A story needs to be honest. Now, that isn’t quite the same as saying that a story must be true. Obviously when we are writing fiction, we are basically telling lies in order to enlighten and entertain. So fiction stories aren’t true.
Yet in order for a story to work, there must be a good deal of truth in them.
At the lowest level, there must be some truth to my story just to assure my reader that I’m a credible narrator. If I were to set a story in London, and make the grand mistake of saying that London was in the United States, just south of New York, my readers would of course consider me to be foolish. My lack of knowledge would cast a shadow of doubt on everything that followed in the tale. The reader wouldn’t trust me.
So as an author, you have to have to do enough research for your story so that you can entice your reader to enter your fictive universe. This research can encompass many things. If I am writing about London, I darned well better know a bit about London. It will help if I’ve been there a few times. It would help even more if I’d live there my whole life. I need to write about London well enough so that my reader feels confident in me as a narrator, even though he might never really think about me as an author. The reader needs to let go, and allow himself or herself to enter the fictive world.
Even in writing a fantasy set in an imagined universe, there must be enough detail and consistency in order to transport the reader and hold him.
Similarly, if I’m writing about people, then I’d better know my characters—and people as a whole. If you’re going to write about Tongans, for example, it would help if you’ve gone to Tonga. You need to know the culture, the mindset, the way that a Tongan would think and act and speak.
You’ll also need to know your conflicts. If your Tongan develops a mental disorder, you need to understand the disorder. If he goes to war, then you have to convince me that you understand wars.
Hence, at one level, a story needs to be honest simply in order to slide past your reader’s defenses, to get him or her to engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it.
Some authors talk about adding facts to gain “verisimilitude,” to create the illusion that the author always knows what he’s talking about. But I’ve often felt that too many authors don’t put in an honest effort. They try to dump in a couple of facts and hope that it will fool their readers. Such halfhearted efforts fool no one but the author. Creating the illusion of reality takes more than a little effort.
A story needs to be honest in one other major way: it needs to be honest in the way that it arouses emotions. Some authors try to fake it. They hope to arouse emotions by use of heightened language. For example, they might try to get a reader to believe that a character’s love is great simply by affecting pretty language or by making vague assertions. “Ah, no one has ever felt a love so pure and true as what Tristan felt for Emily. The love in his heart was a soaring thing, like an owl with a course set for the moon, its wings spanning the heavens.”
Well, that’s not how one arouses emotions. One arouses emotions by engrossing a reader, placing him or her into a fictive universe so completely that the conscious mind is convinced that the reader is in fact living the events of the tale. Once that happens, then the events themselves arouse the emotions. In an honest story, we don’t talk about how much Tristan loves Emily—we make Emily so demonstrably lovable that the reader falls in love with her. Once that happens, we need not talk about his love for her at all.
At the height of a tale, especially, we need to be honest about outcomes. If a tale ends tragically, so very often writers will flinch away from telling the truth, which may be cold and hard and not very pretty. Yet that’s where the most powerful scenes come from.
So when composing your tales, no matter how absurd, struggle to deliver them in such a way that your audience feels as if the tale is true.
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