting their presence as puppet-master.
ex. In There There, his debut novel about Native Americans in urban California,Tommy Orange interrupts his fictive dream with a prologue and an interlude that are both written in a drastically different style from the story itself. In these sections, which are essayistic in their composition and nonfictional in their content, Orange uses lyric writing, a “we” narrator, and research into real-life Native American history to provide context for the rest of the novel, which is more conventional in style.
34. Deny catharsis.
Aristotle believed that catharsis was the purpose of tragedy: By manipulating audiences into a vicarious experience of terror and pity, a play might purge the audience of those emotions. This purgation was believed both to be healthy for the body and to facilitate moral virtue. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht disagreed, however, believing that if an audience leaves a play having experienced the false closure of emotional catharsis, they will have lost their motivation for political engagement in the real world. To deny an audience catharsis, then, is to deny complacency.
ex. In plays such as Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, Brecht attempted to sabotage the audience’s empathy for his characters so that they would not share in the characters’ emotional displays. In one example, a character steps to center stage to deliver an angry monologue, but before he begins he shouts off-stage, “Cue the red light!” Then a red light snaps on to symbolize his anger as he speaks. Instead of feeling the intensity of this character’s anger, the audience laughs instead — they are unaffected by the emotions portrayed. Brecht hoped to to constantly remind audiences that the people and stories they were watching were not real, so any satisfaction or closure the audience derived from them was not real, either. In the absence of catharsis — and conscious now of the way that playwrights and politicians alike used rhetoric to manipulate them — the audience might leave his plays hungry to resist the Nazis.