The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Honesty First

The entire Lifewriting approach is designed to
mine our own consciousness for creativity, and
then harness it to a practical set of skills for
submission to a public market. It’s an interesting
tightrope walk, believe me.

But the core of it all is the question of honesty in
your writing: do you really believe what you just
wrote? Would a real human being, in this situation,
really do or say what you just wrote? Even if it’s a
fantasy story, would a real being, evolved within a
universe of fantastic potential, behave in this fashion?

Nothing destroys “willing suspension of disbelief”
faster than a character behaving irrationally or for
“author convenience.” The classic example is the
horror movie trope of “let’s all stay together” followed
by the doomed teens wandering off in all directions
to be slaughtered. The audience laughs and eats its
popcorn, not believing this nonsense for a moment—
but that’s really part of the fun. But unless you have
implicit permission from the audience to do this, don’t.

And there is another reason not to. In Lifewriting, we
look at the 360 degree dynamic sphere of plot and
characterization, the way the two create each other.
This needs to be related to our own human “is-ness,”
the truth about our lives, our hopes and dreams and
actions. Every time you lie in your work, you take
yourself AWAY from your essence, and out into the
realm of technique, or craft, or cleverness. All well
and good, but isn’t that a waste of life? Shouldn’t
you, at every moment of your existence, be struggling
to learn what is true about you, about the world, about
the nature of life? And isn’t that the greatest gift you
can give your readers or viewers?

That doesn’t mean you can’t write escapist work. John
McClain in “Die Hard” is a perfectly believable character
within the context of that first film. He is motivated by
love, he bleeds, he feels fear and fatigue and
hopelessness, and covers them with wise cracks. We
all do that. He also happens to be a man of unusual skills,
the kind of man you’d want on your side when a dozen
terrorists strike. The film spawned a thousand imitations
and three sequels, and made Bruce Willis a star. Escapism
is fun—but the actions and feelings of the people must
make sense within the context of the world. You must
be able to put yourself in their place and say: yes. If I
were this person, with this history, and these skills, in
this situation, I would do this as well.

If you do, there is reverberating truth. There is also
increased probability of a sale.

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