Being Entertaining is far more important than Being Honest
Do you have a great story to tell? Is it good, or is it great? Do your friends find your stories mildly amusing, somewhat clever, a little sad, and really good in parts, or do they find them great? Most aspiring writers don’t write great stories right out of the gate, and aspiring writers are a dime a dozen. Great stories litter our libraries and bookstores. Do you have a great story to tell? Most people do. There’s nothing special about you, or your “great American” story, not yet.
“I hear you want to be a writer,” a friend of mine said. “One thing about young writers (which I was at the time) is that they have not accumulated interesting stories. I don’t mean to be insulting, but at your age you just haven’t lived enough life to have interesting stories.” After a back and forth in which he asked me to tell him one of my stories, and I did, he offered me his own. His was “part John Grisham and part Ludlum”. The story was not as great as he thought, but the two points he made about material stuck with me.
The first was his point that the continental divide between great writers and great storytellers is entertaining material. A writer can craft a fine tale, but if it’s not entertaining, it may not make it past the sites that adore a great story. The second point he made, perhaps incidentally, was that there’s nothing wrong with embellishing, if it makes the story better.
But you are a great writer with excellent material. Your Aunt Clara told you so. You have a gift for storytelling that crushes those around you. You get reactions and laughter that others don’t and amazement is directed at your storytelling aptitude. The only problem is you may have enough material to entertain your Aunt Clara, because she knows you and she knows the characters in your life, but you don’t have the type of material that will entertain a wider audience. That’s a problem, but it’s a problem that has haunted storytellers all across the spectrum from the aspiring storyteller to the legend.
It is a fact of life though that some of us are just better at telling stories than others. It’s a fact of life similar to the fact that some people have natural gifts that lead them to be better at basketball and football than others. Some would say that the ability to tell a story is a gift, but I’m more inclined to believe that some people just enjoy it more, and when one enjoys something more, they work harder at it. The fascinated storyteller studies it, finesses it, and learns from those around them who do it better. Even in its most primitive form, such as the sharing of memories with friends and relatives, some of us learn how to tell a story better than others, because we want to tell a story better. We mimic those that tell stories better than us, and we correct the mistakes we see in others’ attempts.
One thing I learned, through the course of my life, was to trim the fat. I used to believe that my audience needed all of the details to appreciate a story. I then learned that all of those details harmed the most crucial element of storytelling, pace. Pace is crucial for we must treat our audience as if they have a five-year-old’s attention span. Storytellers then learn, through trial and error, that if we focus on pace too much, we leave crucial nuggets out. Achieving the hybrid involved a never-ending learning process.
Before entering into these stories we tell our relatives and friends, however, we must make time for the obligatory kid and pet stories. It never ceases to amaze me that when a room full of highly-evolved, well-educated adults gather they spend so much time obsessing over pets and children. When we’re done obsessing over our kids and pets, we share memories. It’s in these moments that a true storyteller is separated from those who struggle with details, timing, the proper emphasis, and the number of syllables to use to punctuate a punch line. It’s in these moments that we learn the art of presentation.
On the art of presentation, comedian Steve Martin once compared comedy to music: “There is a harmony to comedy,” he said, “in that three beats are always funnier than two and four beats is a bit too much.” Only someone that gets off on telling stories, and trying to make people laugh, would focus on the minutiae of presentation so much that he focuses on beats. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve changed a word, a phrase, or a paragraph to get the rhythm right, or the beat down. I can’t tell you how often I’ve changed an infinitive in a sentence because the alternative just didn’t feel right to the harmony of a paragraph. It’s that attention to detail, that Martin alluded to, that makes storytelling an art form we all enjoy so much.
Once we gain a feel for presentation, and all of the related and inter-related minutiae, the next question is how do we come up with that material that reaches that wider audience and eventually lands you on the best-seller list? Having never achieved the best-seller list, I must admit I have only one super secret, decoder ring answer to all that: hard work. Unless you find a genie in a bottle, or steal an idea from someone else, I can think of no better way to give birth to an idea than through writing a ton of material.
Creative Writing teachers say, “write what you know”, and that is an essential activity in getting us to point A. How many of us have written those “What I did on my summer vacation” stories for our English Composition teachers? How many of those of us who wanted to write the next Crime and Punishment considered these exercises pointless? “Get me to the meat!” we mentally scream. I want it all, and I want it now! Those exercises weren’t entirely pointless, however, they got us thinking, writing, and spring boarding to that something something we considered magic.
That springboard launched those of us that wanted it to take that pointless exercise to the idea that we could write something fantastic … if we honed that artistic muscle in our brain. If we wanted that something fantastic, we learned that the best way to springboard to it was to read some of the masters that sprang from their own springboards. If we wanted it bad enough, we learned that the best way to achieve it was to launch ourselves into more writing and reading, and even more writing and more reading, until we eventually and accidentally landed upon an idea. Some of us took that little springboard to greater heights and more material, and others considered it a pointless exercise required by a teacher who knew as much about achieving the best-seller list that we did.
This leads us to one of the most vital questions all fiction writers must ask themselves: “Will anyone care what I write?” The immediate answer to this question is no. Unless you’re already famous, people won’t care what you think, what happened in your daily life, or if you have a propensity for catching colds that your mom says is epic in proportions.
“Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs (major leagues in baseball) with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it only means you are a slob.”
Until you get famous, and those who care about celebrities care about you, you’ll be a slob, until then you’ll need to write something that someone cares about. Nobody cares that your friend has a propensity for lying, for example, unless that characteristic can be added to one of your characters to make them more colorful. Nobody cares that your aunt is ultra-sensitive, even though everything she has in life has been given to her on a silver platter, unless you can infuse that characteristic into a character in a manner that is entertaining to a greater audience. Nobody cares, unless you can translate these characteristics in such a manner that reminds us of our lying friend, or our hyper-sensitive aunt. Or, if you can’t make this crossover, then you must make that character so damned entertaining that we won’t care when we can’t relate.
“The key to convincing another person of your point of view,” Philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said. “Is to make them believe that they arrived at that answer themselves.”
Convincing someone that they’ve reached your point before you do, is called manipulation in the writer’s lexicon. When most people see the word manipulation, they think evil. They think of a totalitarian leader manipulating their citizens to think a certain way, but a writer can use their powers of manipulation for good, if they do it right.
How many of us have laughed at a funny book, cried during a dramatic one, or were scared by a horrific story? When a reader experiences emotions, after reading a series of words on a page, they were manipulated by the author. If a reader prefers to think of it in other terms, that is their option, but the vein remains the same. The reader was made to care about the central character in ways they considered endemic to the reader, when in all actuality it was the author’s skill to be universal that led them to that point. The author carefully crafted a visual portrait picture that trapped the reader into caring.
It’s the job of the writer to manipulate the reader into believing that they care. It’s the writer’s job to create an environment through which a reader is willing to suspend disbelief.
“If a writer can infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested. “The reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”
In other words, an author could be the oddest, smartest, most sensitive storyteller that their friends have ever seen, but the reader don’t know them, and the reader won’t care about the author, or their wacky takes on life, until the reader can relate to the wacky world the author is in charge of creating.
This leads us to the next question: What kind of liar are you? When you were younger did your relatives and friends constantly accuse you of fudging the truth? If that’s the case, you may be a writer. Did they question everything you said, based upon your history of exaggeration and fabrication? If they did, you may be a writer. Were you so good at lying that they were willing to suspend disbelief for a moment, because some part of them wanted to believe your story? If that happened to you, you may be a writer. If you’re a born liar that needs some venue for channeling that inclination to exaggerate your truth to entertain those around you, welcome to the world of words. You can let your freak flag fly here, and we’ll welcome you with open arms. You can be crafty in our world. You can lie, embellish, and exaggerate to entertain. In the world of storytelling, story is sacred, as is the art of being true, even if the writer is being truer than true.
“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” –Ernest Hemingway on symbolism.
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
When writing nonfiction, we hover over a fault line of true versus truer than true, and we should always side with true. For in most cases, nonfiction is far more entertaining than fiction. It’s a feel that the author shares with the reader, a seam that will tear with wild exaggeration. We need to be careful, in other words, to avoid some exaggerations we find entertaining, because the definition is entertainment is subjective. This is where the manipulative skill of the writer comes into play, for if the author can help the reader define subjectivity, they can both enjoy some exaggerations that prove truer than true for the purpose of entertainment.
It takes a very steady hand, but those who have written as many stories as I have know what I’m talking about. The art of being true, without necessarily telling the truth, can be found in the art of creating creative non-fiction. If the author is true to the character, the pace, the layout, etc., a fudging of the details will be forgiven if, and I want that word italicized and emboldened, if the story is entertaining.
Being entertaining is far more important than being honest in our world. An author might have interesting stories that have occurred in their life, and they may be worth telling, but they may not be great without some lies, exaggeration, and embellishment. And we won’t care about any of that as long as the author doesn’t swear all the details are 100% true, because we want a great story, and we want to be entertained.
This search for the great and entertaining story has even plagued the masters. The young Ernest Hemingway couldn’t come up with a decent story for his first novel, so he decided to document his life in Paris, in his first novel The Sun Also Rises. How much of that book was actually based on fact is difficult to know. Was he merely documenting what took place, or was he engaged in creative non-fiction. Whatever the case was, he used it as a springboard for a career that many would say contained some of our finest novels. Hemingway would eventually reach a point where he could no longer come up with great stories, and some have suggested that this search was one of the contributing factors in his decision to take his own life. Before this tragic event occurred though, Hemingway said: “Everyone has one great story in them. The trick is to have two.” An aspiring author can find that one great story that they have in them, but it’s going to take a lot of writing, and a lot of reading to eventually and accidentally make it happen.