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The Search for the Great Story

Being entertaining is far more important than being honest.
Ernest Hemingway - Where do writing ideas come from?
Published on March 15, 2012

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The first and most fundamental question every storyteller must ask is do they have a great story to tell? Is it good? Do your friends find it mildly amusing, somewhat sad, or really good in parts, or do they find it great? Most aspiring writers don’t write great stories, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. It should only start you, if you really want it, on the journey to that great story.

Another fundamental truth that all writers, and aspiring writers, must come to grips with is that 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.

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 the reactions that others can’t, you get laughter they can’t, and you get amazement directed at your storytelling aptitude. The only problem is you don’t have the material. You may have the 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. This is a serious rub. It is a rub that has haunted storytellers all across the spectrum from the aspiring storyteller to the legend.

Some of us are just better at telling stories than others. It’s a fact of life similar to the fact that some are just better at basketball and football. Some would say that the art of telling 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 people are just able to tell a story better 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.

Steve Martin - harmony to comedyOn 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 sense of timing down. I can’t tell you how often I’ve added or deleted 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 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 only have one secret answer to 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 started. 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? Well, they weren’t entirely pointless. They got us thinking. They got us writing. They gave those of us who wanted it, even if we didn’t know it at the time, a springboard.

That springboard launched those of us who wanted it onto 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 accidentally landed upon an idea. Some of us took that little springboard to greater heights and more material, and others considered it a useless exercise done by a teacher who knew as much about achieving the best-seller list than we did.

This leads us back 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 themFrom 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 who care about celebrities care about you, you’ll have to write in a manner that gets somebody to care. Nobody cares, for example, that your friend has a propensity for lying, unless you can add that characteristic 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 entertaining that we won’t care that we can’t relate.

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynPhilosopher 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 of the reader. When most people see that word manipulation, they think evil. They think of a totalitarian government manipulating its 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 emotion when the author decided to spring an event on them. The author painted a picture with their words that brought you in and made you 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 could 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 of 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 it 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 said 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.

Rilaly"Those who will succeed in life never need to be told," --Stella Adler to student Charlton Heston when Heston complained that she congratulated everyone in the class on their acting abilities except him.

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