10/19/2015

Tell a Damn Story!

Nobody ever sat down and said, "You know, I've got some extra time.  Maybe I should spend it letting some writer cram their opinions down my throat."

If you ask people why they read, nobody will answer, "Because I like to hear what fiction authors think about real-world issues."

This is an issue that perplexes and angers me a great deal, and it ties in to my thoughts on the Path of Least Resistance.  So many authors--especially new ones--seem to think that novels are a good way to put their political, religious, or philosophical opinions across.  And they labor under the false impression that their opinions are welcome.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that stories are a great way to put ideas across.  Isaac Asimov taught me about the power of individuality and rational thought.  J.K. Rowling taught me about the power of friendship and love.  H.P. Lovecraft made me irrationally terrified of large mountains, even when I'm not on top of them.

Because I believe every story makes an argument--whether the author means to or not--it follows that stories communicate ideas.  But that isn't why humans write stories, and it's certainly not why readers read novels.  Nobody likes it when a story is a thin, obvious excuse for climbing on a soap box.

If someone picks up a book, and within a few pages they can see the author only wrote it as an excuse to wax philosophical, they get turned off to that book and that author--even if they agree with them.  Surely you've read books, or seen movies, and had this reaction.  It's that feeling that you've been deceived; that somebody pulled a bait-and-switch on you.  Nobody likes the feeling of being suckered, even if they like whatever they've been suckered into.  And if you feel the need to sucker people into listening to your opinions, maybe you ought to keep them to yourself.

There are dozens of great reasons to write fiction, but in my mind, the most pure and noble is simply because you want to tell a story.

Don't write a novel because you want people to think racism is deplorable.  Write a novel because you have a moving, emotional story in your head that demonstrates that racism is deplorable.  Don't write a novel so you can espouse your environmentalist views.  Tell an enlightening, human story that demonstrates why we must be better stewards of the planet.

In short, don't tell us what you think, show us something that might make us think like you do.  Because in truth, that's the only way to reach people anyway.  Nobody enjoys being lectured to.  Nobody accepts a new idea because somebody else badgered them into it.  People learn from their experiences.  So if you want to teach them something, you have to make them experience something.

Readers read because they want to be transported into a story.  Audiences go to movies because they want to feel something.  As consumers of entertainment, we want to be excited, thrilled, scared, and relieved.  We want to fall in love with the good guys and hate the bad guys.  We don't want to be lectured at, or admonished for our behavior.  We get plenty of that from our parents and bosses.

We read books and watch movies because we have a basic need to get out of our own heads for a while.  If we happen to discover something profound while we're out, that's great.  But that's not the reason we go out in the first place.

If all you want is to express your views, you should be a blogger, not a novelist.  But if you're willing to let your opinions--and yourself--play second fiddle, you might be able to tell people a story.  And that story might just change them.  And they'll love you for it.