Thursday, 31 May 2012

Can You Be Trusted To Tell A Good Story?

Or, to put it another way, would you want to read a story by someone who doesn’t know what they're talking about?

Me neither.

In fact, even if someone sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about, that’s enough to turn off most people. They don’t want to read that guy’s story, or listen to his views, or spend any time in his presence.

When it comes to communicating with people, especially people you don't know personally, to ‘sound like’ you know what you’re talking about is more important than actually knowing what you’re talking about.

If I know my subject, but because of nerves or poor preparation or whatever, I end up sounding like I don’t, that’s what people will react to — how I come across. They won’t believe me, even if I’m telling them the truth.

On the other hand, if I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I present myself well, with confidence and a convincing level of detail, then I can get away with murder. Sometimes literally.

The part where you intersect with other people is the crucial moment. That’s the only part they see and that’s what they judge you on. However great you are when you’re on your own or in your head, nobody sees that but you. What counts is what you put out there.

So, how do you make sure you sound like you know what you’re talking about?

Well, you could actually know your stuff and practice your delivery so it comes across clearly and convincingly. Either through experience (write what you know) or through research (write what you’ve found out).

If you happen to have expertise in a particular area, using that subject in your stories will add a level of authority and authenticity. If you happen to be an expert on Northern European mythology, like Tolkien was, perhaps you can create a fantasy world as fully realised as his (that’s right, “write what you know” can be used to create dwarves and dragons).

Or you could bluff. If you can make what you write seem convincing, that’ll work. The problem is most people aren’t that good at faking it. And that includes those who think they are. We spend our lives dealing with people trying to pull a fast one and being suspicious of dodgy types. It’s no easy task to fool people even some of the time.

The same way you can tell the difference between a confident person and one who’s trying too hard, most readers can tell the difference between a writer who knows what his story is about and one who doesn’t, whether that story takes place in a prison or a spaceship or somewhere over the rainbow.

The other option is to find out just enough to make your fiction feel real.  A little truth always helps make the massive lie that much easier to swallow. This is probably the approach most people take, and when it’s done properly it works fine. But often it can come across as half-assed and wishy washy.

If you really want people to listen to what you have to say, you either need to know your stuff, or you better be a damn good liar.
Can good craft make a mediocre story seem worthwhile? Does poor grammar make readers lose confidence in a good story? Would be interested to know what you think.

If you found this post vaguely competent, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Lauri Meyers said...

I know a lot about boring things (accounting, scrapbooking, changing diapers..) so I rely on quite a bit of research. But I have to be careful bc the anal part of me can get so sucked into researching that I forget to write!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I hope I knew enough about real military fighters to fake it with my space fighters.

Ted Cross said...

Bad grammar turns me right off. Some Authonomites complain that we should just ignore the bad grammar or spellings for now because they'll get around to that later. No way, at least not for me. Those are the fundamental building blocks, so if a writer can't even get those right, I certainly don't trust them to get a full story right.

mooderino said...

@Lauri - yes, but you also know how to embezzle, what it's like to be focussed on something for hours and the effects of sleep deprivation.

@Alex - I would imagine you do.

@Ted - Authonomy could be such a good site if only HC actually paid it a little attention.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

So the idea then is to come across as a kind of authority on the subject and that gets you "credibility" in the eyes of the reader. I got ya.

Jason Runnels said...

Moody, I love the fresh perspectives you always seem to bring with your posts!

I agree that half-truths are used the most successfully, whether it's for a salesperson or a writer. A salesman may have tattered underwear underneath his silk suit. He may be behind on his mortgage, but drives a BMW 7-Series. Confidence trumps knowledge.

And I'm going to avoid saying anything about Fifty Shades of Grey ;-)

Nick Wilford said...

I think there's a lot to be said for suspension of disbelief. Many authors write books on lots of different subjects. They can't be an authority on all of them. I would like readers to get swept up in my story, but at the same time I don't want to get something shamefully wrong, so it's about finding the balance.

mooderino said...

@Michael - yes, but how you gain that authority is variable. You don't have to be Olympic swimmer to write about a swimmer, but it might help to have been in a pool or two.

@Jason - my new book "Fifty Shades of Gandalf the Grey", the story of an older teacher and his young student with hairy feet will be out soon.

@Nick - Being an expert is just one way to attain authority. But if the reader fails to be convinced by the story, that isn't their fault, it's the writer's.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

There is a difference between story-telling and writing. Writing is just one way to tell a story. So story-telling has components to it (plot, characterisation etc.) and writing has components to it (sentence structure, grammar etc.). I believe great story telling can overcome mediocre writing (altghough not outright bad) but brilliant writing will never overcome mediocre story-telling.

Botanist said...

I think writing fiction in general is something of a confidence trick. By definition, you are writing about something that hasn't happened, but you have to make the reader believe in it.

One of the most important things I'm looking for when I pick a book off the shelf is whether or not I feel I am entrusting my valuable time into good hands. Does the writer instil confidence? It's a quality that's very hard to pin down, but I have to say that poor writing or poor grammar is a big turn-off, because it erodes my confidence in the writer.

John Wiswell said...

Good craft has definitely been used to make mediocre or slim stories work. Most quality Literary Fiction has a thin plot; not a tremendous amount happens in Adiga's White Tiger, and much of what the narrator does is predictable, yet with the quality of insight, satire, commentary and general prose craft, it winds up a great book.

mooderino said...

@Ciara - I would more or less agree with you, although there are some writers of wonderful prose who bore the pants off me, while other people are big fans. It's a diffciult club to get into, and maybe a little prentious, but I think it does exist.

@Botanist - I think that's true, although how you play the trick is open to different approaches. Schoolboy errors, though, are a pretty big giveaway that the writer has no clue.

@John - I think good literary fiction has more goin on than appears on the surface. That's why so many aspiring writers only manage a pale imitation. It's like trying to build a clock by only looking at clock faces.

Julie Dao said...

Yep, that's how things are sold, whether they are cars or stories :) But I like to make sure that I know what I'm talking about, so often I do research on a topic I'm not very familiar with. That way, if I ever have to fudge through another subject, it'll sound more plausible!

nutschell said...

Absolutely right! I love that line about needing to be a damn good liar>
Happy Weekend!

LD Masterson said...

For me a poor story, delivered with all the subject expertise in the world, is still a poor story. If it's a good story, as long as the author doesn't make a lot of glaring mistakes, I can forgive a lack of knowledge. But grammatical mistakes,especially the ones you can hear (dialogue excepted), will pull me out of a story faster than anything.

Mary Maddox said...

Some time ago it occurred to me that word "authority" contains the word "author." This post explains the connections between the two nicely.

mooderino said...

@julie - a little knowledge can make all the difference.

@nutschell - that's why I often lie for no reason, good practice. Now I'm off to hunt swans with the Queen.

@LD - I think poor grammar or poor authenticity can both spoil a story. But good grammar and good authenticity won't guarantee a good story either.

@Mary - I'd never noticed that before. Very interesting.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I get cheesed off when people try too hard to impress others, both in writing and life. Confidence speaks for itself, one does not have to scream about it.

Joseph Tea said...

This article touches on the truth without hitting it directly. Human beings, as evolved and intelligent as we've become, still respond initially much more strongly to emotion than cold, hard, logic.

I RT'd though because the article's good.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - knowing which bit of your knowledge to use us as important as knowing it, I think.

@Joseph - I think that's true, but you still have to find a way to convey that emotion. If you come across as sly or manipualtive that will push people away. Faking sincerity is as hard as faking confidence.

Suze said...

Writers are a very insecure breed, but we're a noble breed, too. Even when we're 'faking' it. And I've always thought pretending was just the first step to becoming.

mooderino said...

@Suze - there's nothing wrong with faking it if you're good at faking it.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Oh oh

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - steady. Family blog.

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