Friday, November 26, 2010

Driving a Story with Political and Social Issues

With our country so dramatically divided along political lines, I’m wondering how many of us are exploiting this rich source of conflict in our storytelling. Of course, there are many reasons not to do so, among them the danger of including time-stamped references that annoy our readers and the trap of using today’s headlines to drive a story that may not be published for years to come. So are there perennial political and social issues that can drive a story without running the danger that a book will become obsolete?

I would say ‘yes,’ based on how Raymond Chandler wrote about corruption and racketeering in southern California in the 1930s and '40 in The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely--books that became classics that are avidly read today. Another example of using current events to write a timeless story is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which he calls a ‘non-fiction novel’. In this case I think the timelessness of the book comes from Capote’s masterful portrayal of the psychological relationship between two murderers who commit a horrendous crime that they might not have been capable of as individuals.

In my own work, I strive for a balance – for example, there are some current events, such as Russia’s interference in the government of Chechnya, that I used to drive elements in the plot of  The Last Matryoshka. My reasoning was that this was a persistent conflict that might change but unfortunately will not disappear overnight. In Ask the Dead, one of the antagonists is an anarchist, whose misguided idealism and thoughtless actions have a domino effect that harms several innocent characters in the book. In this case, the material was not time-sensitive and will hopefully pass the test of time.

Using political and social issues to drive a story is a big topic! So please - fellow readers and writers – join this discussion and share your own favorite “political” mysteries or examples from your own writing if you would like to do so.




  1. That's a cool question. I wrote my first murder mystery because I was furious with Toronto's political climate (the victims in the book are all politicians), but as I wrote, I lost my anger, and it was the mystery, not the issues that drove the book in the end.

    Certain political issues stayed open for debate in the book, but I tried to not represent one school of thought too much. (I think it worked - I'm fairly conservative, and people told me me it was a tip of the hat to the left end of the spectrum!)

    So to answer your question: I would avoid using fiction to preach one way of thinking, but opening social/political questions is a great use of an entertaining platform.

  2. @Robin - Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree - stirring the pot is entertaining but it's best to let readers draw their own conclusions about social/political issues. Would like to know more about your books - feel free to post a few excerpts here!

  3. My stories are usually a combination of ideas: a real crime that has stuck in my mind and a social issues that is important to me. For me, most social issues are timeless, as cultural progress is, unfortunately, quite slow.

  4. @ LJ - this sounds like a good approach. Can you give an example?

  5. Anonymous12:19 PM

    Unfortunately there are many social issues that will never become obsolete; poverty, family breakdown, domestic violence... I won't go on, it might become depressing. In The Belvedere Field the issue that drives the plot is child abuse. I hope that doesn't put you off, it's not as gloomy as it sounds!

    Of course one of the greatest fiction writers on social issues was Charles Dickens. Take Little Dorrit, for instance, which includes the collapse of a bank, or Oliver Twist, where poverty leads to crime.

  6. Tony - I agree - there's no shortage of crucial social issues to write about - I think the challenge is to do so in a way where the personal connects with the universal - I have The Belvedere Field on order and look forward to reading it!

  7. Anonymous12:49 PM

    Joyce, definitely, unless you're actually writing a political manifesto! And I think the character needs to have more aspects to their personality than the issue alone. I couldn't help wondering at the end of Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy what Lisbether Salander was going to do with herself with all her problems solved!

  8. Tony - could be a great opportunity for character development in the 4th book (which I gather was partially completed before Larsson died). I think people - whether fictional or "real" - are increasingly defined by their "newsworthiness" rather than any deep character traits. A good reason to keep writing high quality fiction!

  9. Anonymous5:33 AM

    Great post, Joyce. I've been thinking about that issue and how to incorporate it into my next project. Thanks for the thoughts!

  10. As a physician, my initial motivation for writing fiction was to expose some of the problems within the medical field e.g. Wednesday's Child was written in the late 1980's when most doctors were unaware of the cues that could tip us off. The story is told partially from Jeremy, a precocious 5 year old's, POV. When the book came out, my co-author husband and I were invited on lots of talks shows as "child abuse experts" which we were not, but it did shine a light on the subject and helped many of my colleagues understand the often subtle cues better. In my new series starring Sammy Greene, a feisty, young radio talk show host, I used the thriller genre to expose the ethical dilemma medical researchers might have to face these days when their studies are funded by private corporations. In the upcoming Sammy Greene novel, Devil Wind, I focused on what happens when fear in injected into a political campaign. So, to answer the original question, I think social and political issues are the perfect driver for fiction.

  11. @Deborah - thanks so much for your interesting comments about the social themes in your books. I heard from one of your characters today - Sammy Greene - she befriended me on Facebook! Look forward to getting to knmow her in the pages of Devil Wind.