You have no reason to care about what I’m going to tell you, until you’ve finished reading.

Imagine if this page was sent to you by your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband. You would immediately give it priority. So, too, if I was your boss or employer.

Chances are, you don’t quite know why this is the case, or maybe you think you do.

This is a crucial question in writing or reading fiction. “Why would the reader care enough to sit through yet another set of paragraphs, pages or entire chapters written about non-existent people?”

Why would you read this, or really any piece of writing, beyond the fleeting compulsions of random curiosity?

First answering the “why” will help guide the construction of plot and character by looking at how value is construed in society, for which fiction acts as a mirror and amplifier. This “why”, at its deepest level, may also elucidate what makes homeless people seem socially invisible, or why a person might perceive others as being more or less human. Even in casual dating, people construct imaginary classes in which they situate themselves and sigh that some potential lovers are “just out of my league”.

Samples of dramatic conflict that derive directly from everyday life:

– An ugly old male millionaire dates and marries, or even openly cheats on a gorgeous young supermodel or famous actress.
– A beautiful woman plays endless mind games of emotional manipulation against a hapless man who is hopelessly ensnared by her carefully constructed illusion of perfection and mystery.
– A rich older man and cunning young woman battle for sexual and emotional supremacy.
– Someone from the lower rungs of society fights his or her way up to become a defender of justice from the top echelon of the social world, usually by defeating the incumbent “champion” of that world to become a “winner”.
– Two powerful adversaries, one fighting for good and the other for evil, clash in an epic struggle that will determine the fate of humanity. The adversaries can either be Godlike heroes, or two opposing groups that band together as tribes or “teams”.

Most popular stories contain at least one subplot along these lines. (Notice also how, in the first three examples, the plots only make sense using the assigned genders. Though not impossible, switching the genders would make a credible story more difficult to write.)

The best fictional stories are just as “real” as the stories that you see on the news — and the autobiographical stories that most of us tell ourselves about our own lives. The news media is a complete topic unto itself; suffice for now to say that news, especially the kind seen on television, is a type of entertainment rather than “fair and balanced” presentation of fact. The average news broadcast presents factual information similarly to how a Hollywood movie tells the “inspired by true events” life stories of dramatically compelling people. Facts come a distant second to the all-consuming imperative of keeping the reader’s eyeballs fastened to the unfolding narrative spectacle.

Remove the optional emphasis on fact, and what remains is compelling fiction. The structure is exactly the same.

Take another look at the sample plot types in the list above. How many news stories fall into those categories? Answer: practically every single one.

The extent to which a writer understands the machinations of society is the extent to which he or she designs and builds compelling stories. The value of science fiction in particular is to highlight asymmetries of power based on access to, and differential uses of, human technology based on social status (and in terms of character construction, aliens are humans in disguise).

This is the first of a series of entries. By the end of this series, your approach to fiction writing and reading, and perhaps to the “real” social world itself, will never be the same. Or maybe it will be just as it was before, but now you’ll be able to clearly say why (and how). Concrete, step-by-step fundamental understanding of social dynamics forms the basis of any worthwhile story. Most readers know none of this explicitly; you have to hold them by the hand while showing them how to fly.

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