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  • Alan Dale

Your medicine is called fiction – please read the enclosed leaflet


Why fiction is good for you

‘Escaping into a good book’ has almost acquired the status of a cliché in its own right. Who hasn’t instantly sympathised with a character tempted thus to evade stress, only to find that escape either curtailed, partial, or impossible?


‘He couldn’t concentrate on the narrative’, or ‘she found herself endlessly rereading the same paragraph’, are familiar, authentic and hence effective ways of demonstrating tension. Visualising a fictional landscape, or getting engrossed in a story playing out against a real location have been shown to offer recognisable psychological benefits. Physical changes of scene are often great stimuli for relaxation, exercise and revisiting of hobbies like photography or painting, to say nothing of writing.


Each of the above examples can illustrate how fiction actually benefits anyone experiencing the mental processes that it describes.


Relaxation by reading fiction serves as a useful, familiar and sympathetic action of any character, when one is seeking or developing a plot. Is the character thereby lured into some fatal carelessness that allows a villain to approach? Immediately, the possibilities are myriad. Has the reader missed their pursuer, way out on the moor, before he ran for cover, subsequently approaching the window?


Does the bookworm ignore the dog’s increasingly frenzied barking, only to look up in horror, as smoke begins billowing under the lounge door?


These are all ideas that use actual events, but using the reading character’s mental state can be equally effective.


The late Dame Iris Murdoch was a peerless exponent of this technique. Her reading characters often encounter devastating philosophical insights, or attain remorseful realisation of appalling truths, revealed via the text before them. One can easily experience, via such powerful, accomplished prose, the damp chill of suddenly focused unwelcome reality, or the emerging sunlight’s coincidence with dawning comprehension.


The villain approaching the isolated house, or the dog’s desperate warning of fire, might inspire a set designer, painter, photographer, model railway enthusiast or dramatist.


Turning to novelists, or short story writers, who hasn’t found ideas among others’ settings and scenes? Recasting these in an entirely different context, frequently with only the concept, devoid of any original physical features, offers endless opportunities.


Distraction is a well known antidote to stress. Fiction offers numerous categories of diversion, ranging from the visual to the mentally stimulating. Enjoyment of these, together with subsequent discussion among friends, fellow writers or hobbyists, is widely recognised as beneficial.

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