Monday 16 September 2013

The Exaggeration of Story

Once upon a time there used to be small bookshops on every street corner, run by helpful, wizened booksellers full of advice and oak shelves piled high with leatherbound tomes.

We have to fight to make sure Mr Barnes and Mr Noble and all those other those sweet, cardigan-wrapped, bespectacled and wild-haired book pedlars don’t end up penniless and destitute, right?

Hardly. The kind of rhetoric you hear in defence of the poor booksellers being steamrollered by Amazon is pretty much the same as the rhetoric back in the 90s when those same booksellers (Borders, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble) were crushing their smaller counterparts with huge book superstores.

But the down on his luck little guy makes for a much more compelling argument.

Which is a lesson all storytellers can learn from. If you want to make a point strongly, if you want characters to be memorable and for the stakes to feel high, there is one simple way to do it: exaggerate.

In some cases a genre is tailor-made for bombastic storylines involving the end of the world or battles against satanic forces, so little exaggeration is needed. Things are already turned up to eleven. Other types of stories aren’t quite so extreme and pushing too hard can make them feel melodramatic and generally fake.

But when you find yourselves with a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, that makes logical sense and where characters have believable motivations, and yet it isn’t clicking—something’s missing— that’s when the power of exaggeration can come in very useful.

You don’t have to scrap everything and come up with something better (although that’s always an option), you just have to look at what you’ve got and exaggerate it. There are always going to be parts you can bend and twist and stretch.

What it usually comes down to is this: a character who makes a decision to do something and then does it, facing whatever obstacles that may come his way, can make for a perfectly good story. But it can also be a mundane and pedestrian one.

But a story where a character is forced to act now, without preparation, or where he decides he doesn’t want to do something but has to do it anyway is pretty much always compelling.

And why would he have to act before he’s ready or do something he doesn’t want to? Because circumstances insist on it. And if your circumstances aren’t insistent, then making them is a matter of bending and stretching and twisting. Your character might not literally have a gun to their head, but there are many ways to make it fell like they have.

Johnny loves Mimi but she’s going out with Mike. He decides to tell her how he feels, but when is the right time?

Is there a story there? Sure, probably. But what if Mike confides in Johnny that he’s going to propose tonight at midnight? What’s Johnny going to do now?

In both cases Johnny could end up doing the same thing, but by exaggerating the scenario, the story feels a lot more driven.

If a detective is trying to catch a killer there’s a reason why often the detective will have extra incentive to close the case. Knowing the victim, a personal history with the killer, their last case before retirement and so on and so forth. Since it’s his job to catch killers you’d think that would be enough, but there are lots of people in the same situation doing the same job. 

In order to make a story worth telling it needs to be personal to this particular character you’ve chosen to write about, and that means making their circumstances that much more compelling than the norm.

How far you push things will depend on personal taste and judgement, and the kind of audience you’re writing for, but every story has some part, some motivation or deadline that can be pushed just enough to provide the character with momentum, and the reader with a reason to root for them.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
And if you're a sci-fi fan don't forget to check out Alex J. Cavanaugh's new book, available at all the usual places.
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks for the mention, Moody!
Where a character is forced to act even though he doesn't want to - yeah, that one I have down pat.
Exaggeration makes for some memorable characters as well.

Elise Fallson said...

I received similar advice a few days ago and it's something I've been afraid to admit to myself but have known all along. I need to turn up the volume on my mc and make her memorable because right now, she's just ok, which isn't ok. Know what I mean?

mooderino said...

@Alex - a little push sometimes does a character good.

@Elise - I think writers sometimes feel like exaggerating the situation can come across as fake or contrived, but usually it's nowhere near as artificial to the reader as it seems to the writer.

J E Oneil said...

It's hard to get behind a character that gets everything that they want with no struggle. Plus it's a lot easier for readers to root for an underdog.

Michelle Wallace said...

So what we need to do is blow it out of proportion? But keep it believable? I'm thinking that the balance has to be just right.
A timeous post for me. Thank you.
So I'll ponder for the rest of the day...
Writer In Transit

mooderino said...

@JE - it's also easier to believe in a struggle when the cause is suitably forceful and dramatic.

@Michelle - I've found, generally speaking, that most aspiring writers undersell the story and make it a little too timid rather than too over the top. It's easy too feel a bit embarrassed or self conscious with a dramatic storyline, but that tends to be what people enjoy.

nutschell said...

I agree. Even if the story is plot-driven, it still has to be personal for the main characters.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Point well taken, Mood...

A writer's job is to exaggerate to make the story more compelling. The true test is to know when to stop...

mooderino said...

@nutschell - got to care about the character.

@Michael - can be quite tricky figuring it out, but always a fun part of the process for me.

Lydia Kang said...

Momentum is so important in driving the story. Well said!

Meradeth Houston said...

Very good point! There's definitely a breaking point, where things get pushed too far (I've read a few where I just end up going "wait, what??") but definitely keeping that tension up is essential!

mooderino said...

@Lydia - cheers.

@Meradeth - I think most stories could use a little more rather than a little less.

Shah Wharton said...

Excellent points! I'd say exaggerate but be aware of turning the character into a caricature. X

Melissa Sugar said...

Excellent post, as always. I love that you always provide examples in your informative post. You're absolutely right about exaggeration being the key to sparking a story. We have a family member who is the world's best story teller. She has a magical presence and commands attention in every room. We love for her to entertain us with her stories and she tells such fantastic stories because she exaggerates (she doesn't fabricate- just embellishes and exaggerates). We all know that she does it and she is aware that we know, but once she starts, she gets on a roll. Exaggeration truly pumps up a bland story.

I'm with you on the detective or other protagonist, especially in mystery & thrillers when the MC is a lawyer, doctor or other professional who has a duty or obligation to act, which really should be enough to carry the story, but when you add the extra motivation and personal stakes, I always care so much more about the outcome.

Congrats to Alex. I've been away from blogging and the internet for months, but I wanted to stop by a read some of my favorite writing blogs.

mooderino said...

@Shah - stretch but don't break!

@Melissa - welcome back!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Oh, I love your take on the use of exaggerations. I hadn't thought of it that way, yet it makes total sense.

mooderino said...

@Lynda - cheers.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

But...but...Amazon is so evil! How dare you suggest otherwise!

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