The only two significant ways to grab a human being’s attention are sex and death. I don’t know about you, but I find this intensely disappointing. It seems to reduce all of human experience into one animal dichotomy.
Conversely, I’ve always seen art as a way out of this cycle. It’s the third option. It’s the one escape from death that doesn’t necessarily involve sex.
It also has a delightful capacity to warp sex and death. The art of propaganda can make a soldier desire death above sex. Religious art can turn sex into an object of mortal terror and redirect sexual energy to something more abstract.
Still, as a storyteller I’m obligated to recognize the truth of sex and death. It’s the only way I can write stories that are worth reading. The reader’s mind is somewhere between sex and death right now, so even if I’m more interested in the third option I have to use sex or death to get their attention first.
So what can we do about this as storytellers?
We certainly can go the pulp route. At the core of all pulp sensibilities is a simple philosophical commitment: let’s embrace sex and death wholeheartedly and stuff them into every nook and cranny of our stories.
There’s a lot to be said for pulp, both from an audience perspective and a storyteller’s perspective. It simplifies everything. You know what you’re going to get. It sells. And sometimes, every once in a while, usually by some freak accident, it’s art.
To clarify: when I say “pulp” I’m not lumping together all genre fiction, like many have done before. I’m talking about the sensibilities of pulp. All genres have their examples of pulp and art.
The difference comes down to what you do with the audience’s attention once you have it. Even the most lofty works of “high art” usually begin with someone dying, someone almost dying, someone having sex, someone almost having sex, someone being born, or someone almost being born.
That’s all fine. It works. It sells.
But for my money, here’s what you should do once you have the reader’s attention: point to all the other things in the world that are important, especially other people. Use your craft as a storyteller to convince the reader that other people matter even when they’re not dying, being born, killing you, or fucking you.
Give the reader wonder. We all have latent wonder because we were all children once. Children don’t need sex and death to be fascinated by something. There’s a deep wisdom in that. In fact, I think that’s exactly what wonder is: the ability to be fascinated by all the things that aren’t as big as sex and death.
And art is that which delivers wonder. Yes, it’s that simple.
When you have wonder, you can get through this terrifying world. And sometimes, at the height of wonder, you can even enjoy it. That’s why wonder is one of the greatest gifts one human being can give to another.
So go write. Start by using the tricks that work, hook our attention, and then help us find wonder.