All my life I've been surrounded by enigmatic people. When I was growing up, family gatherings involved wandering from one room to the next and listening--just listening--for hours and hours. Everyone shared their stories. Nothing special, just things from their childhood, their job, things their friends did. But they way the stories were told made them captivating. It simply oozed out of them. And I soaked it up.
I learned that half the art of storytelling is not in the events that occurred (the plot) but in how you take those events and spin them.
In my family, the best way to spin a story is by exaggerating. As my uncle once explained it to me, “when you’re telling someone about the size of a fish you caught, always hold your hands far apart. Then as you tell the story, move your hands closer together.” He always grinned at that part, like a naughty little boy.
My uncle was always fishing. Even though I always knew he was exaggerating, that the fish wasn’t as big as he originally said it was, I still had the impression that it was a big fish. So it wasn’t a big fish, but the experience had been like catching a big fish. That’s how he told it.
As readers, we walk the author's tightrope, trying to keep our suspension of disbelief despite the fact that every word is made up. We know things in books are fictional. The parts based in reality, however, need to feel like the reality we know. If there's a talking dog who acts like a grumpy old man, well, it should still feel true of either dogs or grumpy old men. But if your talking dog is suddenly fluent in twelve languages and can play tennis, that's wrong. We balk. It stopped being an exaggeration and started feeling like a lie.
Here’s a question. Is exaggeration lying?
A lot of writers like to say that we’re just glorified liars (I cite the very funny book "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit",) but I think we're just entertaining ourselves. If we were liars, people would stop trusting us after a while. We are in fact exaggerators, better known as good storytellers.
And if we want to maintain the careful combination of reader trust, suspension of disbelief, and writing that rings true, we need to be careful exaggerators.
Being surrounded by good talkers all my life has made me a little...over zealous. Sometimes I repeat my theories as fact, without quite realizing it; the story just sounds better. Then people call me on it. Oops. Anyone who knows more about the subject than I do trusts my opinion a little bit less.
Back to the technicalities of writing, that means it's fine to write a murder mystery about a serial killer, telling us he had a really bad childhood and his dad was abusive, tada, backstory. (Albeit cliche backstory.) Again, we can accept that.
But then if you tell us that his mom was a drug addict and his older sister was mean and the neighbor kids teased him and he never fit in at school? That's over the top. You didn't give him a tortured past, you tried to twist our heartstrings. If you wanted us to believe his story, you needed to back it up with a higher dosage of reality.
In simple terms?
- Exaggerating is a natural part of storytelling. Don't get clogged behind facts.
- Writers need to be careful that they don't over-exaggerate something they haven't backed up with plausible story elements first.
- Over-exaggeration happens when the story can't support your claims.
What's your take on exaggerating? When is it too much?
Truly and always,