PhotobucketWhat’s more important to you, entertaining your readers or revealing the truth of things?  Both?  Maybe, but your writing itself will tell me on which side of that divide your values predominantly lie.

Entertainers often are unashamed.  The harder they insist on their purpose, though, the more likely it is that I’ll find their stories formulaic and their characters stereotypical.  The truth tellers, by the same token, can be equally uncompromising.  Yet the more they avow their disdain for commercial success, the more I know I will find their manuscripts small and chicken-hearted.

Each group is avoiding what they’re not good at.  Entertainers need to please the crowd less.  Truth tellers need to embrace story more.

If you’re writing in a commercial category you’re living in a familiar house.  Its structure is pleasing and its nooks are cozy.  You’ve dwelt there so long you don’t see the dust in the corners and you tolerate the fluky water heater.  Hey, it’s your home.  And that’s the problem.  You’ve grown accustomed to its flaws and even insist that they’re part of what gives your house its charm.

If you’re blazing a trail and don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that, you might be ahead of your time but you might also be precluding failure by rejecting success.  Isn’t it better to be misunderstood, outcast, impoverished and suffering?  Isn’t that a prerequisite of creating art?

The truth is that most of the novelists we revere today were in their own time either commercial or critical successes, or both.  Timeless stories mostly are appreciated in their age.  Regardless, you want your stories to have impact.  You want them to move people, if not change them.  You want to be read.

Here are some ways to attack your natural tendencies:

    • Are you an entertainer?  Your story has in it one huge, hoary cliché.  You know that’s true.  Find it.  Kill it.
    • Are you an entertainer?  There’s a character in your story who’s a big, fat stereotype.  Don’t deny it.  Fix it.
    • Are you a truth teller?  What’s a truism that’s too common to allow into your novel?  Go ahead and say it, or let a character say it.
    • Are you a truth teller?  What’s a feeling too saccharine to abide?  Satisfy your sweet tooth.  Use it.  (Don’t worry about calories.  The rest of your story is rigorous exercise.)

Entertainment and truth are not polar opposites.  Story is stronger when it brings insights, and insights sink in when they’re enacted through stories.  Whether your purpose is to illuminate or entertain, you can do more of the other.  If so, your fiction will be more effective.  And hey, what’s wrong with that?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s AlicePopkorn


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.