Wednesday, September 28, 2011

No More Pure Entertainment

Often, we think of novels as a form of entertainment. In fact, people may tell us that the reason they read novels is for pure entertainment and not to learn something. “If I wanted to be preached to, I would have bought a non-fiction book,” one blogger recently stated. So, if entertainment is such an important thing when it comes to writing novels, it might be helpful to consider what entertainment is.

Merriam-Webster defines entertainment as “something diverting or engaging.” What we must ask is what it takes to provide a diversion or to engage someone. Recently, it seems that people have gotten the idea that entertainment has no educational value. Therefore, novels shouldn’t attempt to present the reader with a message. But is that a valid assumption?

In a word, no. Thinking of those things that you wouldn’t classify as entertainment, what things can you think of that “divert or engage.” When you go to church, you wouldn’t normally think of the sermon as entertainment, but it diverts and engages the listeners. At least, you hope it does. Hobbies also divert and engage. A man may spend hours doing a woodworking project. A pianist may spend hours at the piano. These things are entertaining, certainly, but we can’t say they have no educational value or cognitive challenge. It is quite the opposite, in fact. I would like to suggest that it is the cognitive challenge that makes these things entertaining.

Moving back to so-called pure entertainment, I believe that much of what makes it entertaining is the cognitive challenge. Just consider the basic structure of the story. We begin with a problem, to which we find a solution, but that solution is challenged, and resolution is only found by overcoming the challenge. As we follow a character through the story, we readers are thinking about how we would handle a similar situation. This is similar to what we do when we what a friend go through a problematic situation. We question if there is something we can do to help, what we can advise them to do, and what the right thing to do is.

With that in mind, the challenge for the author is to present a story that causes the reader to think. What you don’t want to do is present a problem and then just tell the reader what the best solution is. For example, Betty’s son is on drugs, Betty tries to get her son to stop, her son runs away from home, Betty turns the problem over to God and it all works out. Good solution, bad story because it pretty much goes the way we would expect. It because a challenge for the reader when it causes the reader to reevaluate his view of the world. It isn’t our job to educate him, but we are to present the reader with a mirror and to encourage him to ask himself if he likes what he sees.

Another thing that an author can do to provide cognitive challenge is to show the reader what it is like to live in an environment the reader may never experience. A reader of science fiction, for example, might want to imagine what it would be like to live aboard a starship. The story becomes a framework by which we can allow that to play out. Readers of Christian fiction apparently have a desire to know what it is like to live among the Amish. It isn’t they actually want that lifestyle, as it would force them to give up many good things, but they find it interesting to see what it is like for other people. And not everyone who reads a crime novel wants to be a cop, but the story allows them to imagine what it would be like if they were.

An author isn’t forced to provide entertainment without having something to say. Readers are actually looking for the author to have something to say, but consider what the message is and which form of writing presents it better. Some things are best presented as non-fiction, telling the reader the facts and moving on. But fiction is ideal for encouraging the reader to do some self examination. When the right form is used, the author’s message will be understood, when the wrong form is used, the author will be accused of preaching or of having no substance in his writing.