The impact of COVID-19 and 2020 on contemporary storytelling

Hello fellow writers/book lovers! Apologies for my long hiatus. It’s been a whirlwind over the last few months. But, things are steadying and I am looking forward to getting back to blogging and maybe some writing in the new year.

If 2020 hasn’t been wild enough, have you ever thought about what it will be like for authors who are writing stories SET in 2020 (in full or part) in the future? I can’t claim to be the originator of the idea for today’s post. It was actually my husband – or rather the question he asked me – and now I’m off and running (writing).

I was telling him about a book I was reading earlier this week – The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (If you haven’t read it, I HIGHLY recommend it). The book follows the lengthy life of Addie who exchanges her soul for time. The book follows her life through the centuries from 1700s France to 2014 in NYC. As I was explaining the premise of the book to my husband, he paused and asked when the book was set. This led him to asking what will it be like for writers to write about 2020. And then my mind was off from there…

So, what exactly WILL it be like for people writing stories that intersect with 2020? Will it be a central plot point in modern literature? Or will it be a timeframe that people avoid like the plague (pun intended. sorry)? I know there have been some romance novels and the like written during the pandemic that utilize the pandemic as the premise for the story, though I haven’t read one yet. But, can you imagine an urban fantasy novel that crosses through 2020? Everyone is at home due to a modern plague and vampire/werewolf/fey battles rage in the empty streets of New York? OR will COVID-19 be attributed in an alternate universe story to aliens (actually I think there are some conspiracy theories that actually DO believe this to be true…but I digress) or some sort of villain bent on some personal cause?

Outside the realm of fantasy, will literary fiction pick up on the drama of COVID-19? Is it anticlimactic or simply a moment of deus ex machina for a main or rival character to contract COVID? Or will contracting COVID have some sort of deeper meaning that only a writer can conceive? (Please know that I do not take COVID lightly at all, nor do I take lightly the nearly 1.5 million lives lost around the world. I mourn each one and I hope that more people in my own country will embrace mask-wearing and other safety protocols to protect themselves and others.)

With many people in 2020 stuck at home, there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity for gallivanting around the city/country/world for our characters. And if your character chooses to do these things during 2020, what sort of impact will that have on a reader’s perception of your character? This is especially interesting and important to ponder. The choices we are making in our real lives are the sources of intense scrutiny by others. And while you must do what is best for you and your family, it doesn’t mean others don’t still judge you for the choice you’ve made. Though it may be fiction, readers can and will judge your character for their choices, too (of course that is the fodder for good book discussions!).

Then, what about other people who can’t stay at home? There is of course emphasis on health care workers. But, what about the grocery store clerks, the shelf stockers, the delivery drivers? While the pandemic has shed light on their experiences and significance somewhat (and they deserve much more recognition), their lives feel more like an afterthought to the entitled masses. As a side note: personally, I love writing about background figures becoming central characters. In the novel I had started imagining earlier this year, I was bringing to life a bartender. In the same way that The Mummy brought a librarian to the forefront, it’s not often that a bartender/grocery clerk or other similar roles become main characters. Perhaps COVID will bring more characters from different lines of work. I’ve already seen advertisements for a new television show called Nurses (not that nurses are background figures, but in TV they often have been overshadowed by doctors), so it looks like this is already starting to happen.

Continuing in other realms of entertainment, I’ve noticed some television shows that have restarted in the midst of the pandemic are choosing to simply embrace the reality of COVID and make it a part of the show. So, perhaps this is a good base point for imagining fiction set in 2020 in the future. This tactic reminds me of those shows that, in the past, have pivoted their plots when an actress becomes pregnant in real life and decides to make her pregnancy a part of the story. I always admired shows for doing that.

As for COVID, in commercials for the show All Rise, I’ve seen plexiglass partitions and people in masks. Will fiction work the same way? Will our characters be masked? If you want to be accurate, I would expect they will. If so, how will this impact character descriptions? Being unable to describe lip quirks, smiles or frowns begins to limit those social cues that are so important in writing dialogue and avoiding the “he said/she said.” I expect the actors in this and other shows are also facing similar hurdles. But, doesn’t that align with the challenges we are facing in real life too as we continue to don masks and stay home as much as we can? So, art continues to imitate life.

This year has been rife with challenges and sorrows for so many around the world. I know many of us are beyond ready to bid 2020 good riddance and are eagerly counting the days to 2021. But, when we look back on 2020, or when we relive 2020 through the eyes of a writer, what will that experience be like? I know I’ve asked a lot more questions than offering answers in this post. But, I think that’s the nature of this conversation and the fact that we are still in the middle of it. With a little distance, well…hindsight is 2020, right? Or so they say.

As a writer, would you set a story (in full or in part) in 2020? Why or why not?

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

2 thoughts on “The impact of COVID-19 and 2020 on contemporary storytelling

  1. I have considered your question and it’s right up there with acknowledging characters dealing with other major events like the Twin Towers falling or everyday inventions like cell phones. Timing is important. I can’t even think about setting any stories in 2020. Historical fiction for now.

    1. Thanks for sharing! I agree with your comparison to 9.11 and other major events/inventions and avoiding the topic in stories for now as a personal choice. I’m sticking with fantasy, myself 😉

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