Essential writing skills: action, contemplation, or both?

One of the hardest parts of writing fiction is finding the elusive balance between action and contemplation.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

On the face of it, the split is easy. Novels that look inward – that appear superficially plotless, slow, boring and which rely on internal character mood as driver – are typically classed as literature. They are the sort of books that school curricula use to torture disinterested kids with. Such tomes have narrow appeal, often snobbishly asserted by those who like them for its supposed ‘high-brow’ nature, or used by the author as a device to validate themselves around intellectual pretension.

Tales with more action and an ability to capture the interest of a much wider audience are more usually ‘populist’, often dissed as ‘shallow’ or ‘pulp’ by those who imagine they have ‘higher’ interests.

Personally I don’t regard any of these things as ‘ranked’. Indeed, I don’t draw a distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘popular’ fiction. Really, it’s different aspects of the same thing – a way of taking a reader on an emotional journey. And from my perspective, populist literature is the way to go because it appeals to such a wide audience. But that doesn’t mean ditching character contemplation.

Want proof? Go read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. It’s a graphic novel – the bottom of the food chain as far as the literati are concerned. A comic. Er – isn’t it? Actually, it made Time magazine’s top hundred novels of all time, putting it up there with Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye and Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings among others.

Gibbons and Moore nailed it as far as I am concerned – producing characters who were rounded, multi-dimensional, and where the plot was effectively driven by their needs as characters. Why have a cardboard superhero when you can have a neurotic one? It could have been presented as literature – but it wasn’t. It subverted the whole genre of the graphic novel.

What does this mean for writers? It means that the onus is on all writers, whether aiming for a populist market or not, to build due contemplation and character development into their stories. The whole essence of fiction writing is the character arc – this is where the tension comes from. It is where the reader is captured. The narrative adventures of the plot, however exciting they may be, are backdrop to that arc.

That’s true of all fiction writing – literature or not.

Soon – how to make that work. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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3 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: action, contemplation, or both?

  1. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I tend to agree with Matthew. When one genre becomes popular, for example fantasy, everyone starts writing fantasy. Yes, that might the best selling genre for a few months, but that should not be all that is written or published. Yet every writing article says, “Fantasy is in. Everyone write fantasy.” Those that love mystery, romance, or history are still looking for a good book in that genre. I’ve always believed a great book will sell no matter what genre it is, or what is in vogue at the moment.


    1. Absolutely! The problem these days is that by the time a specific genre is popular, it’s too late to write in it. And why compromise what you want to write by trying to meet a trend? Great books define their own audience.


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