I recently finished David Zarefsky’s audio course on argumentation and reasoning. (Yes, I buy things out of mail-order catalogs. Leave me alone.) In that course he went into great detail in explaining how arguments work, what kinds of arguments we come across, how they succeed and fail. Many of these aspects of making and responding to arguments, I never paid much attention to before.
I started to wonder: how do we make arguments using fiction? I started to think about my own work. I’ve been working on a short story about zombies (I never claimed to think deep thoughts) and I realized that in that story I’m making points I think are important about friendship and fellowship, the nature of illness, and pacifism. But those points are a mess; I’m not arguing them very effectively, and I want to know why. These next few blog posts are the result.
Now I suspect that there is a large and rich body of scholarly literature on the subject, but I’m lazy and like to make stuff up. (I kid, a little. I’d love to read anything you care to suggest on the subject!) As it turns out, I can blather quite a lot on this subject, so I’ve broken this post up into multiple parts, which I’ll post over the next week or so, making adjustments according to the feedback I get.
What Argument Is Being Made?
I see arguments in fiction all the time: characters argue with each other, for an easy example, and the results of those arguments steer the plot or affect how the reader thinks of those characters. Those arguments are interesting, but they’re rarely used to make a larger point about life, the universe and everything. I’ll talk later on about some subjects that will make those arguments more effective.
The arguments I’m interested in here, though, are the ones where the author is the one doing the arguing. If you follow me on Twitter you know that I’m a fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Now that was a book that made an argument! Tolstoy really wanted you to know exactly what he thought, for example, of the Great Man theory of history. He wanted it so badly that he stops the action to just flat-out lecture on the subject.
Fiction can be more subtle than that.
First, let’s talk a little bit about the kind of arguments that are made in fiction, just make a broad sweeping generalization for the point of argument *ahem*. I am going to claim that there are two basic fictional arguments (these are my terms, and are probably poor ones):
- Arguments that explore an issue.
- Arguments that seek to persuade.
In an exploration, the author seeks to explore all the dimensions of an argument, either to illuminate its complexities or to discover an answer through writing. I almost called this one “the essay” — in the original meaning of the term, from the French “to try” an essay was intended as a short piece to try out some ideas, to put some thoughts down on paper. To my mind, you know a pure exploration when at the end, you can’t quite figure out what conclusion author comes to; usually both/all sides of the argument are portrayed with sympathy, and characters who are identified with one side of the argument or the other are not portrayed as irrational jerks.
There are plenty of good examples, especially among stories where the argument isn’t the focus. Douglas Adams did a lot of exploring, I think; it felt sometimes that he was dancing around a point without actually making it. Vegetarianism was one of those topics — DNA was, I gather, himself a vegetarian, but I feel from reading his work that he was more interested in exploring what that meant (talking cows that want you to eat them!) than making a point about it. I’d also like to mention Ken Liu’s short story Běidǒu, in the anthology “The Dragon and the Stars“. I still don’t quite know whose side he takes on the apparent conflict between progress and preservation of virtue, and it drives me nuts.
In a pure persuasive story, the author has a point the he or she wishes to carry the day, and is telling the story to make that point. Aesop’s fables, Jesus’s parables, Plato’s dialogues, and Ayn Rand’s novels all fit into this category. Frequently you find sympathetic characters who are dealing with idiots and assholes — half the books on my shelf as a kid basically used that structure to argue “grownups should leave kids alone!” And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Gosh, the Lord of the Rings also kind of fits that description” then either you’re getting ahead of me, or you’ve read Michael Moorcock’s essay.
Despite the examples I used, I’m not saying that the story itself is necessarily wholly argumentative, or even primarily so. I’m going to suggest later, though, that all stories make some argument to some extent (and that knowing what that argument is will help you write it) Many make multiple arguments, of both types. There’s a continuum at work here, and I think that if we consider the individual argument to be the unit under discussion rather than the individual story, it will be easier to categorize.
Now, I said something insidious in that description of explorations: does the author really explore all the dimensions of an argument? Not all conceivable dimensions are relevant, and of those that are, not all fit in the space allotted. Choices are being made, then, to determine what the dimensions of the argument are going to be explored, and those choices are not always the one a reader would make, and they’re not always made without an agenda. Seeming to present an array of dimensions gives the appearance of open-mindedness, but that can mask intentional exclusions: A narrative biography that “explores” the question of whether Gerald Ford was a great president or the greatest president isn’t nearly as exploratory as one that also explores whether he might have been a lousy one. Furthermore, when an author is very skilled at making a point, it can be done in such a way that it LOOKS like an exploratory argument… but somehow everyone seems to come to the same conclusion after reading it, don’t they?
On the flip side, many authors, in exploring an argument, feel that they need to come down on one side or the other simply for the sake of closure. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express can be viewed as an exploration of the question of what constitutes justice in a capital crime: when is it OK to commit murder? When is it OK to let murderers go free? (This was made much clearer in the wonderful made for TV version starring David Suchet, by the way) Christie herself seems to waver, but a mystery needs a resolution. Her solution is for Poirot to lay out the facts of the case two different ways: one that captures the true but emotionally difficult solution, the other a palatable lie. Poirot himself does not choose which interpretation carries the day, and I think in this way Christie got away with only weakly coming down on one side of the argument.
As I said earlier, there’s a continuum at work here, and I think that knowing where your story is on it, will help you accomplish your goals more effectively. That raises questions: if you make an argument and the readers disagree, does that detract from enjoyment of the story? As Dorothy Parker said of Mussolini’s novel The Cardinal’s Mistress (which I suspect made a few minor arguments…), “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Is that, rather kinetic, potential reaction a reason to bury your arguments deeper, or muddle them with a little more exploration? Conversely, if you fail to come to a strong conclusion, will your readers throw your book across the room anyway? I don’t have answers to these questions, but they’re worth thinking about.
Many thanks to Andromeda Yelton for her comments on Part I. In Part II, I’m going to discuss what I believe to be another, orthogonal, axis: who in the story makes the argument? Do the characters make the argument, or does the world? I’m already written the first draft, but I’m open to suggestions.
As usual, I’m probably full of shit. Feel free to say so in the comments below.
(ETA: Part II is up!)