A Fictional Hierarchy
There seems to be a consensus which says that literary fiction is first and foremost about themes and that commercial fiction has character, plot and setting at the forefront. There also seems to be an apparent hierarchy to the above elements of fiction which places themes above the other three. And this gives rise to a belief that literary fiction, by concentrating mainly on theme, is written by more intelligent authors for more intelligent readers.
An Artificial Divide
But I’ve never really got the divide between literary and commercial fiction. It seems artificial and rather snobbish to me. As a reader I’m looking for a good read and I’ve found great books on both the alleged sides. And, as an author of contemporary fiction, I don’t sit down to write a literary or a commercial book. I set out to write a book.
Basic Story Writing Includes Themes
When I was a primary school teacher, teaching my pupils how to write stories, I highlighted all four ingredients: character, plot, setting and theme. I didn’t see one of those elements as more important or requiring more intelligence to develop. And as a professional writer, I still don’t.
What became obvious with my pupils was that everyone differed in their preferred element for getting their story started. Some loved to start with a character and that was what led everything else. Others preferred setting and so on. And there were some who were just plain inspired by whatever.
But what they were all aiming for was to write a good story and to impress their teacher.
And in my own writing, the same four elements are equally crucial when I’m creating a story. I play around with them all in my novels. For me, it’s usually a character who comes first and then, as I get to know that character, the setting and plot suggest themselves and the themes just appear.
But like my pupils, my overall aim is to write a good story that will impress my readers.
However, although I don’t set out first and foremost to address a particular theme, like I said, themes do appear and they become integral to the whole.
In Change of Life, the characters must deal with the themes of marriage, family life, secrets and mortality as their stories play out. In Displacement it is bereavement, belonging and relationships, as well as the politics of war that drive the plot. And in my children’s novel, The Silver Locket, the story of the three main characters’ time travelling mission deals with friendship, bullying, the loss of a parent, and increasing independence from adults.
And in my work-in-progress, Settlement, which is the sequel to Displacement, the themes are commitment, purpose, love and the politics of peace.
There is also, in my adult fiction, an over-riding theme, and that is – there is life after the age of 45. All the main themes of life persist into middle-age and beyond. Life is as messy, interesting, frustrating and wonderful at 60 as it is at 20.
Whether this insight in particular, or my use of theme in general in my writing makes me a literary type author, I’ve no idea and doesn’t particularly concern me. But I hope I do produce a good read.
What themes do you most like to read or write about? And do you differentiate between literary and commercial fiction? Please do leave your comments below.