Sensationalism vs Realism)
There is a dichotomy between works of fiction, where they can be considered either as works of fantasy, or as works of realism. Stories featuring magic and laser guns are obviously fantasy, and dramas in true-to-life settings are realistic.
Although that doesn’t quite cover all of the options. Because even if a story is in a “realistic” setting, it still might not feel very realistic. Many stories take a familiar backdrop, but then paint a story on it that no one actually believes would occur in the real world. Satires exaggerate elements of reality to an improbable degree, westerns are populated by cartoonish caricatures, spy thrillers have heroes saving the world from end-of-the-world crises every other Thursday!
It is not only the characters and the situations that reach beyond believability, though, it is also the fact that the story elements always happen to fit the classical narrative arcs so perfectly. Real life does not usually recreate the classic three-act structure, with a lowly nobody thrust into the role of a hero, and a moral message upon which all that is good and true prevails.
Not that there is anything wrong with sensationalism. The vast majority of popular media is at least somewhat sensational, and even my own stories on this blog are most often steeped in it! But sometimes when a narrative tool is so universally applied, it is worth stepping back and asking oneself why. Otherwise one runs the risk of wielding that which they do not understand, and harming their work through ignorance.
Every story, even the most realistic of the real, have to trim the fat of life at some point. Life is a fascinating thing to live, but a staggeringly boring thing to watch. Periods of sleep, trips to the bathroom, long commutes, conversations that say absolutely nothing…we usually go to stories to escape these exact doldrums! A story might hint at these grounding experiences, but by and large they are always going to distill the few significant moments and dispense with the mundane.
Since one has to polish life to only “the good parts” anyway, the question becomes how far do you decide to take that? Do you want to only cut out the fluff, but otherwise remain grounded? Or do you want to lean in to the artificiality and idealize your story as much as possible?
Currently I am writing a mystery story, which falls under a genre that almost never takes place in a fantasy setting, but which almost always is very sensational. The general idea is that so long as we’re cutting out the boring bits of detective work, like cross-referencing volumes of information and writing reports, then why not add a little spice to it as well? Sure, the killers could two average Joes…or they could be a one-legged man and his pygmy accomplice that shoots poison darts out of a blowgun. Neither one-legged men nor pygmies are fantasies, they really do exist, but they are relatively rare. And it was for that very reason of uniqueness that Doyle chose to make them the villains of his Sherlock Holmes case The Sign of the Four. It is more fantastic conclusion, even if not a more probable one.
Consider also the example of the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. In it we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters, who are thrown together seemingly at random. Charles Darnay, Doctor Manette, and Madame Defarge all begin the tale as complete strangers to one another. As the story progresses though, revelation follows revelation, and an intricate cobweb of surprising connections is made. It just so happens that Charles Darnay is the nephew of the cruel Marquis Evrémonde, whose crimes against humanity directly contributed to the current state of revolution in France. It also just so happens that Doctor Manette, who is Darnay’s father-in-law, was unjustly imprisoned by that very Marquis Evrémonde after he became a witness to one of those crimes. It also just so happens that Madame Defarge is the lone survivor of that crime which was witnessed by Manette, and she will use the Doctor’s testimony against his will to condemn Darnay!
Obviously the story could have been written without every character being so tightly coupled, and it arguably would have been more realistic that way. But then again, if you can make your story into an intricate work of art, then why not do it?
Because not every story should be sensational, and that for the very sake of sensationalism. For if every story was so slick and polished, then none of them would be. A Tale of Two Cities is an excellent and emotional drama and Sherlock Holmes is an excellent and exciting detective series, but each of them is benefited by a world that does not over-indulge in their patterns.
Every styling of story has its own strengths and weaknesses. Sherlock Holmes is able to command excitement and action, but it lacks in emotional impact. A Tale of Two Cities has emotional impact in spades, but it is deficient in relatability. A far more grounded story, such as the Emilio Estevez film The Way, gets right to the heart of relatable humanity, but lacks the exciting punch of Sherlock Holmes.
But that is alright, because each of these stories is strong in the area that they were meant to be strong. The areas where they lack are only the areas where they do not need any presence. Furthermore, they are made all the better at doing what they are trying to do by how they stand out in contrast from one another. It is important for authors to carefully choose the correct balance of realism/fantasy and grounded/sensational to fit the intended purpose of their tale. Also it is important for authors to be broad and diverse, so that the entire body of creative works do not lose their impact through over-saturation. Diversity in story-telling preserves depth of meaning in them all.
In my current story I am writing a mystery that is intentionally divided between being grounded and sensational. On the one hand the case procedures are very down to earth. There is considerable time spent talking about the less exciting parts of detective work, such as being detectives being bored. To be sure, there will not be any one-legged men or pygmies showing up at the end!
But on the other hand, the story’s dialogue also has an element of slick refinement to it. Consider in the last section how Daley effortlessly puts down his partner with exactly the skewering finesse we all wish we could manage in the heat of the moment.
The reason for this duality of styles in my story is because of the different situations that Daley and Price are in. Price is still chained to the doldrums of working on the force, Daley is free of the burdens of “real life,” and chasing his curiosities without restraint. To Price the job is still “by the books” while Daley is finally able to taste the “thrill of the chase.” Consider the paragraph where I describe their trip to Mexico. Daley rides first class and breezes through customs, Price sits in coach and has a long talk with an official. Daley is living the polished, idealized life, and Price is stuck in the rut. The different dynamic for these two felt like a perfect story to marry grounded realism with fanciful sensationalism, and then watch the friction build between those two halves. Come back on Thursday as we see whether Price and Daley are able to resolve this fundamental difference or not.