Elements of Slice of Life EQ: Why do lifelike stories matter?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Slice of life specifically caters to the emotion of annoyance, which is a weak form of anger. Why annoyance? Slice of life stories are about real, everyday experiences--wake up, go to school or work, cook dinner, have casual interactions with others, go to sleep, and do the same thing tomorrow. Just like in real life, this constant routine can leave a character bored, dissatisfied, and annoyed with their circumstances. This leads to the plot: a character works to change their everyday life to get back to personal satisfaction.

ROUTINE

Since slice of life stories focus on the everyday and ordinary, they quickly establish the routine of the main characters. This typically revolves around either work or school--while it is cliche to start a story with a main character rolling about of bed, most slice of life stories begin at the breakfast table, on the morning commute, or right as the protagonist arrives at work. No matter the perspective of the story, the narrator goes out of his or her way to establish that certain events, such as lunch or class or a specific social interaction, happen around the same time every single day. For example, Don DeLillo starts his novel White Noise with narrator Jack Gladney leaving his office for lunch to avoid "the day of the station wagons"-- move-in day at his university. The description of Gladney's everyday life then continues over dozes of pages, looking at the details of his existence as a Hitler Studies professor.

Yet most stories start this way--To Kill a Mockingbird famously starts with the first eleven chapters containing almost no mention of the main conflict with Tom Robinson's trial, and that story is firmly in the genre of Southern Gothic horror. So is this all just exposition? What makes slice of life stories different? Well, slice of life goes beyond simple exposition and give exact, specific details of the daily routing, focusing on minor reoccurring events in order to establish ennui.

ENNUI

Ennui comes from a French term for frustration resulting from being bored with life. When a slice of life author describes all of the dull everyday routines over a long course of the story, he or she is trying to not only establish why the character is bored with life, but to also frustrate the reader. "Nothing really happens in the first half" is a common critique of slice of life stories, but it's not that nothing is happening--just as a horror author uses foreshadowing and mystery to build fear or a comic author uses jokes and unrealistic situations to build humor, the slice of life author has to build up annoyance in the reader before the cathartic release.

Ennui is central to the story structure. Since slice of life stories are about everyday events, there's not a lot of sudden plot events--any alien invasion, murder spree, crime of the century, or beautiful new girl next door would shift the story into a different genre. This isn't to say that slice of life stories totally lack events like a character dying or falling in love, but they are kept in the context of everyday life. Instead of a large external threat or journey driving the conflict, the conflict is inside the characters in slice of life stories. Typically, the protagonist is filled with ennui and wants to change their life, but continue to be frustrated when other forces trap them in their same circumstance. The goal of the main character then becomes to break the routine they have established.

MAGNIFYING THE MINUSCULE

"Wait--so there is an entire genre that intentionally frustrates the reader and has no exciting plot events? How can that be interesting?" Well, slice of life stories are less about the events that happen and more about gaining a new perspective on everyday life. While opportunities to get rid of boredom give a story its actual plot (more on that in the next section), the author keeps the reader occupied through the fairly boring routine section by giving the readers a new perspective on the world of the story, often by magnifying the minuscule ordinary objects and events that occur in everyday life. Slice of life authors will uses multiple paragraphs to describe, say, a dress or a plum or an octopus swimming. With such an intense level of detail, these objects often become symbols of major story ideas themselves, and by making dull everyday event seem life-or-death, the reader stays entertained.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

Just as the protagonist can't stand their everyday life anymore, an opportunity arrives that can give them an escape from the ennui of typical life. Opportunities for change in slice of life come in two forms: respite, which offers the protagonist an enjoyable break to pursue something good, and crisis, which forces the protagonist to deal with an unpleasant matter that's out of their comfort zone. Both respite and crisis function to banish ennui: with respite, the protagonist has a new distraction that breaks the cycle of boredom; conversely, once a crisis ends, the protagonist find new joy in regular life without the additional worries of the crisis.

Opportunities are seldom large life-or-death events: a quick game of hockey during a lunch break could be respite, while an unpaid bill could be a crisis. Common slice of life opportunities include a new rival, a new love interest, or a new living situation or hobby. The protagonist then has to find time and courage to add try to add this new element while maintaining his or her everyday life. This is the difference between slice of life and other genres. In a comedy, war, fantasy, mystery, or a quest, the protagonist would leave everyday life behind for a while. In a drama, crime, western, science fiction, or horror, the protagonist would give up everyday life to deal with the immediate issue at hand. Only slice of life (and romance, to a lesser extent) require the protagonist to stick as closely as possible to their unexciting everyday routine.

TEMPORALITY AND SEASONALITY

Yet no respite or crisis is permanent--eventually, the character will fall back into routine, even if the routine is slightly different or even more enjoyable now. This plays on the idea of temporality, or the concept that nothing ever last forever, so one must enjoy every moment of life possible. While a cheap trick some authors use to express temporality is to have someone or something in a character's life die, slice of life stories always look at small events that exist in a moment in time before they are gone. This could be one's childhood. This could be an athletic event, a dance, or a play. This could even be a relationship. Slice of life stories try to teach the protagonist that nothing lasts--not even the soul-killing job they work--so it's best to find happy moments as often as possible.

This sensitivity to time ties into another lesson slice of life stories try to impart: change, true change, takes time to happen. A character will not suddenly become a new person overnight, Ebeneezer Scrooge style. True inner change is hard work that must be done over an extended period. To drive this point home, most slice of life stories employ seasonality as an extended metaphor for this. Seasonality is the use of imagery and events that reoccur annually to illustrate the passage of time. This can be as specific as a character's birthday or vague as the first leaves of fall turning orange. This can be subtle: Kevin Smith's Clerks occurs over a single day, yet it's clearly established as spring when Veronica is urging Dante to sign up for the next year of school, as well as when Dante and Randall refuse to let work stand in the way of the first street hockey game of the season.

One way authors can structure seasonality into a text that only takes place over a short amount of time is to include anecdotes and vignettes. An anecdote is where a character or the narrator tells a brief story about another character and their experiences ("The reminds me when, this one time, my cousin Walter..."). A vignette is where an entire scene or section takes a break from the main action and characters to focus on a brief episode involving minor characters (The story goes from the wild party to the life of a gopher in the field across the street). Some novels like Winesburg, Ohio are even nothing but vignettes.

AMBIGUITY

While characters desire a change from their everyday life, the way to change is often unclear. Take, for example, Rob in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity: his longtime girlfriend Laura breaks up with him because he's too unambitious (which causes her ennui), and he spends the bulk of the novel unsure whether he should move on from her or try to win her back. This feeling is ambiguity, or an unsure feeling about something that can be interpreted in more than one way. The real world is full of ambiguity that slice of life stories reflect, even down to how the reader should feel about the characters. The reader is supposed to sympathize with the aforementioned Rob, yet he sleeps with other women and generally refuses to change for Laura. The ambiguity of slice of life is often used to keep the reader interested in the story, as there is suspense in a reader unable to make up his or her mind about how they feel.

PARADOX

Ambiguity is closely related to paradox, or the idea that two contradictory facts are nevertheless true. For example, a reoccurring paradox occurs in Thorton Wilder's Our Town where the people of Grover's Corners are depicted as both insignificant and very important. The narrator quips that the town is less than average, then goes on to say the same sort of people as dwell in the town inhabited ancient Athens and Rome and Babylon. Rebecca later recalls a letter addressed to "Jane Crofut, The Crofut Farm, Grover's Corners, Sutton County, New Hampshire, United States of America [...] Continent of North America, Western Hemisphere, the Earth, the Solar System, the Universe; the Mind of God," which illustrates that Jane is both so small in the grand scheme of the universe and still part of the mind of God (46). This paradox comes to the forefront in the climax, where a dead Emily sees how precious and important every moment of life is and still chooses to forget her memories, as they are ultimately insignificant after death. Slice of life authors pepper their stories with paradox in order to examine the conflicting nature of the human condition--the ultimately paradox of being born knowing that we must eventually die.

Know what paradox is not? Hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is claiming to support one belief while actually subscribing to another--"do as I say, not as I do." While this centers on a contradiction, a paradox contrasts two contradictory facts or behaviors, while hypocrisy is a claim to act one way when the person acts purposefully in another way. Paradox is also not irony. Irony is when the opposite of what is expected occurs--in Our Town, there are foreshadowed hints around George that he may have an untimely death, so it's ironic when Emily is the one that dies. The only thing that conflicts in irony is the expectation of what will happen and what actually occurs. Here's another example: in Clerks, Dante both hates his job and derives pride from his work at the Quick Stop--that's a paradox. Yet when it comes to his love life, he is willing to cheat on Veronica to get back together with Caitlin, who broke his heart by cheating on him in high school--that's irony (oh, and Dante eventually comes to his senses when a character named Silent Bob gives him advice--more irony).

INNER GROWTH

In a slice of life story, the entire plot isn't supposed to change the world of the character, just the life of the character. Very seldom does the character go somewhere new, get a new job, or get a new family--typically, the slice of life protagonist escapes the ennui of everyday life for a little while to gain a new perspective and appreciation for the life they already had. Emily accepts that George will be okay. Dante accepts that if he stops chasing his high school dreams and grows up, he'll eventually get to move on from the Quick Stop. Rob realizes that as long as he has Laura that he can put up with his dead-end career at his record store. After confronting his wife's drug dealer in an intense shootout, Gladney decides being a good father and professor is thrilling enough.

Slice of life Subgenres
  • BILDUNGSROMAN: These stories focus on a character's journey from childhood to adolescence or from adolescence to adulthood. While a bildungsroman can actually be in any genre, they are most commonly slice of life stories, and include Tom Jones, Emma, Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, and The Catcher in the Rye.
  • KUNSTLEROMAN: These stories focus on an artist's journey from a regular schlub to a creator of art. Kunstleromans include David Copperfield, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sons and Lovers, This Side of Paradise, and Cat's Eye.
  • MEMOIR: All of memoir has traces of slice of life, as they are individual slices of someone's actual life. Note that memoir is not the same as autobiography--while an autobiography is more of a serious reference work, memoir is structured more like a traditional narrative with narrative style. Popular memoirists include Augusten Burroughs, Mitch Albom, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, and Mary Carr.
  • NEW PROBLEM NOVEL: The new problem novel mixes the classic social novel that explores important societal issues (e.g., The Jungle, Working, Silent Spring) with the bildungsroman. These novels have teenage protagonists and commonly deal with drug use, rape, assault, racism, suicide, poverty, and sexuality. While these novels are lumped into Young Adult literature (YA), these two terms are not interchangeable, as YA lit also includes dystopian sci-fi llike The Hunger Games and fantasy novels like Twilight. New problem novels include Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Aristotle and Dante Discover the secrets of the Universe, and Love Letters to the Dead.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Simon and Brown, 2012.

Clerks. Directed by Kevin Smith, starring Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson. Miramax, 1994.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise (1985). Penguin, 2000.

Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. Penguin, 1995.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row (1945). Deckle Edge, 2002.

Wilder, Thorton. Our Town (1938). Harper Perennial, 2003.

Created By
Brandon Coon
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