A while ago, I realized that I basically have two mediums when it comes to writing. I grew up on fantasy like Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia and my first novel Paradox was a YA Fantasy tale. So, fantasy has a special place in my heart. It’s my origin story. Then, when I was thirteen or fourteen-years-old I read To Save a Life by Jim and Rachel Britts, a book that chronicles one young high-schooler’s struggle with his best friend’s suicide, his girlfriend’s pregnancy, his fall from popularity, and his friendship with the new, suicidal kid in school. To Save A Life is the first contemporary novel I remember reading. Not only did it change my life, but it also changed my entire identity as a reader and a writer. Because, after reading that book, I found that I couldn’t get into fantasy stories as much. It’s not that I didn’t love the genre or that I didn’t enjoy the books. I came to realize that I was looking for something more. And as I got older, my desire for that “more” in the books that I read continued to grow.
A year or so ago I realized that there’s a very good reason for my gravitation from a diehard fantasy lover to a fervent contemporary lover. It’s because, simply put, there are two basic and generalized modes of writing: Escapist Fiction and Confrontational Fiction. Let me break each mod down for you.
1. Escapist Fiction
Escapist Fiction is defined by stories that are written for the purpose of transporting the reader from the harsh realities of their world, where things aren’t always black and white, and into a world grander, more beautiful, more adventurous, and just all-around better than their own. Or, if the world itself is not “better” per se, it’s a world where hope is more tangible than in our own. Sometimes in Escapist Fiction the struggles and challenges presented to our heroes are there for the purpose of giving them something to overcome and thereby showing us a world where good overcomes evil. Generally speaking, an Escapist book is one that enables the reader to, well, escape. It’s worlds of magic and beauty and mystery where good is good and bad is bad. It’s worlds of heavy symbolism and allegory that can be used to paint a picture of the theologies and beliefs that fill our own societies.
Escapist Fiction tends to be illustrative in nature and often asks the question, what if? It tends to rely heavily on symbolism and allegory in order to paint a picture of theologies, beliefs, ideologies, and philosophies. Escapist Fiction tends to be more abstract in that regard. There’s lots of hidden meanings. And when done well, Escapist Fiction can be beautiful and incredibly powerful!
Some classic examples of Escapist Fiction are C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians. While stories like Narnia or LOTR don’t avoid questions or realities of evil, they nevertheless depict a world where, in the end, good always triumphs. And we need this kind of writing! These are the kinds of stories that remind us that, in the infamous words of Samwise Gamgee, “There’s good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for!” Escapist Fiction empowers us, encourages us, uplifts us, emboldens us, and shows us that we too can be good people – great people even!
Popular genres that could generally be considered Escapist Fiction are: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, Steampunk, Dystopian, and Paranormal/Supernatural.
2. Confrontational Fiction
Confrontational Fiction is defined by stories that are written for the purpose of engaging the reader in the relevant issues of our time or those of times past. As the name might indicate, Confrontational Fiction confronts human issues, whether they be social, political, religious, relational, or individualistic. Confrontational Fiction tends to be more character-driven than plot-driven. And, while Escapist Fiction like Narnia or LOTR have their fair share of exemplary character development, they rely heavily on plot to carry the story rather than the characters themselves. This isn’t a bad thing! Intricate and unique plots are the heartbeat of entertainment culture! It’s just a matter of purpose. We could ask of our stories, “Is this a story meant to whisk me away on an adventure? Or is this story meant to help me dive deep into some of the issues that people all around me face every day?” Confrontational Fiction not only depicts characters who are confronted with the challenges and harsh realities of their world, but it also confronts the reader, our perceptions of the world, our misconceptions, our beliefs, our perspectives. Sometimes, Confrontational Fiction serves to remind us that we’re not alone, that we’re not the only people on the planet who are facing certain things, that love, kindness, and selflessness can go a long way. Confrontational Fiction confronts places inside of us that are broken and hurting and reminds us that others are broken and hurting too and, more importantly, that hope, love, and healing don’t always come easily, but they’re available to us. Confrontational Fiction confronts places inside of us that need improvement, it shows us how deeply flawed we can be, and it strives to encourage us to become better people.
Confrontational Fiction tends to be expository in nature. Meaning, it intends to use explain or describe a specific subject or situation. It exposes a matter clearly rather than using symbolism or allegory to convey hidden, deeper meanings like the illustrations of Escapist Fiction.
Some classic examples of Confrontational Fiction is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. In TFIOS, we see two kids with terminal cancer fall in love and decide that they don’t want to spend the last little bit of their lives wasting away. They want to live. They want to enjoy what life they have left. And while we see these characters grieve as they come to terms with their own mortality, we also see people who are empowered to live their lives to the fullest. And because of that, we ourselves are empowered. Another example is the book I just finished, Safely Home by Randy Alcorn. In Safely Home, we see two men – one a successful American businessman, the other his former best friend who now leaves a meager life in the Chinese countryside. Throughout the story, we eavesdrop on much of these men’s conversations as the Chinese friend who is now a Christian and a prominent leader of the illegal house churches in China, seeks to remind the successful American businessman, who traded his faith and family in for money and fame, of what truly matters. Both of these stories confront relevant and, at times, heavy issues that many people in our world are faced with every day. Both of these stories seek to enlighten the reader about these matters (cancer, death, young love, grief, religious persecution, atheism, faith, Christianity, history, etc…). Both of these stories are important for very different reasons.
Popular Genres that could generally be considered Confrontational Fiction are: Contemporary, Historical, Romance, Tragedy, Coming-of-Age, and Literary.
Now, like I said, this is just a very generalized break-down of the two different modes (or purposes) of writing. Sometimes, authors find a way to sort of bridge the gap between the two genres. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman is a good example of a story that is both somewhat fantastical while dealing with modern-day issues of schizophrenia. My hope is that understanding these two different purposes might actually help you to identify where you may fit in the writing world. Neither category is more important than the other – as a culture, we need both! Myself, I fit in both categories. My style – or “purpose” – can vary between books. Some days I’m in the mood for an adventure. Other days I’m in the mood to confront and learn about some real-life issues. Whereas my friend Olivia Bennett (author of A Cactus in the Valley) is someone who is adamant about her “purpose” in writing. She doesn’t like Escapist Fiction because she likes to confront social/religious issues head-on. Her purpose as a writer is very clear to her.
Anyway, I hope this helped you in some way! In the comments section below, let us know which mode of fiction writing you tend to gravitate toward! As a writer, is your purpose to take your readers on an adventure? Or is it to confront some of the issues people are facing today?