I recently came across this post quoting Karen Sandler
“Fiction is not the real world. In the real world, not everything means something. Much of what happens is just mundane, boring stuff that nobody cares about.
In fiction, the reader expects that every detail of a scene will connect to the story. If you spend more than a few words describing your main character, Ray Santiago, watching a brown and white spotted dog with one blue eye trot down the street with a bone in its mouth, that dog better bite Ray before the end. Or that bone the dog is carrying better be human.”
Karen Sandler is the author of nineteen novels for adults, as well as Tankborn, Awakening, and Rebellion, a YA science fiction trilogy. She is a founding team member of We Need Diverse Books.
My first thought was wondering how it would be like to be so prolific as to publish nineteen books. My second thought was emphatic disagreement with the above. My third thought was wondering if there is anything as condescending as reiterating that fiction is not the real world.
I’m not published so my disagreement is essentially worthless, but I cannot help but disagree and disagree strongly.
I suppose there are two parts to my disagreement that can be summed up as follows:
- as a reader, I don’t expect that every detail of a scene connects to the story
- why does the dog have to bite Ray and why is it a human bone
The truth of the matter is that I am a lazy reader with low standards. I want character driven pieces and characters that are real and visceral and relatable. That means I don’t care if Ray sees a dog with a bone in its mouth–I care if Ray sees that dog and wants to adopt a dog of his own but Ray cannot afford one–and I don’t even care if Ray is set in a genre piece where something incredible happens and he needs to save the world or something because I care about that dog and Ray’s relation and perspective to that dog even if that dog never again graces the reader or Ray with its presence.
But then again, my favorite episodes when I watch television are usually the filler ones that happen in between the plot ones. My biggest issue with procedural shows is that too often they don’t follow up on the characters processing significant moments that happened during The Plot. One of my biggest disappointments with Sense8 was that it was plot and action filled. I don’t understand people who complain that Bella in Twilight wasn’t as interesting as some of the side characters. And so on and so forth.
Details that turn out to be insignificant, details that turn out to be mundane, details that turn out to be disconnected from the main point of the narrative, isn’t the same as meaning that the readers won’t care about them because I am here today to reiterate that the chances that I’ll care about those mundane details are very, very probable.
One of the strongest moments in my adolescence was being comforted by a child ten years my junior (I was around sixteen at the time) who knew that something bad had happened to me when we were both involved in a community theater production of the Music Man. She sat next to me on the floor and held my hand and put her head on my shoulder while I waited for the final musical number to end so that I could close the curtain. She didn’t say a word the entire time she sat with me and she left without a word too.
This was not surprising considering we had never spoken to each other or hanged out with each other before or had anything that could be described as previous interaction due to our age difference and the fact that I am socially reclusive by nature.
I don’t remember her name. I’ve never seen her again, and I probably never will.
But I remember it. It will always be significant to me even though it doesn’t mean anything, even though it was a mundane detail that had nothing to do with what happened then and what will happen to me later on in life.
And even though I do sometimes tell the story of what happened during my time working backstage on the Music Man to people of my acquaintance, this is not a detail that I often include because in the scheme of things, in the story of how I was fired from working on this production by a petty and bullying producer/director, it is an unconnected detail that has meaning only to myself.
The story can live with or without it. It is not integral. There is no chekhov’s gun, no biting dog, and no human bone here.
It is just two strangers sharing a disconnected moment with each other.
But when I wrote a short story about my experience as one of the pieces required for my minor in creative writing, I included it because it meant so much to me.
My professor wanted me to take it out because it was an insignificant, boring, mundane detail that had nothing to do with the overarching story. Remember, this child and myself had no history. We had no experience together. We had nothing to build up to this random act of kindness.
It didn’t fit the inverted checkmark.
But not everybody who workshopped it told me it had to go. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I do believe people cared about it, like I cared about it. Not everybody expected that it would connect to the larger story. Some people wanted it to stay.
To be honest, I would probably be more inclined to agree with this advice in the context of writing a mystery or crime solving novel because a lot of times these mundane details do point to the larger question of what happened or who done it–but I will laugh if people want to say that this advice is, in any way, universal.
Secondly, this perspective is so conflicted oriented. Why does it have to be a human bone? Why does the dog have to bite Ray?
Why can’t the dog lick Ray and why can’t the bone just be a bone?
Why does conflict have to be the driving force of a narrative (would this be a time to mention that I also hate the inverted checkmark narrative structure convention–because I do, I hate it)? I would argue that there is enough conflict in my life. I don’t want to read more about it.
What’s lacking in my life is community. Friendship. A dog.
Writing that encompasses these things, that are about these things, is something that I want to read, it’s something that I care intensely about.
I remember when I first attended college and we read William Carlos Williams’ poem about the Red Wheelbarrow. I didn’t get it at the time. Who cares about the red wheelbarrow, what purpose does it serve?
But I get it now, and I think that poem could be a response to Karen Sandler all by itself.