The Biases Of Art

Art has one very clear bias, and that is a bias against untheatrical things.
on Sep 2, 2015 · 17 comments

You cannot easily make a good drama out of the success or failure of a marriage, just as you could not make a good drama out of the growth of an oak-tree or the decay of an empire. As Polonius very reasonably observed, it is too long. A happy love-affair will make a drama simply because it is dramatic; it depends on an ultimate yes or no. But a happy marriage is not dramatic; perhaps it would be less happy if it were. … All the things that make monogamy a success are in their nature undramatic things, the silent growth of an instinctive confidence, the stagecommon wounds and victories, the accumulation of customs, the rich maturing of old jokes. Sane marriage is an untheatrical thing. G. K. Chesterton

Art has one very clear bias, and that is a bias against untheatrical things. These untheatrical things are often the boring, workaday details of life, but also things that are too long, too slow, too complex without a ready reward. They can be good things, even universal dreams of the human race, but they are not theatrical.

Among them, as G. K. Chesterton so effectively pointed out, is sane marriage. Another is marriage in general. Most characters in most books are single, for the simple reason that marriage so endlessly complicates things. A married main character requires an author to either invent some relevance for the spouse’s presence in the story, or else invent some explanation for the spouse’s absence from the story.

Whether absent or present, the spouse continually has to be taken into account. Everything an author wants to do with married characters – send them on a quest, keep them late at work, imperil their lives – has to be processed through the dynamic of marriage.

Marriage also bars that part of romance most spotlighted in fiction – the first meeting, the tension, the question, the ‘ultimate yes or no’. A happy marriage is a better thing – and harder to obtain – than the initial romance. But it’s less dramatic.

Happiness is also untheatrical. It may not be true, as Tolstoy famously wrote, that all happy families are alike, but certainly unhappy families have proven more interesting to artists. Any hero who begins his story happy will soon experience a horrible shock. Stories are about the loss of happiness, the pursuit of happiness, maybe even the finding of happiness – but never about just being happy.

Quietness and peace are untheatrical. The heart of story is conflict, as an enshrined piece of writing advice has it, which means peace, like happiness, is much more talked about than actually experienced in fiction.

What I’m going to call real time – the time in which things actually happen in life – is very untheatrical. “Everything takes too long in this world,” complained Auberon Quinn, the errant satirist of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. But then he was an artist, and thought the world was a joke that, while good enough in its way, went on too long.

In books and movies “based on a true story”, we see with uncommon clarity the process of reducing life to art. One element of it is, of course, removing the dull parts and adding exciting parts. But much of this process is contraction – contracting time, contracting events, blending people, eliminating large and small complexities that look so pointlessly fussy in art.

leaf sctructureArt, you see, is bound. All art has its framework, its structure, whether it is two hours for a movie to tell its story, four minutes for a song to reach its point, or the beat of inciting incident, rising action, conflict, climax. And maybe the biases of art are best understood as the limitations of art. The untheatrical, what does not easily fit into the framework – that is what art, by its very nature, is biased against.

Life is larger than art. There are certain things that art can, at its best, capture with all the brilliance and clarity of light passing through a prism. But the whole of life, in all its multiplexed reality – that cannot be contained by art. And of that, we may be glad.

Shannon McDermott is an author of science fiction and has been occupied for years with constructing scenarios of the colonization of Mars. Her first Mars-centric novel will be released by Enclave Publishing in late 2024. Her earlier works include “Jack and I” (Once Upon a Future Time: Volume 2) and “The Fulcrum” (Hidden Histories: Third Flatiron Anthologies Spring/Summer 2019).
  1. I love this post. I don’t really have anything to add except it made me think outside the box and come into agreement with your conclusion. In real life, we’d all like happy marriages, happy lives. There’s something to be said for coming home to a man that loves just you and only you without having to worry about whether he made eyes at someone else. There’s something to a quiet, happy time spent in gentle conversation about nothing at all.

    But in a book or a movie, who wants that? Alas, you’re quite right.

  2. I love a good, happy marriage in fiction, precisely because it’s so rare.  Some of my favorite fictional characters are Wash and Zoe from Firefly, Peter and Elizabeth Burke from White Collar, and Karvir and Willa from H.L. Burke’s Lands of Ash – happy couples very much in love.  (Spoiler for “Firebird” series – I also love Firebird and Brennan as a married couple, even more so than before marriage!)  Of course there are little disagreements between them sometimes, or in the case of Wash and Zoe (spoilers!) some tension about whether Zoe cares about the captain more than her husband.  But by and large they are just happy married couples getting along well.  It’s refreshing!

    As someone who found falling in love to be scary, overwhelming, and full of restrictions and self-doubt, I don’t relate much to the falling-in-love phase fiction loves to celebrate.  I relate much more to the comfortable, contented stage of being married, and I appreciate fiction that represents it. 🙂

    Of course, these couples are usually set across a backdrop of greater conflict or danger, and that’s important for drama!

    • Another good marriage is the Incredibles’. There’s a tension between them that is thematically very important (in Helen we see the appreciation of a normal life, in Bob the longing for something amazing), and for a time serious doubts, too. But they show toward each other not only love, but also respect.

  3. This piece sir is absolutely and utterly brilliant.  I mean that with all my heart. I wonder if anybody here, probably even including you, grasps the profound  manner with which you have, I’m sure quite inadvertently, made a devastating biblical case against the driving mindset of this very website.  Oh yes you have.

    Incredibly insightful and penetrating analysis indeed. Thank you.

    • This piece sir is absolutely and utterly brilliant.


      Shannon McDermott

      “You look upon a woman!”

      I wonder if anybody here, probably even including you, grasps the profound  manner with which you have, I’m sure quite inadvertently, made a devastating biblical case against the driving mindset of this very website.

      Or against certain skewed and so-far-unlistening perceptions of SpecFaith.

    • This piece’s author is Shannon McDermott. Who is not a “sir.” 😛

    • Greg, that all of life is not filled with drama does not mean some drama does not exist. In fact, as Jill pointed out in her comment, drama is part of what it means to be human. That some develops over time and therefore does not a great story make, doesn’t cancel out the fact that there is indeed drama. So no, this article does not make a “devastating biblical case against the driving mindset of this very website.” The mindset of this website is to discuss speculative fiction from a Christian worldview. As long as speculative fiction exists, we have something to discuss, even if that discussion leads to an understanding of the limits of fiction.


      • Great points, Rebecca.

        In fact, God’s real-life drama of the gospel plays out across millennia of events, people, spaces, law codes, mercy, punishment, and revelation.

        And yet people to preach the word like to see this drama “compressed” into single verses, such as John 3:16, or sermons, or books, or works of theology that seek to categorize and/or explore the drama in-depth.

        The gospel drama is bigger than all these things. Yet it would be absurd to say that because it is so big and “mysterious” that we ought to do away with stories and theological works that help us know and love Jesus more. I think Becky and I both would reject this as wishy-washy nonsensical “blind faith” that rejects God’s written word. Not long ago it was called an “emergent movement” and such. Now it’s just plain ol’ boring liberalism.

  4. Jill says:

    I would disagree with Chesterton. As somebody who goes out of my way to protect my life from drama, I can tell you that it’s ultimately an impossibility. Even the best marriages have some conflict and drama that could be condensed into story. That’s what’s really going on, anyway, as the author of this piece points out–the condensing and contracting of time to resolve the conflicts, no matter how minor or major, in a short time frame. If our lives weren’t fraught with conflict, it’s difficult to see how the resolution thereof in stories would even resonate with our souls. Sometimes stories resolve tragically. Sometimes they resolve in subtle ways. Sometimes, there are elements that don’t seem to resolve in obvious ways. But the stories themselves always resolve. That’s exactly like life because every part of life is theatrical. There are no untheatrical parts.

  5. Great article, Shannon. I can’t help but wonder, however, if it isn’t our job as Christian artists to move past the easy theatrics which”realistic” art so readily depicts and move to the greater, more dramatic, eternal theatrics which may be slow and may involve peace and trust and obedience. I don’t think it’s easy, but I wonder if that isn’t the challenge we can and should take up.


  6. notleia says:

    Well, it’s not that it can’t be done: it’s just harder. Looots harder. One of the reasons Wash and Zoe work — or, more broadly, why Firefly works so well — is because they don’t have to carry the show by themselves. Even if we have a Main Character’s Main Character in Malcolm Reynolds, we have these other characters to bounce off him and spin off elaborations upon and even go off and do their own thang.

  7. Julie D says:

    “Mawwidge. Mawwidge is what bwings us togewer today.” Some of my favorite portrayals of marriage in secular media comes from speculative stories, oddly enough.  The Dresden Files have Harry’s best friend Michael and Michael’s wife Charity; he looks at them from the outside and even without being privy to their secrets, he sees something valuable there.

    A more in-depth look at marriage shows up in Moffat’s work on Doctor Who, particularly in the Ponds and the Doctor and River. * There was a two-part post on here after 7a,  “It’s Called Marriage” exploring the topic from a Christian angle, but I’ve also seen some meta on Tumblr (meta=analysis of varying length, sometimes only a paragraph) talking about how Moffat used the Doctor and River’s relationship to explore a broader range of marital experiences; not just meeting or falling in love, but trust and betrayal and arguments…

    Sure, it’s easier to write a falling-in-love story than a living-in-love story, but maybe from a different angle…

    *Did anyone see today’s announcement? SQUEE!

  8. I just spent about 45 minutes composing a response to you Rebecca, but I’m not going to post it at this time. The reason has nothing to do with you, this site or anybody here. I’ll have to leave it at that for now.

    If you really want to see it I’ll show it to you, but I have reasons to not want it public right now that I didn’t think of until after I wrote it.



    • I will include the opening part Rebecca:
      Rebecca, I had a Skype conversation this morning in which I said to the person that if anybody would get what I was saying from such a short comment it would be you. (True story.)

      The fact that you didn’t is no deficiency on your part as it was a very short hurried comment. You did miss my point.

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