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, a little clever, somewhat sad, or 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.
The fact that most aspiring writers don't write great stories right out of the gate frustrates some. They come to the realization that they weren't born with "it". Some will get so frustrated that they can't write Old Man and the Sea as their first novel that they'll quit. Most aspiring writers will applaud that decision, because it will thin the herd a little. The remaining writers will get just as frustrated as the quitters, but those remaining won't quit. They'll get hungry. Most eventual stars are not successful right out of the gate. Michael Jordan didn't make the varsity until his Junior year in high school. He probably got frustrated, he probably pouted, but he eventually got hungry. So, we aspiring writers can envy those that are successful right out of the gate, but we can also be assured that they're not as hungry as we are.
But you are a great storyteller. Your Aunt Clara told you so. You have a gift for storytelling that crushes those around you. You get reactions and laughter that others can’t, and you get amazement directed at your storytelling aptitude. The only problem is you don’t have the material. 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 storytellers to the legends.
It is a fact of life though that some of us are just better at telling stories than others. It’s a fact similar to the fact that some people are just 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. When you enjoy something more than anyone else around you, you work harder at it. You study it, you finesse it, and you learn from those around you who do it better. Even in its most primitive form, such as the sharing of memories with friends and relatives, some of us are just better able to tell a story than others.
Before entering into these stories with our relatives and friends, however, we must make time for the obligatory kid and pet stories. It never ceases to amaze me that a room can be full of highly-evolved, well-educated adults, and everyone spends 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 out 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 who 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 you get a feel for presentation, the next question is how do you 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 that wanted to write the next Crime and Punishment considered these pointless exercises? "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 springboarding to that something something we considered magic.
That springboard launched those of us that were hungry 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 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 than 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 that you have a propensity for catching colds that your mom says is epic in proportions.
From Ron Shelton’s script for Bull Durham:
"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 that 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.
Philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said that "the key to convincing another person of your point of view is to make them believe that they arrived at that answer themselves."
In fiction parlance, this is called manipulation. 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 you can use your powers of manipulation for good, if you do it right.
How many of us have laughed at a funny book, cried during a dramatic one, or were scared by a horror? If you went through any of these emotions after reading a series of words on a page, you were manipulated by the author. You were made to care about the central character in ways that caused you to trip upon the emotion that the author (the manipulator) was trying to extract from you. The author carefully painted a picture with detail and laid out a pace with their words, and you fell in their trap when you started to care.
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. Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that “if a writer can infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.” In other words, you may be the oddest, smartest, most sensitive storyteller that your friends have ever seen, but we don’t know you, and we don’t care about you, or your wacky takes on life, until you can convince us that we’ve decided that your wacky tales are ours in some manner that you’re in charge of creating.
The 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 your story to be true? 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 fiction. 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. Story is sacred in our world, the truth isn’t.
Being entertaining is far more important than being honest in our world. You may have interesting stories that have occurred in your 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 if you’re writing fiction. We simply want the great story. We simply want to be entertained.
This search for the great and entertaining story has even plagued the masters. Due to circumstances beyond his control, even the great Ernest Hemingway reached 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.” You can find that one great story you have in you, but it’s going to take a lot of writing, and a lot of reading to eventually and accidentally make it happen.