Hardly Plotter and the Awkward Social Issue

One of the reasons I love YA as a genre is the flexibility and the ability to incorporate discussions of social issues into books ostensibly designed as entertainment. There’s a long tradition of this and it’s really been exploding lately as YA authors start to write more books featuring queer characters, characters of colour, and other people from differing backgrounds and places of lived experience. This is very awesome for young readers who may be longing to encounter people who are like them in the fiction they read, and it’s excellent for all readers in the sense that it can provide an opportunity to access unfamiliar narratives and life stories. When you love a gay character and you meet a gay person, you have an area of connection and the real life person may be less frightening.

But sometimes, the integration of social issues can be really, really awkward. I’ve read a few books lately[1. No, I am not naming names, I don’t feel the need to single people out for attention, it just feels kind of mean-spirited.] where I have ended up cringing at the very earnest and excited desire to integrate social issues. The author’s eagerness is very clear and evident, but the execution is poor, and no amount of careful revisions and editing can save the book; it ultimately can become a tad polemic and almost lecturey for the reader, or it just feels very heavy handed.

Authors who are not writing their own lived experience must obviously do research to handle it well. That research can be extensive and may turn up pages and pages and pages of notes. Copious amounts of information. It can go into the creation of a very detailed and complex backstory that will really bring a character to life in the text because the character is so obviously three dimensional and complex. Because the author has clearly thought deeply about who the character is, and how the character should interact with the world of the book.

But when the author feels the need to show the research, it can be a bit tiresome. Exposition is lovely and I am a huge fan, but educational exposition makes me leery. The sort of exposition where the author spends several paragraphs lingering on that research to make sure readers know the author cares and really did think about it and studied it and came up with all kinds of material can be very dull, very fast. Sometimes it feels like an author is just genuinely interested in or excited by something and wants to share it, but cannot figure out a way to do so elegantly, and decides to shoehorn it in there anyway.

Showing, not telling, is something I often have trouble with when I am working on fiction projects. It’s the note I most consistently get from beta readers, that I need to focus less on exposition and scene setting and more on letting the story tell itself. More on allowing the characters to define and introduce themselves, as well; they don’t really need my help. If they’re solid characters and I write them well, I shouldn’t have to strut my research stuff and show readers that I really know what I’m doing. It will be obvious in the setting and the telling of the story.

As a result of my own shortcomings as a writer, I tend to be very vigilant with this stuff as a reader. Not in the sense of wanting to feel superior[2. After all, they have books in print and I do not.], but because it’s something that I know to watch for, now. My awareness of it helps me understand why it is so annoying for readers, and yes, it really is annoying. When you’re working on your own stuff, it’s sometimes hard to sort wheat from chaff. Everything feels critically necessary. It can be difficult to see clunky exposition and pathetic earnestness for what they really are. This is what agents and editors are for, to help identify these problems and weed them out before the book hits the shelf. When I spot it in an otherwise solid book, I feel sort of bad for the book; after all, it’s not its fault it was neglected.

Coverage of social issues is an important and critical part of fiction, I think, when it is done well. It can enhance a story, add depth, and create more interest among readers. But it can also be the death knell of a book when it is taken too seriously and handled with too much earnestness, when readers have nothing to escape to because the entire plot revolves around showcasing all the research the author did. As a writer, I know how frustrating it is when I have research and information I want to share, but I can’t fit it into my word limit, or into the feature or story I am writing, and so I have to set it aside to serve the greater good. Sometimes, you really do need to let that awesome factoid go, because it just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t mean you can’t bring it up ever; after all, that’s what interviews and book tours are for, and it will give you something to talk about when people want to discuss the research you did in preparation for the book.

There’s nothing wrong with holding a few facts back for future reference, or with writing up a very detailed backstory but not necessarily directly using all that material. It still contributes to the book as a whole, adds texture, depth, and complexity, even if readers never get to see it. Trust me, readers will appreciate your restraint.