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5 Ways Writers (Try to) Fake Their Way to Good Storytelling

good storytellingLast week, I found a meme on Pinterest that showed someone dispensing two different soft drinks into the same cardboard cup. One of the drink buttons was labeled “Feeling stressed out when writing” and the other was labeled “Feeling stressed out when you haven’t written.”

It’s funny because it’s true. The writing life is constantly high-tension. Every moment we spend writing (and many that we do not) comes with the demand that we remember and successfully execute dozens of different concepts. It’s no wonder the stress occasionally gets to us! (Pour me another soft drink, please.)

Writer Stress meme

In these moments of distraction or exhaustion (or, let’s admit it, sometimes just laziness), we don’t always give the page our all. We stick a half-cooked beat between two more important scenes. We doublespeak our way past technical inaccuracies. Or we not-so-deftly create a smokescreen to disguise a character’s less-than-authentic emotional evolution.

We all do it. I’ve done every single one of those things in every single book I’ve written—always hoping no one will notice. And sometimes they don’t. But it’s never something I’m proud of (i.e., haha, look what I got away with!). Rather, it’s always something that niggles at me once a book passes its grunt stage and starts cooling in post-publication.

It niggles because all these dodges point to the even more telling shortcut of faking it.

Fortunately for us, the sheer size and complexity of most narrative stories usually provides the cover of enough moving parts to distract from those few scenes where we painted in the mountains instead of going on location. Most readers will either miss or excuse the occasional moment of fakery.

But insofar as artistic integrity is important, we must guard against the temptation to just phone in our writing. The better we get at not phoning it in—at not faking it—the better our stories will become.

5 Ways Writers (Try to) Fake Good Writing

A few months ago, I read John Gardner’s classic writing instruction manual The Art of Fiction. One section particularly resonated with me. Veteran writing instructor that he was, he pulled no punches when describing a fatal “frigidity” that can undermine storytelling:

The writer lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters (as he enters deeply into the feelings of real people). In a word, the writer is frigid.

Basically, what ol’ John is saying here is that if my writing stinks, one of the reasons might well be that what I actually need to work on is my “nobility of spirit.” Owwwwch.

It sounds a little high-falutin. But I believe it’s true. There are any number of reasons writers might resist or repress their own nobility of spirit. The cause might be anything from inexperience (both in life and in writing), fear of failure or embarrassment, greed for money or fame, or even just confusion.

We all have these moments—when we turn away from the difficulty, the discipline, and sometimes even the pain of writing honestly and skillfully. Sometimes these moments last for a sentence, sometimes they last for a scene, and sometimes they permeate whole stories. Regardless, they are always symptomatic of at least a temporary “faking it.” The author is distancing himself from the rawness of the work.

And in so doing, he is failing.

Why? Because the very heart of storytelling is nothing more or less than a willingness to confront the rawness of life. It is only by doing so that we ever write anything that is true, anything that is real, anything that resonates—and by extension anything that truly entertains or influences.

Today, let’s consider five ways writers sometimes unwittingly try to fake their way past the hard parts of good storytelling.

1. Writing on the Surface

What makes for good storytelling? To me, the answer always comes down to two factors.

1. The story is entertaining. (It keeps my attention while I’m engaged with it.)

2. The story is insightful. (It stays with me after I’ve finished it.)

Although each individual reader or watcher’s mileage varies a little in determining which stories fit this bill, we usually find a general consensus in the stories that become lastingly popular.

The one other commonality found among these evergreen stories is the engine that first made them both entertaining and insightful. That engine is the author’s ability and willingness to dive under the story’s surface, straight into the deep end (and note this is just as true for fun adventure stories as it is for heavy dramas).

Gardner went on to say:

Strictly speaking, frigidity characterizes the writer who presents serious material, then fails to carry through—fails to treat it with the attention and seriousness it deserves. I would extend the term to mean a further cold-heartedness as well, the given writer’s inability to recognize the seriousness of things in the first place, the writer who turns away from real feeling, or sees only the superficialities in a conflict of wills, or knows no more about love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card….

When a writer writes on the surface, she is trying to wring out all the advantages of her subject matter’s “good stuff,” without actually paying the price required to personally access and share that good stuff. Usually, that price begins to be paid in our own life experiences—and is then brought to the page with diligent and sometimes painful honesty.

We see this problem all the time in the concept of “following the market.” One writer breaks out with a story that feels unique in its earnestness and honesty. Other writers, thinking the original story’s success was due more to genre or concept than execution, try to cash in. Sometimes these writers are genuinely inspired as fans of the original work. But unless the writers can take that inspiration past a surface recreation into the zone of the deeply personal, they are seldom able to replicate the original’s success.

2. Stooping to the Fake Emotions of Sentimentality

I saw a shirt for sale the other day that proclaimed,

Feel all the feels.

This is exactly what writers must do. But true emotion on the page is more difficult to create than cheap sentimentality.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for an invested writer to initially tell the difference. Back in the day when I ran a critique service, I received dozens of manuscripts packed full of feels—but more than a few didn’t resonate. Many felt like the authors were phoning in genre conventions (“and they fell truly madly deeply!”) rather than searching their own souls for the truth within their characters’ experience.

To some extent, this is a newbie mistake, due as much to poor technique as anything. But even experienced authors can find themselves trying to shoehorn their characters into plot situations where they’re supposed to feel certain things—when, really, it’s not working. This is the classic problem of trying to make characters do “what they don’t want to do.” When this happens, it’s a sign the writer is (probably unconsciously) faking some part of the story. Gardner calls this sentimentality or…

…the faking of emotions the writer does not honestly feel.

3. “Respecting” the Audience Too Much

What “write for your audience” really means: Write a spiffin’ good book.

What “write for your audience” does not mean: Do whatever they want.

Allow me a rabbit trail, err, hedgehog trail…

A few weeks ago, fans of the video-game character Sonic the Hedgehog got a little spiky about the (admittedly really creepy) animation in his forthcoming movie of the same name. The movie’s peeps started freaking out and promised to completely redesign and reanimate the character before the movie drops.

I have zero investment in this film beyond my two cents that, yeah, eww, what were they thinking? I do tend to think a different design for the character would serve the movie better, although I have a feeling it will do little to ensure a box-office success, much less a good film.

But… all of this is to say I feel this incident points to something we’re seeing increasingly more of in storytelling circles: the creator bowing to the audience (or, in some cases, a specific portion of the audience).

The intent, of course, is to create a story that is exactly what the audience wants—and will, therefore, pay for. But as we can see from the slew of inglorious stories (especially movies) in recent years, you don’t get great art by polling your followers on social media.

Good storytelling is born out of the creator’s passion for every detail of a project. There is (or should be) a reason for every choice made in a story. Inevitably, as we revise, we realize not all those choices actually had reasons as good as we originally thought. So we kill some darlings. But we never kill them just because someone else tells us we should. We do it because we agree with an objective outside opinion, one we believe will improve the story we’ve labored over and loved for so long.

4. Disrespecting the Audience

On the flip side of the above, writers have no business ignoring their audiences. Living in an ivory tower and sniffing at the “poor slobs” down there who wouldn’t get good art if it smacked them in the faces is no better than caring too much what the audience thinks at the expense of your own vision.

Writing an excellent story is always about trying to see every moment and every choice from the readers’ perspective. How will they experience this? Have you written it so they will see it the same way you do? Or have you have taken it for granted they will follow you around anywhere you go, just because?

In his excellent common-sense guide The Secrets of Story, Matt Bird points out:

Getting an audience to truly care about any character, even an ostensibly “likable” one, is tremendously hard. It requires an overwhelming act of shared empathy on the writer’s part.

Don’t miss that last part about “shared empathy.” No faking allowed. If you want your audience to believe in your story, the first reader who has to believe in it is you.

5. Discounting the Importance of Story

I will never believe a story—any story—is unimportant. Every story is a building brick in our world. Shoddy bricks contribute to walls that will crumble. Solid bricks, however, build bridges to the future.

This is why I believe storytellers bear a great responsibility. Maybe, like me, you started out writing just to have fun. Some people start camping for the same reason. But they’ll tell you that the moment they step into the woods or the mountains, they become responsible for the world all around them. They’re responsible to protect the trees from their campfires. They’re responsible to protect ecosystems from their trash. They’re responsible to protect animals from themselves and themselves from animals. It’s not just fun and games.

So it is with writing a story. The moment we start crafting those exhilarating on-page experiences—and especially the moment we first share those pages with someone else—we become responsible for the effect—great or small, good or bad—of our writing upon the world.

Gardner again:

When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity. He has not yet learned the importance of his art, the only art or science in the world that deals in precise detail with the causes, nature, and effects of ordinary and extraordinary human feeling. When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.

There are so many “fake” stories out there, so many trashy stories, so many crumbling bricks. I’ve contributed some myself, which is why I think perhaps the most important pursuit for any writer is for us to, first, learn to sniff out our own fakery and then to strengthen the mental muscles required to confront and overcome it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any more ways writers sometimes “fake it” instead of going the extra mile with their stories? Tell me in the comments!

(My apologies to those who prefer to listen to the podcast, rather than read the post. I’m still trying to beat this Cold From Hell, so I can get my voice back well enough to record.)

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Anastasia says

    Wow, amazing article. I could say this for 90% of the stuff you post, but this has never occurred to me. Now I want to reread those books.

    I think I’m having a problem with 1# with one of my WIPs. I had this character go through this traumatic experience.Yet afterwards he felt completely off and now i’m thinking it’s because I haven’t delved deep enough into his emotions after the experience and seen how it will affect him later on.

    To be fair I wanted him to brush it off and get on with the main plot. Though writing out this couldn’t hurt and might enrich his character more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hindsight brings a lot of objectivity. Sometimes I can’t fully grasp what’s gone wrong with my approach to a story until a good amount of time has passed.

  2. Matt Godbey says

    What an insightful article! K.M., with each passing post and over the years you’ve been steadily honing and sharpening a keen understanding of what story really is. I marvel at your perception and ability to convey all this stuff to us in such a clear way, and I’m so glad you post these. Thank you.

  3. Elizabeth Richards says

    My pet peeve for faking it is when a writer cheats on the motivation of a character. This can lead to whiplash—wait a minute, why did she do that? At it’s most extreme it leads to charges of murder. Hmmm, I need a dead body here, whom should I kill? Oh, wait, let me introduce a little old lady with a dog and then my villain can kill her—brilliant!

    Okay, it’s a wee bit extreme levelling a charge of murder but I think there is something in the idea. Either the victim is such a cardboard character, it doesn’t matter if they die, or the character is so realistic, the reader feels a true loss. Either the villain is a cardboard killing machine, or she struggles with the decision to kill and the consequence to her soul.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is something for all writers to be aware of. Usually, it results when the author knows what’s supposed to happen in the plot–and has to inorganically manipulate the character into making it happen.

  4. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    I don’t know. In my case, sometimes I feel I need a lesson in faking it.

  5. Great topic and thoughts along with it as always! Curious, though. How do you reconcile this “What “write for your audience” does not mean: Do whatever they want” in the age of so-called sensitivity readers?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If the sensitivity readers are teaching us to be more sensitive and aware as *people,* I’m all for that. But if they’re encouraging us to censor our own honesty and truth, then I’m not for that at all. If we take all the raw edges off art, it will no longer reflect life.

  6. Really interesting article K.M. I’ve just written a fight scene in my story and I don’t know if I’m happy with it. But I plan to leave it and trundle on with the rest of the plot on the justification that I need to get the story down in first draft form as quick as I can. Does this equal fakery,or is that a risk only if I don’t get back and work on that scene in a later draft?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We all write fake stuff, especially in the first draft. As long as we’re aware of it (or become of aware of it) and fix it before it reaches readers, all is well.

  7. Great article. I ended up having to do some strip mining of my soul because I just wrote a scene where during a Warrant Raid, one of the characters (Marshal Pam Harmon) catches a bullet. She isn’t hurt badly (her body armor stopped it), and she got out with some cracked ribs and nasty bruises. But I know from experience, it doesn’t stop there. A call that close does funny things to the mind, and when she wants out, I had to stop and ask what the leadership function was here.

    Will opts to tell her about how being injured in the line of duty had impacted him. Since Will’s wife, Jewell, is also the teams counselor, she’s in on the conversation. We’re not going to see every conversation between Pam and Jewell in this book (i’m saving that for Dead Cold). Indeed, Will won’t even be involved with them and knows nothing about what they discuss.

    Will’s job as team lead is to make sure his people get the help they need. It’s not his job to fix them (he doesn’t know how), and that should be reflected.

  8. Would faking it also include writing essentially the same story in sequels? I see it with series from traditionally published Christian authors who write suspense/crime/romance novels.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes and no. Stories, especially within certain genre conventions, are often similar. It depends on whether the authors are “feeling it” or just phoning it in.

  9. Yes to all this! Garner is excellent. I do want to caution, though, that new writers may feel paralyzed if they try to avoid *all* faking it during the first draft. Sometimes you need a little handwavium or “insert emotional monologue here” to get to the end. Occasionally it’s okay to fake it till you make it to the end of the first draft. But then expend the emotional energy to replace the fake bits with real ones during revision.

  10. You mention Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I had a tough time getting through this material. My use of the word material is a pejorative here. As a beginning writer, I found Gardner’s book quite a slog to get through. So much so, I couldn’t wait to put it down. Perhaps, I don’t have as much patience as I think.

  11. Carl Kjellberg says

    Opps, typo- it is Brene Brown whom I quoted.

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  1. […] to improve your skills? K. M. Weiland looks at 5 ways writers (try to) fake their way to good storytelling, and Shaunta Grimes focuses on how to be a better artist (there is only one […]

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