I mentioned on Twitter yesterday that Ayn Rand’s book The Art of Fiction contained advice on how to determine the proper length for characters’ philosophical speeches. Enough people wanted to know what it said that I’ve copied it out:
Such an issue as “I always decide for myself” versus “I go by the opinions of others” is extremely wide. If two characters started discussing it out of a clear sky, that would be sheer propaganda. But in the above scene, the two men are stating an abstract issue as it applies to their own problems and to the concrete situation before the reader’s eyes. The abstract discussion is natural in the context, and, therefore, almost unnoticeable.
This is the only way to state abstract principles in fiction. If the concrete illustration is given in the problems and actions of the story, you can afford to have a character state a wide principle. If, however, the action does not support it, that wide principle will stick out like a propaganda poster.
How much philosophy you can present without turning into a propagandist, as opposed to a proper fiction writer, depends on how much of an event the philosophy is covering. In the above scene [a conversation between Roark and Keating from The Fountainhead] it would have been too early for the two boys to make more of a statement than they did, even though the issue stated is independence versus second-handedness, which is the theme of the whole book. Given what is specifically concretized in the scene, one exchange of lines is enough abstract philosophy.
A speech like John Galt’s in Atlas Shrugged would have been too much for Roark’s courtroom speech in The Fountainhead. The events of The Fountainhead do not illustrate as many issues as do the events of Atlas Shrugged.
To judge how long a philosophical speech should be, go by the following standard: How detailed and complex are the events which you have offered to concretize the speech? If the events warrant it, you can make as long a statement as you wish without taking the reader outside the framework of the story.
This would be a good time to mention that I’m trying to learn to write fiction a little better, so I can improve upon my occasional short stories. I’m not using Rand because I think she’s The Best Writer but because a friend had her book and gave it to me for free. So far my experience has been that people spend forever talking about overarching themes I’m not interested in like How To Set Up A Grand Conflict, and almost no time talking about the things I really want to know, like how to have characters go outside without something very abrupt and boring like “And then he went outside”. Or if I’m writing Lord of the Rings, I don’t want to know how to write the climactic scene at Mount Doom, I want to know how to get Frodo through two thousand miles of swamps without just writing “And then he walked through another five hundred miles of swamps, it was very wet and icky and there were probably fights with giant bug monsters” four times.
If anyone has recommendations for other good books on fiction-writing (preferably by beloved authors, so I know they’re legit), let me know.