Daily Archives: November 16, 2008

Getting Schooled: The unbearable lightness of yearning

Ha. You thought I forgot. But, I. Did. Not. Butler is back and he’s feisty as ever. Today’s topic is yearning. Or, in Butler’s words:

I would say that of the three fundamentals of fiction, there are two that aspiring writers never miss: first, that fiction is about human beings; second, that it’s about human emotion. Even when fiction writers are writing from their heads, abstracting and analyzing, they’re mostly analyzing emotions; so even if they’re not getting at the essence of emotion, they’re trying to.

But the third element, which is missing from virtually every student manuscript I’ve seen, has to do with the phenomenon of desire.

By which he doesn’t mean romantic desire (although I suppose it could).

Yearning is always part of the fictional character. In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.

He goes on to state that you can have a story rich in character, conflict, problems, attitude and so on, and totally miss the desire boat. And if that ship sails without you, you pretty much don’t have a story.

This is also the chapter with what I call the Great Genre Dis. Butler draws a firm line between writing that is art and … all the rest, what he calls “entertainment writing.”


His main argument is essentially that this type of writing uses generalizations and abstractions and that what readers do is fill in the blanks left by those abstractions.

I’m neither here nor there with this argument, although I know it upsets some writers greatly. There’s some great genre fiction out there and some pretty crappy literary fiction. I also find some “entertainment fiction” far from entertaining and some literary fiction utterly absorbing.

I don’t know art, but I know what I like? What else can you say?

Still, Butler does give genre writers their props, since they almost always “get” the idea that their character yearns for something–to solve the mystery, save the world, get the girl. (Dude, that sounds like a great story. I’m so writing that.)

So, genre wars aside, yearning is a concept that you can apply to any type of writing. I decree it so.

Speaking of yearning, I’m sure you’re dying to know how I’ve done on my quizzes so far:

Quiz 1: 13/15 for a B

Quiz 2: 8/8 for an A

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