I was looking for good advice on writing stories when I came across this:
“If a story teaches but doesn’t entertain, then it’s a sermon. If a story entertains but doesn’t teach, then it’s escapism.”
I found this to be quite strange. Not wrong—just strange. This statement views story as having to balance entertaining the audience with teaching them. A story lies somewhere on a scale between teaching and entertainment. If it strays too far to one end, then it no longer becomes a story—it becomes a sermon or escapism.
When a story becomes a sermon, it becomes a different medium of communication. The story loses its defining qualities which is definitely a bad thing. The sermon, itself, isn’t wrong. What’s wrong is the fact that the story is losing a vital part of itself.
However, it’s a little different with escapism. A story doesn’t become a totally different medium of communication when it becomes escapism, because escapism isn’t even a medium of communication. A so-called escapist story is still a story. Therefore, the bad side of escapism is escapism itself. But is escapism really that bad?
The Evils of Escapism
Escapism, in relation to story, is something that provides a distraction from everyday realities. Put simply, an escape from reality. The mode of escape can range from illegal drugs to daydreaming to videogames.
The main problem with escapism is that it is an escape. And escape is addictive. Too often people love their ways of escape more than actual reality. So they come back again and again to their drugs and fantasies to live out an “alternate reality” more than the real one.
Escapism also allows people to shirk responsibilities and situations that they need to attend to. This temporary abandonment of responsibilities builds up over time until a mountain of regret forces you to see the many opportunities and relationships you’ve squandered. Escapism allows you to live a fake life until you’ve destroyed your real one.
And that’s the worst part of escapism. It’s temporary. After the ecstasy and elation are gone, you’re left with the same dull life that you left behind. You can only escape it for so long.
All Fiction Is Escapism
However, despite all the harm and evil that escapism can cause, there’s a little known fact that still makes me wonder whether escapism has any value. The fact is—all fiction is escapism.
When you stay awake past midnight reading a novel, you have escaped out of the world in which you need to sleep and into the world of the story. When you come home after your daily grind and settle down for a movie, you’re putting aside the heaviness of your work and living another life through the visual medium of film. Why else would you want to invest in an imaginary person’s life, if you didn’t want to escape your own?
And it isn’t only a lower type of fiction that is considered escapism. All fiction is escapism. In fact, the best kind of fiction is probably more escapist than the ordinary. For in truly great fiction, the master storyteller weaves a story so captivating that it never breaks the illusion that the story you’re seeing is any less real than the life you are living.
This is the factor that most storytellers miss. In attempting to create a great didactic work, the authors of stories forget that all fiction is escapism. And that in order to have great fiction, you must have great escapism.
But if all fiction is escapism and escapism is as harmful as I described above, then doesn’t that mean all fiction is harmful? Unfortunately, yes . . . if that was all there is to it. Because for all of its potential harm, fiction and escapism does provide have an important benefit that we all need.
The Importance of Escapism
“The bow cannot always stand bent, nor can human frailty subsist without some lawful recreation.” –Miguel de Cervantes
This is the benefit of escapism. In the same way that a bow’s string will be worthless if always bent so will a man become if he always strains himself mentally and physically. Escapism helps you recuperate from the “daily grind” while giving you pleasure and delight. The potential harm of escapism only arises when one either abuses its recreational benefits through addiction or chooses a mode of escape that is in itself harmful—an occurrence all too common today.
However, I would argue that fiction is one of the higher forms of escapism. While other forms (such as sports or concerts) provide relaxation and pleasure, fiction offers didacticism—it teaches the audience as well. This method of teaching is unlike any lecture, sermon, or essay. The way fiction teaches is implicit and subtextual. It is unique but still powerful. Because fiction doesn’t just teach. It entertains.
Admittedly, I ended this article on an odd note. That's why I'm writing a follow-up article about exactly how fiction teaches, and how you as the audience should approach fiction. I'll follow that article with another one (or two) written specifically for authors and anyone who's interested in how one writes story. In that article, I will lay out the primary assets that a storyteller uses to entertain and teach.