Tuesday, June 8, 2010

As If Writing to a Friend

Relay the story as if you were telling it to a friend is a piece of advice I picked up the other day. I won’t say it tells me anything I didn’t already know, but having it put into words like that often helps. When we consider the stories written by Mark Twain we see that he took that concept to heart. Each time we pick up one of his books we feel as if we were sitting by the fire with him as he tells of some experience he or an acquaintance had. The narrator of his stories seems very real, even though it is clear at times that it isn’t Mark Twain himself or even one of the principle characters. His technique makes it easy for us to slip into the story.


One of the things we must consider when relaying a story as if to a friend is who this friend is and what he already knows. Our friend is likely an intelligent person and doesn’t need us to explain every little detail. Imagine sitting in your living room and telling your friend about a trip you took. What details would you need to include for your friend to picture the events that took place? Those are the details that are important to our story.

What Story?

Relaying the story as if to a friend also has an impact on the story we might choose to tell. There are a couple of reasons why we might tell a story. One is for entertainment. The other is to get a point across.


Look at a story like The Magic of Ordinary Days or the book Holes and you’ll see stories that have good solid themes, but their primary purpose is to entertain. A reader may walk away changed, but it isn’t so much about that. Instead, the author is relaying a story that he enjoyed and hopes the reader will too. It’s a little like when you’ve been out somewhere and something happens. You call up a friend and say, “You’ll never guess what just happened to me!” You don’t expect your friend to change his life because of your experience, but you want him to share in the experience. If we’re writing for entertainment our goal is to write about things of which the reader will enjoy sharing the experience. If it isn’t exciting or help to explain the events then forget it.

To Teach

Stories have always been used to teach and to change lives. Books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were written for that purpose. The author had something to say and wanted to get it across, but he did so with an entertaining story. If we’re going to write stories like that, we must consider what it is that our friend needs to learn. Many times we make the mistake of preaching to the choir, trying to teach people something they already agree with. We need to stop that.

Let’s suppose we’re writing a Christian novel. As our theme we might pick something like how the world is going to hell in a hand basket or something similar. It seems like a great theme, since that’s what the preacher preached about on Sunday. But is that what our friend needs to read?

Let me get very specific. I have a friend—if you can call him that—who is the biggest gossip I’ve ever seen. Not long ago, I was at church and overheard him telling another friend about a preacher the three of us know. “I heard that the reason he’s looking for a church is because he got fired.” Whether he did or didn’t is none of my business. If I were on a pulpit search committee, it would be appropriate to ask the preacher and the church about it, but spreading this information in this way is harmful. So if my gossiping friend is the reader, the story I tell might be written in such a way that he would see that gossip is wrong. But it wouldn’t be so simple as just writing about gossip because my friend doesn’t see what he is doing as gossip or wrong at all. Which brings us to why fiction works. Rather than talk about how wrong gossip is, like a preacher would do, we would point out my friend’s flaws by creating a character who is a caricature of my friend, highlighting gossiping nature and revealing the consequences.


When we focus our writing on a friend, whether that friend be real or imaginary, our writing is improved because we are attempting to communicate rather than to fill the blank pages. When we’re writing to teach a friend, our writing becomes much more focused and we stand a better chance of getting the point across while telling an entertaining story.