The Pleasure Principle

by Josh Emmons

Sometimes writers get depressed or read a biography of Gandhi or contemplate the fate of the planet, and then ask themselves: Why write fiction? The question can be daunting, like trying to reconcile the theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Give writers a few seconds, though, and they’ll have the answer. Or answers. To entertain. To edify. To create beauty. To make others feel less alone. To give people an emotional experience. To simplify what seems complicated. To complicate what seems simple. There are a thousand reasons to write fiction, none of which disappears when and if we lose sight of them.

The first item in the above list, to entertain, is worth a moment’s — or a lifetime’s — consideration, because if a reader enjoys your writing she’ll follow it anywhere. If not, she’s likely to abandon it to that graveyard of just-begun and/or partially read stories that fills writers with terror. Your writing is in a way like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and readers are like the sultan; they must be entranced by the unfolding narrative, drawn on to the end despite the myriad distractions offered by the world around them. Just as the sultan found the novelty of a different woman every night easier than committing to one person, the facile pleasures of watching television or shopping online exert a gravitational pull on readers; your fiction must exert an even stronger pull.

This is not to say that suspense should be your primary goal when writing, or that you’ve failed if the reader can guess what will happen next. It’s possible to argue the opposite, as Flannery O’Connor did when she said that in good fiction, as in Greek drama, “you should know what is going to happen…so that any element of surprise in it will be transferred from its surface to its interior.” Ultimately, as much discovery and revelation can happen through language and character development as through plot. Especially with literary fiction, good readers know that the journey is more important than the destination, that if a story makes them rethink a color or landscape or emotion or set of psychological conditions established between characters, then it has rewarded them for their efforts.

To entertain, therefore, does not necessarily mean to surprise. Nor does it mean to follow a certain successful narrative prescription, because, sadly, there is no such thing: Nabokov thought Don Quixote sadistic and cruel, Henry James called War and Peace a “loose, shaggy beast”. The awful truth is that regardless of what you write, not everyone will like it. If you yourself are entertained by it, however, it’s likely that a significant number of others will be, too, and a significant number, in our world and in this lifetime, is worth celebrating. Your permanent task is thus to write what you enjoy reading (modify this depending on how much you automatically love or hate your writing), be it comic mysteries, political thrillers, or paranoid first-person accounts of a badger keeping his burrow safe against enemies (it worked for Kafka). Just remember that only you can know what your story is and how to write it.

Given this freedom you have in conceiving and executing a story, the following exercise is designed to strengthen your writing by making it realer in a fictional sense, more compelling, more original, more—in a word—entertaining.

The Exercise:
Part 1: Think of the most frightening experience anyone has ever related to you — a carjacking, charging rhinoceros, clown party, etc. — and spend five to ten minutes imagining what it must have been like to be personally involved. When you’ve got a clear idea of the narrative trajectory and have felt a frisson of the fear it inspired, write out the incident in third person, in under 1500 words.

Part 2: Wait a day and then look at your story. With twenty-four hours’ perspective, draw a line through any clichéd language (this is a phrase you’ve seen before, like “the jaws of danger,” or “pale with fright” or “rolling thunder”). Cross out any hint of abject naturalism (this is the dutiful recording of real life action—“The alarm rang and he turned it off. Then he stretched and rubbed eyes before throwing back his bedcovers, sitting up, and feeling with his feet for the slippers he’d placed on the floor the night before,”—that might be true but is certainly boring). Expunge any adverb that doesn’t significantly advance the plot or reveal character. Look at sentence length and structure (if all the sentences are short and declarative, combine a few and add dependent clauses; if they’re all snaky and multipartite, split some up), bearing in mind that healthy prose is defined by syntactical variety. Add a surprising detail about any character that feels stock or readymade (the stern policeman might wear eyeliner; the mugger might have a small dog under his arm). Always use “said” in characters’ dialogue, never “exclaimed,” “ejaculated,” etc. Substitute specific adjectives for general ones (“cerulean” for “blue,” or “cashmere” for “wool”), and insert an original simile. Make sure your metaphors are pure and unmixed. Unless you’ve written “Hills Like White Elephants,” there should be more exposition than conversation.

Part 3: Compare what’s left with what was originally on the page. The bad news is that you must repeat this process of composition and elimination and replacement at least a dozen times per story (and more for novels). The good news is that over time, almost by magic, you’ll find yourself using fewer clichés, less abstract naturalism, and more idiosyncratic sentences; you will make a great literary leap forward and feel relief and satisfaction to have worked so hard in the service of work that in itself will be able to answer the question, Why write fiction?