As a teenager in the late Sixties I drove my parents crazy with this conversation killer, which I used whenever I wanted to disagree, disobey or just be belligerent:
“That’s not relevant!”
My parents, you see, were part of The Establishment. They didn’t get it. They weren’t right on. They were on the wrong side of the Generation Gap. I know, I know, my perspicacity at that tender age is amazing, huh? Such acuity. Such clarity. Such precision in my thinking and speech. No wonder my parents were flummoxed.
Needless to say I later recognized the fuzziness of my beliefs. I was naïve and beguiled by the buzzwords of the era, which seemed to me to capture and express something forceful and true, but which really had no more impact than the protest signs I carried. Ever since I have been wary of buzzwords. I am suspicious of terms that are vague, especially when we are talking about the craft of fiction. Edgy. Voice. Dark.
One such term is relevant. It’s a positive quality but poorly defined. What it describes in fiction isn’t exactly clear, nor is well understood how to get it on the page. It’s a quality that novels either have or don’t, though when they do it’s good. You want to see that adjective in reviews.
Indeed, some authors attribute the success of their novels in large part to their relevance, as Erika Robuck illuminated in this recent post here on WU. Are they correct? I don’t think so, any more than that their novels became successful mostly because of their publicists, but the desirability and power of relevance clearly has a grip on fiction writers.
So let’s hone in.
Being relevant is not the same as being topical. Nor is it the same as being resonant. Topical stories have the quality of being current, ripped out of the headlines, a take on what is happening right now. Resonant stories are less immediate. They echo in the mind. They cause us to reflect and ponder. We notice a parallel. We see a connection. Topical is like thunder, striking but perishable. Resonant is real but real like fog.
Relevant is a term that describes a story that directly bears on you and me, not with a warning or a warm association, but in a way that firmly says pay attention, this is important, this is potent and this is correlated to who we are and how we relate. Relevance is a meaning that isn’t applicable only now or maybe later. Relevance is a truth that has the quality of being true all the time even though we perhaps didn’t see it before this story.
When a novel has relevance there’s a snap! The connection we make to our lives or world is felt. We connect the dots. We get the meaning. Why we should read and remember is obvious. The story may overtly be about fictional characters but, no, it really is about us.
That’s not always obvious, though. The relevance of some novels isn’t in their snappy premises but in their stories. Many classic novels didn’t set out to be relevant, they became that way as time has showed that they still apply to us today. There’s a lot about society and human nature that that doesn’t change.
Frankenstein is about the hubris of scientists. Catch 22 is about being trapped. The Scarlet Letter is about hypocrisy. To Kill a Mockingbird is about prejudice. Peter Pan is about refusing to grow up. Lord of the Flies is about the savage nature just below our surface. Fahrenheit 451 shows how that savagery becomes institutional.
What makes these novels emblematic of what is universal in human nature is their singular focus. They are not about capturing life in all its glory-and-pain, or the whole human condition. They are not epics. They highlight one thing about us human beings that we all can recognize and they stay on message.
Speaking of message, most fiction writers feel their novels do have messages, which therefore ought to make them relevant. Why isn’t that always so? Aren’t all good messages universal, something we should all recognize and agree are true? You’d think so. Yet not every message infuses the totality of its story. Not every story makes a point so strongly that we hardly need to point it out. Not every character stands for just one thing.
Relevance can come from a riff on a social trend. The distinct category of Young Adult arose in the Seventies partly because of teen problem novels. We see social trends reflected in commercial fiction nowadays too, as with Harlan Coben’s novel Hold Tight, in which a well-meaning couple installs parental control spyware on their son’s computer—and learns far more than they bargained for.
Moral quandaries also produce a sense of relevance. (See pretty much anything written by Jodi Piccoult.) Historical events and figures can make us think about our own times, too, perhaps explaining the current vogue for novels about the wives of famous artists and writers. Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event sprang from a series of inexplicable plane crashes during her own teenage years. Stephen King shot a guy back in time to undo the Kennedy assassination in 11/22/63. Those novels say something about history but say more about who we are and have always been. The past is a springboard into our present.
Novels from cultures very different than our own can also make us feel we’re reading about ourselves. The Kite Runner (set in Afghanistan) is an obvious example, but more challenging novels like Alex La Guma’s In the Fog of the Season’s End (set in South Africa) can also clobber us with self-recognition. That said, if a cultural context or mindset is too far removed from ours we may not relate. To see ourselves there must be something of ourselves to see.
Most of all, though, relevance is a sense we get when we recognize that there is something in a story that we can emphatically say about ourselves. Relevance can come from a gimmicky premise but it can also come from a story that has a strong focus on some aspect of human nature. We recognize that we’re all like that.
Does that sound simplistic, or that it applies to every novel? It doesn’t. Think about it: Characters who are ordinary and like everyone don’t necessarily strike us as universal, whereas characters who are exaggerated and unlike others do. I don’t mean characters should be cartoonish. It’s less about appearance or quirks and more about characters’ beliefs and actions. Strong beliefs—especially when they go amiss or propel story events—produce a greater recognition factor than characters’ tics and traits.
Okay, with all that in mind let’s see if there are ways to make your current manuscript more relevant. Try these:
- What is the single most important statement your novel makes about human nature? Boil it down. “Human beings are_____.” Fill in the blank. Which character best represents that? Can your plot turn on one thing that character does? What plot event most strongly demonstrates that enduring truth about human nature? Can that event become the story’s crux, the action around which all else turns and without which the story could not happen? Make it so.
- Choose a character from your cast. What principle or human trait does this character stand for? Of what is he or she emblematic? Write down three more ways in which this character can even more strongly represent and demonstrate that human trait. Eliminate three ways in which we might see that this character is like anyone else. (They’re not, they’re iconic.)
- If your novel is set in the present, what is a social trend that it reflects? How can this social trend be more strongly highlighted through your plot? Can the plot become public news? Who in the story is for this trend, who is against it? Turn those stands into plot-changing actions. How can your novel make the case both for this trend and against it? Who benefits from the trend? Who suffers because of it?
- If your novel is set in the past, or in dual timelines, or in a made-up world, what is an event that has parallels to our own world and time? Which character sees it as people then would? Which character sees it as we now do? Put those two characters in direct conflict. How will each challenge, persuade or prove the other wrong?
- What is the biggest thing your protagonist must do in your story? Is it necessarily the right and best thing to do? List the alternatives. Make a case for each alternative. Assign each alternative to another character who believes that their choice is the only right one. Put those characters in direct conflict with your protagonist. Demonstrate in one way that each is correct.
- In how many ways can you show that your protagonist’s course of action is wrong? (Until we learn that it’s right.) Make your protagonist’s course of action not a mission or quest but instead a dilemma or quandary. Give it negative consequences equal to its positive outcome.
- If your novel is set in a different culture, what’s one way in which those people are no different than us? Create an additional action or event that shows that to be true. Do adolescents write painfully bad poetry? Are parents self-sacrificing and children ungrateful? Do families fight over wedding seating arrangements? Is there unrequited love or epic rivalry? Who has something to prove and to whom? How can any of that become central to the plot?
- In this story, what’s your point? Guess what, I’m not getting it. Make your point more strongly but make it in a way what forces me to draw that conclusion for myself.
Relevance isn’t automatic. Just because your project is fiction doesn’t make it relevant. The connections that cause us to feel a sense of relevance must be crafted in, deliberately infused, like smokiness in whiskey.
If working on relevance feels too self-conscious to you, or contrary to your intentions, or unnecessary in your genre, consider this: The opposite of relevance is irrelevance. That’s not something anyone wants said of their story.
How are you making your novel more relevant? Share with us.