On Truth in Storytelling

I have one more piece of favourite writing advice I was unable to fit into my previous post on that subject.

It’s a writing tip whose source I unfortunately can no longer recall.  I’ve searched through all my writing how-to books, photocopied pages, and notes I’ve taken in various journals over the years, but I’ve been unable to find it again:

The job of a story isn’t to tell what’s true; it’s to tell what people believe.

It’s a rather bald statement, to say the least – one that’s stuck with me for years.  It’s yet another touchstone I’ve tried to apply to all my writing, ironically, without even knowing how it’s writer meant for it to be interpreted, for I can’t remember that either.

What does it mean?  I’ve spent the last year and a half since I started writing again searching for an answer to that question.

I believe I’ve found two.

1. Truth in Emotion

All stories have plots and indeed, some tales are much more “plot-driven” than others.  However, at their core, stories are about people.  And people are driven, ultimately, not by facts, but emotions – emotional responses to facts, perhaps, but emotions all the same.

We all have different thoughts and perspectives on things – different truths.  What is too loud, or too salty, or too long a wait, or funny, or painful, or mind-numbingly boring for one person may be perceived in a completely different manner by someone else.

Yet, we all know what experiencing something that’s loud or boring or painful feels like.  We all draw from a common well of emotional responses to a varied set of stimuli.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter what happens in your story.  It doesn’t matter how outlandish, fantastical, historical, scientific, outside the realm of everyday experience for the average person, etc. a story’s plot is; so long as the characters’ emotional response to it is both believable and skillfully described, the tale will ring “true”.

2. Truth in Beliefs

As we all have different thoughts and perspectives, this often gives rise to a diversity of beliefs on any number of possible subjects.  Sometimes, we perceive these alternate beliefs as merely a rational difference of opinion – an agree-to-disagree, live-and-let-live sort of scenario.

And other times, people’s beliefs may be, at best, erroneous or ridiculous, and at worst, horrific, contentious, divisive, vindictive, or – as you perceive it – complete and utter bullshit.

The role of the writer can be to educate, but in order to do so effectively, one must remember his/her audience – remember the variety among it.  Some members of the audience need to be met where they are before they can be brought to where the writer wants them to be.

This means playing into opposing beliefs within the story’s narrative a little – lending them a bit of credence – by way of some character(s) saying, acting upon, thinking, or implying them.  Not necessarily in an over-the-top, proselytizing manner (unless the story’s plot calls for such), but with enough of the contrary view built into the story’s conflict that readers will recognize the representation of their opinions.

It’s in this way that people will be most amenable to having their opinions changed: Firstly, because they’ll be encouraged to keep reading rather than dismissing the story out-of-hand as subversive propaganda.

And secondly, because as the story’s plot gradually chips away at their misinformation, new ideas and possibilities can begin to take root.

As I discussed in a previous post, studies have shown that reading fiction can help build one’s empathy and provide practice in understanding unfamiliar points of view.

I believe that incorporating other people’s truths into stories – especially truths that we strongly disagree with – is beneficial to the writer as well, providing us a forum to dispute these ideas logically, and give us hope for an eventual meeting of minds in real life.

Which, I suspect, is a big reason many people write in the first place.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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13 thoughts on “On Truth in Storytelling

  1. On point two, no matter what our philosophies or beliefs are, there are common threads tying all of us together. If you can touch on that, you can invite the reader in so he may experience other ideas or thoughts through that character. A gateway emotion, if you will. Also, if I write in metaphors (some of my stories are just for entertainment), I like to leave some room for the reader to make her own interpretation. It might not be what I meant, but who am I to tell a person what to perceive?

    Interesting stuff, as usual, Janna.

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    • I like this idea of a gateway emotion: the reader is guided in through something familiar and safe, and then, while susceptible, exposed to something different – a lot less jarring than being beaten over the head with an opposing view or preached at from the soapbox.

      And yes, absolutely, the reader will bring his/her own interpretation. I read a quote once that more or less said our stories are only ours when no one else has read them – that once they’re out in the world, published in one form or another, they now belong to everyone.

      (Incidentally, this is why I’m so fascinated by fan fiction; to me, there’s something compelling about people who love your work acting upon their own interpretations of what it all means, and how the story could continue.)

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  2. I completely agree with this. Especially when you speak about learning to incorporate other people’s truths into your stories. Sometimes it is hard to do but we must realize that a very important part of being a writer is learning to let go of yourself while you write.

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    • I agree, rilzy. I also think learning to let go of oneself is the only way a writer can ensure s/he’s not just telling the same old story (and espousing the same old views) over and over again. There are real personal growth opportunities for writers brave enough to work with opposing views in their stories.

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  3. I’ve always thought the best books are both plot-driven and character-driven, in perfection proportions for that unique story. You can’t neglect either or you’ll have a boring book.

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  4. Very true, Janna. I also think it needs to come through that the writer ‘believes’ what they are writing about, because if they don’t put that effort in it shows in the work. When I’m writing fiction and the ideas are really out there – I always have a devil’s advocate to show the other side. This way any questions the reader may have are being examined instead of just giving a single view of a concept.

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    • Yes, and this is the part that I think ends up being good for writers: this learning to believe, or at least empathize with, another perspective. The “devil’s advocate” needs to be as complete and complex a character as the one representing the writer’s actual opinion, or else the clash of the two won’t generate effective and gripping conflict. Thus do open-minded writers learn (viewpoints, empathy, etc.) by doing.

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  6. Great post Janna! The second point in particular is really interesting and important. Creating villains or antagonists who are actually relatable, if misguided, gives so much depth to a story. Having one dimensional “stupid” or “evil” characters can actually work against whatever moral, ethic or belief the author is trying convey.

    Really good points, and something to definitely keep in mind 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

    Rohan.

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