How do you dramatize non fiction? Isn’t real life already wild and crazy enough? And isn’t that why we have fiction in the first place, so that we can be superheroes and E.S.C.A.P.E. our dull routine realities?
Yes, and yes, BUT. The role of literature, in my and many other authors’ humble yet strong opinion, is, in addition to the obvious benefit of enjoyment and entertainment, to reflect social trends and preserve cultural ideals. To inform, inspire, and innovate. The stories we write and read shape our culture and society, our minds and our lives. This is why I insist with the ferocity of a Category 5 hurricane on quality, beauty, and impact.
Remember when we discussed why we write? The reason I write is to open minds—including my own. For me, the most potent way to do that is by mixing up fiction and real life.
I’m no good at academic theories—I prefer living breathing examples. So let me tell you about The Visionary.
Pack It Tight and Give It Time
The Visionary is, to date, my most complex, creative, and insanely challenging work. It’s several decades of thought and observation about nearly every aspect of the human experience vacuum-packed into a 12,000-word sardine can. I dramatize only a little.
Short version: It’s a work of dramatic realism (see below for definition) written in poetic prose that explores the nature and role of time, light, and the human capacity for vision, and exhorts us to re-imagine and reconfigure the habits and systems that have rendered us completely blind to our own potential.
Short short version: It’s an inspirational critique of modern Western society. (Note how “inspirational” tempers “critique”—the message is, yep we’ve royally messed up ourselves, our society, the economy, and the planet, but there’s hope!)
Long version: You gotta read the book. If you can summarize it better than me I’ll send you a box of dark chocolate truffles.
It took me twelve years to finish it, because it took that long for me to amass enough experience, acquire enough knowledge, and attain enough insight and inspiration to be able to craft metaphors powerful and evocative enough for the expansive range of concepts and ideas that this work covers. It took that long to experience and then interweave the real life events that inspired the story among those metaphors, and to give it symmetry and structure that not only made sense and delivered a narrative, but also read and felt poetic. Plus I was busy living all that real life stuff.
Choose Your Poison (or, Form vs Function)
Dramatization takes varied and multiple forms. Docudramas are dramatizations in film or video. In literature we have realism in general, which depicts actual life. We also have magic realism, made famous by Gabriel García Márquez, where magical elements abound in an otherwise realistic environment or world. There’s realistic fiction, which is believable or plausible fiction (zombie, alien romances, and 50 shades of anything need not apply). You might have also heard of the non fiction novel, which employs historical figures and events intertwined with fictional elements; it can also be an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical novel.
When I was searching for the appropriate genre to label The Visionary, I found myself constantly falling through the cracks. So I employed a rarely used term: “dramatic realism.” It’s apparently so rare it’s not anywhere in the usual literary genre lists you’ll find. The one place I found that does list the term couldn’t bring itself to express it in a single sentence. So I did. I define dramatic realism as
“literature or creative writing that reflects reality or the real world the way we experience it with all of its subjective implications, and expresses that experience in a dramatic or dramatized, although not fantastical or magical, manner.”
Whew. At least it’s one sentence.
Mind you, I put the label on the work after the fact. You don’t—ok, some might but I don’t—set out to tell a story by selecting the style first. The form needs to fit the function. In this case, had I “chosen” any other genre, it would have either come out reading like an accidental offspring of Dalí and Shakespeare or it would have made Marcel Proust look like Augusto Monterroso.
Plot Your Path and Don’t Forget to Live
Bottom writer’s line, you have to develop a gut-level feel for the genre and style that your stories call for, regardless of the subject matter or plot. The way to do that is to become familiar with all of the genres and subgenres that have come before you, and to play with them, the way you would in a sandbox. Especially when you’re mixing salt and freshwater—fiction and real life, as it were.
My personal advice is, be clear, very clear, on what you are trying to dramatize and why. Dig deep. What is it deep inside that’s making you want to express [fill in the blank]? Who are you writing for and why? How do you wish to grow as a writer through this work?
Above all, remember it IS real life you’re dramatizing, so that’s the first step. Get out there, update your passport, log out of social media, and experience life in all of its maddening, beautiful, intricate simplicity.
And then tell us about it.
Author's note: the original version of this post was first published on The Write Practice.