Entertainment vs. Truth

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.


  1. says

    I’ve never before heard our natural writing tendencies described in this dichotomous way. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I thank you.

  2. Allison says

    This is great! Of writers who’ve come to prominence in the past few years, are there any you could name who’ve found a winning balance between writing as entertainers and as truth tellers?
    I’ve found that reading Blake Snyder’s books and watching Downton Abbey on continuous loop have helped me (a truth teller) embrace my closet entertainer.

    • says

      Off the top of my head, here’s a reading list:

      The Help
      Little Bee
      The Art of Racing in the Rain
      The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
      Like Water for Elephants
      Cutting for Stone
      A Reliable Wife
      The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

      These are the kinds of literary/commercial blockbusters (a year or more on the NY Times best sellers list) that I analyze in WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION, coming in September. They get it right: great story, beautufil writing.

      • says

        Amazing! I’ve read and loved some of those. Adding the rest to my bedside pile now. Thanks for the insights! (And finally ordered your well-recommended book and workbook on Writing the Break-out Novel.)

  3. says

    Donald, thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    “Entertainers need to please the crowd less. Truth tellers need to embrace the story more” Both should tape that line on their wall. Nothing drives me more crazy than sitting through a good movie only to discover the script writer wrecks the story by concocting an illogical ending in the interest of sending the crowd home happy. Some writers are guilt of that as well. We must be true to our stories but be cognizant of the need to entertain. Thanks again. I always look forward to your posts.

  4. says

    I agree, this is thought-provoking. I set out thinking I would be a truth teller. But a funny thing happened along the way. My truths changed. I discovered a lot about myself.

    They say your first draft is all your own, and all subsequent work belongs to the reader. I feel like most of my subsequent work has been pushing me to the entertainer side–accepting the elements of story structure. So thanks for the tips.

  5. says

    I think the biggest, fattest stereotypes can sometimes be enormously entertaining.

    As for your list of books that hit the balance well: I’m hoping someone here can enlighten me as to the wild success of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I found the first +/- 75 pages boring. Really boring. Throughout, the voice was distracting (maybe due to the translation).

    The plot picked up from there, but how did the novel make it into print in the first place? Had so many friends not raved about it, I wouldn’t have finished the first chapter.

    • says

      Many people didn’t like the opening of Dragon Tattoo, only finding it engaging when Lisbeth Salander shows up. (I liked it from page 1.)

      There are other complaints, too. One of the most common I’ve heard is that the hero Blumkvist’s success with women is both unrealistic and mildly offensive. (Curious, given the feminist slant of the story.)

      Regardless, I think it’s important to note that millions of people worldwide found the novel impossible to quit. Why? That’s what interests me. I believe that one key is Lisbeth Salander herself, one of the most amazing secondary characters in contemporary literature.

      Another is Larsson’s mastery of the technique I call “micro-tension”.

      • says

        I loved Dragon Tattoo from page 1 as well. Though I’ve heard those same complaints from a lot of people.

        Micro tension is definitely the reason. Also characterization, plotting, level of detail, use of setting, lack of cliches. And sandwiches… I’ve never read a book with so many sandwiches.

  6. says

    You hit the nail on the head, describing me exactly when you said:

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

    I am a truth teller who has always had an aversion to plot and story, yet I have recently realized I need to overcome this and “embrace story more” as you say.

    Thanks for putting it so well!

  7. says

    You are correct. I’ve found that writing, unlike an art such as painting, does indeed have commercial success during its contemporary life. Most great painters went unnoticed until after their deaths.

    • says

      Yes, Van Gogh comes to mind. You’ve got me wondering which other arts reward their geniuses only after their deaths?

      Dancers–? Can’t think of any.

      Musicians–? Possibly bluesman Robert Johnson?

      Poets–? Plenty of obscure ones, but which were famed only after their deaths?

      Photographers–? Hmm, eccentric and voyeuristic Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy, who worked in a small town with taped-together cameras made from trash, was obscure until his recent “discovery” in 2004. (He died only last year, so I’m not sure he technically qualifies.)

      Playwrights–? Mmm…drawing a blank.

      Architects–? The designer of the pyramids? Probably known in his lifetime.

      Movie-making? The recent movie “Hugo” made a good case for French silent film maker Georges Melies.

      Quilting–? American female quilt makers were largely unknown in their times but have achieved deserved recognition in the collection and exhibits of the American Folk Art Museum.

      Interesting comment, P.I., thanks for it.

  8. says

    For much of my writing career I have aspired to be a master of both story and truth. The books and authors I am drawn to (T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Ruth Rendell, Ann Patchett) seem to pull it off. Thanks for describing it so succinctly, and for your tips.

  9. says

    I’ve been concerned that perhaps my stories are fluff, so looking at them in this light, maybe they aren’t truth telling enough. I like the idea of finding a truth or two to stick in there. I already have one, but I don’t know that I’ve developed it enough. Hmmm…. Good to ponder!

  10. says

    I couldn’t agree more. Personally I am drawn to classic literature when I want to read truth, and contemporary when I want entertainment. Not that the classics can’t be entertaining, or the contemporary filled with truths, but there is definitely a noticeable evolution in the blending of truth and entertainment.

    As with your statement, “Isn’t it better to be misunderstood, outcast, impoverished and suffering? Isn’t that a prerequisite of creating art?” I love that idea, but it seems difficult to entice an agent or publisher (if that is your goal) with those concepts, primarily because they all take time to develop in a story, and professionals in the publishing biz seem to be very busy people who are unlikely to spend the time required for finding those concepts, unless they are initially enthralled by an entertaining plot. Correct me if I’m wrong, but then again after reading what I just wrote, perhaps that is the purpose of your essay…?

    Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  11. says

    I find this a very interesting post, Donald, because of the way you’ve described the dichotomy. I’ve always thought of the division being between story-driven narratives and idea-driven narratives, and I’ve always believed passionately that story is paramount. However, I also believe that the best narratives are those ones that have the clear ring of truth, some new illumination or understanding that you take away with you. So that is what I am trying to do in my own writing – tell the story the best way I can, remove anything which weakens or undermines the story, strive for truth … so I think perhaps I’m already trying to do what you suggest, but just framing it in a different way.
    I just love talking about the craft! I could discuss such things all night.
    Thanks, Donald!

    • says

      I agree, almost nothing more pleasurable than talking writing craft, especially late into the night. Better than that–? Reading great writing.

      So, you know, get to it! When you’re done your next draft we can sit around the campfire at the Writers Retreat Workshop, passing around the bottle of JD, talking late.

  12. says

    I love it that you’re talking about this meeting place between literary and commercial novels and can’t wait to read the book. (Am also signed up for the Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference workshop.)

    When I started out writing romances, it was because I decided in my arrogant twenties that I could tell the truth to women more easily if I sugar coated it, so I wrote a bunch of category romances centered around social issues. In some ways, it was successful. On another, not so much.

    I’m still learning, 20 years in, how to best make use of my commercial voice to serve my questing, truth-telling soul. I do believe at times I’ve pulled it off, but never as well as I’d like.

    Thanks for this blog!

    • says


      I’ll see you in Colorado Springs at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Looking forward to that. I’ll be leading a full-day workshop based on WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION. We’ll be digging deep into this fusion of literary and commercial, and how any writer of any intent can take techniques from that.

  13. says

    “… you might also be precluding failure by rejecting success.”

    Am I alone in thinking “preclude” is not the right word here, or am I missing something? From Merriam-Webster online:

    Preclude: to make impossible by necessary consequence: rule out in advance
    Example: She suffered an injury that precluded the possibility of an athletic career.

    So the quoted sentence is telling me that by rejecting success I can make failure impossible and rule it out in advance.

    Was, perhaps, “be making failure inevitable” meant?


    • says

      After reading your comment the word PEDANTIC comes to mind. Sorry,,, couldn’t help myself – someone takes the time to offer advice for free and you have the impudence to correct their word selection?

      • Steve says

        Dear Daniel,
        I was expecting to take some flack for my comment, and debated whether I should make it or not.
        I do, in fact, admire Mr. Maas. I bought and read one of his books and then applied some of the principles to a manuscript which I had thought was done. I do not doubt that he knows vastly more than I ever will about both good writing and publishing. He has my respect.
        Nevertheless, I was surprised that neither he nor any of the twenty or so people who commented before me mentioned what appears to me to be an error. This is a blog for writers. I would hate to think that any of them might read that and then use “preclude” incorrectly. Or, again, am I wrong about the meaning of the word?
        I do not think that my action was impudent in the least. Mr Maas is a professional writer. I expect he can handle it.

  14. says

    A wonderful post, Donald. Thank you.

    My writing falls in the murky area between literary and commercial, and I am particularly interested in this area between the two. I look forward to your upcoming book. In the comments above, you’ve mentioned a writers workshop or two.

    Can you pass on the names of upcoming workshops where you’ll be speaking? Or give the web address of your upcoming events?

    Thank you!

  15. says


    You sure are a lot easier on the so-called Truth Tellers! Which is good, because that’s how I like to think of my writing career.

    But I also crave to be read and to change the world, and I know that preaching to the choir would do nothing in regard to either of those aims.

    So, what I do to keep myself from merely standing on a milk crate and yelling at the masses is I read craft books on how to build tension on each and every page – by some author/writing guru named Donald Maass.

    I appreciate your help and this post.

  16. Sara says

    I love to be entertained but I especially love it when a truth emerges to wink at me and make me look at myself or my world differently. Truths are like little arrows that sink beyond the skin and leave a wound that stays with you long after the book is closed. I really hope I can bring both to my manuscript.

    Great post.


  17. says

    Thought provoking post – and I can totally relate with the dilemma many writers face when they want to write about some aspect of life which they are passionate about, but also want to bring that truth to the greatest number of readers as an entertaining read/movie.
    Ten years ago I was working in the pharmaceutical industry and becoming more and more incensed by the trade in fake medicines which is rife in the less developed parts of the world. The result was a single title technothriller set in California and Nepal.
    But I put that first draft to one side as soon as it was finished.
    Because I knew that I did not have the writing craft and tools to create a compelling and entertaining story from that trauma and suffering.
    The heart and the passion were there – but I wanted this book to be a compelling work of fiction with characters any reader can identify with. Not a long essay on the evils of injustice for the disenfranchised.
    I now have 10 years of writing romance and light crime tucked into my tool belt. So maybe 2012 is the year to rewrite this book of my heart and make it come alive?
    “insights sink in when they’re enacted through stories” – spot on.
    I look forward to reading your new book in September.
    Thanks again. Nina.

  18. says

    Thank you. I’m editing my first novel and after reading this post yesterday, I recognize the suggestion is immediately working for me. I’m mos def a truth teller, so the extra thread now entering into the weave is more accessible in terms of story. I wouldn’t say I’m at saccharine yet, maybe a dark sugar.

    BTW – Whenever I read your blog posts or books on writing, it’s as though you got inside my head and realized, ‘Ok, here’s what she needs to know, and, oh, this is the kind of language that will make her understand.’

    Somehow, thanks ain’t enough, but…

  19. thea says

    All my writing work is geared to the sale. I believe I can sell the story of my heart. Or die tryin!