Thursday, February 21, 2013

Where Is the Tact in Fiction?

As a return to my Where are the… series, here's something that I've been thinking about lately: What's happened to tact?

Are there still tactful writers, ones who tend to imply things more than they put them on the page? Yes. But they're not the easiest to find, and I suspect I know why.

Tact isn't chic.

See, it's not unusual for writers to ask about how much objectionable language is appropriate or how much on-page sex they can include in YA or even complaints about how they were using foreshadowing but their beta readers complained about it being too obvious. And the responses usually end up along the lines of "Any writer who refuses to use certain words in certain ways is shooting themselves in the foot." I've heard longtime professional writers say this, too.

But indirect dialogue, fade to black, and implications are all tools, too, in a writer's toobox. Yet when someone suggests or asks that writers use them, the response tends to be scoffing.

Which always makes me want to sit down and write a story that requires whatever specific technique is being scoffed at, because I'm ornery like that.

See, I look at writers, and I see people who have personal beliefs. Those beliefs should be coloring their writing. From what I see, those beliefs do color their writing.

Maybe the author believes Communism or aliens are of the Devil. That'll affect how the author writes about those things—or even if the author will write about those things. I've known people who believe all magic, even in fantasy novels, is Satanism, so it's evil and mustn't be thought about, read, seen, etc. (*dry tone* As you can imagine, I don't exactly tell them what I write.)

And if you believe the third commandment of the Decalogue, then you're going to be careful about how you use God's names, so as to avoid taking His name in vain. If you adhere to the fourth commandment, you might not write or work on Sunday.

All have writers have beliefs. And if we actually believe them, they'll affect what we write. Those beliefs might even affect which WiPs a writer chooses to work on.

And I believe a writer's beliefs should influence their writing.

Case example: Shanna Swendson. Her Katie Chandler series is a lot of fun. I'd even consider them appropriate for children. But they actually include things like a mention of the e-mail spam we all get, a roommate who (if I remember rightly) might be thought "loose", a situation wherein a motel manager is assuming the narrator's having a threesome…etc. But when she mentions these things, she says enough for you to know what she's talking about, then either leaves it or makes it part of a joke. (The "threesome" section is really funny. That's in book…five, though. I don't think it's six.)

I've read Shanna's blog for years. I suspect she wouldn't care for my books too much, if only because my stories' atmosphere tends to be more…on the dark or gruesome side. (I do have a fairly morbid aspect in my sense of humor, which tends to make friends just smile and nod and change the subject.) And my stories aren't set on the backdrop of business-world professionalism, so conversation can go down roads I've not seen hers go. (Possibly pertinent note: From her blog, she's active in her church.)

Patricia Briggs has also used tact in a way I found interesting. In her Mercy Thompson series (the covers are way racier than the contents, I assure you), there's a character who comes across as misogynistic and foul-mouthed, even in book one. If you read through book three, there's a even scene that feels like it has half a dozen f-bombs in it. But if you go back and actually count what he says, there's very much such language actually on the page until that scene in book three, which has far fewer cusswords than it feels like, when you remember it later. I don't think he uses one female derogative on the page, but you know he thinks them and restrains himself from saying them. (He's working on it, though.)

(I'd list Christian fiction as an exception, but… I find it hard to find Christian fiction titles that don't get heavy-handed in other ways. I understand why, considering who that genre is targeted toward, but that does mean I often feel like throttling the inexplicably na├»ve characters.)

But as a Christian fiction example, you likely haven't heard of Kathy Tyers. I'm a fan of all her original fiction. (A providential encounter with her books as a kid was what made me realize that Christian science fiction did exist, right at the time when I was starting to bemoan the lack of it… And I just dated myself.) If you like space opera, I recommend her Firebird series.

Personally, I've made no secret that I won't take the Lord's name in vain, either myself or by proxy through a character. I also try to be careful with objectionable elements, because I prefer keeping such things to the minimum needed to tell the story. And yet…I somehow doubt that my own attempts at tactfulness have sabotaged my stories, in my readers' eyes. Sure, I have a story idea or two that might never come off the shelf, due to what writing those stories would involve, but it's not as though I'm hurting for ideas.

So you can find tact, if you look for it, but that's just it: Those of us who like tact often have to look for it, because tact is something that's often seen as a negative rather than a positive.

And then there's the detail that what's tactful for one person can sometimes be rude, crude, or worse to another.

So tact isn't in fashion, isn't respected, and isn't easy. Which explains where it's gone.

Now, what about seeking to revive it?

What do you think about tactfulness in fiction? Do you agree or disagree with me, that tact needs to make a comeback? Do you have some favorite examples of authors who are tactful in some way?


PS. A clarification, added 05/01/19: I myself don't believe there's such thing as a "bad" word, just bad usage. I'm not sure if I'd reached that point in my belief about so-called "bad" words when first wrote this post, but I still believe that writers and readers both have a right to have preferences in what vocabulary they expose themselves to in what they write or read, whether that's avoiding words that net a move an R rating, or the jargon of a particular subculture, or whatever. And tact is still a valid tool, no matter what you're being tactful with or about.

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