Even when writing fiction, honesty is the best policy

imageBeing a humor columnist, I am often asked:

“Where do you get this stuff?”
“How did you even think of that?”
“Do you just make this [censored] up?
“Isn’t marijuana legal in Oregon?”

The answer to all of those questions is a definitive “Yes,” particularly on Ballot Measure 5. However, each of the first three include an important addendum that reads as follows:

While the consumption of humor shall be made available to everyone regardless of race, color, creed or whatever they happen to be eating that may unintentionally exit a nostril, the distributor of said humor is required to provide a basic standard of truthfulness, therefore guaranteeing consumers a more pure grade of laughter. At least until they try passing mixed-berry yogurt through their nose…

If we cut through all that legal jargon prepared by snooty lawyers making seven-figure salaries somewhere in the back of my mind, there is a point: Elements of truth play an important part in all forms of good fiction.

There is also a secondary point, which is that I will probably never get a Dannon Yogurt endorsement. 

Fictional writing is at its best when it is structured within some basis of truth. Whether you are writing a murder mystery, humor, horror or erotica, in order for it to fully resonate with readers, the “sound” of your writing must have something to bounce off of before it can ring true with readers. Using “50 Shades” author E.L. James as an example, think of your writing as sound waves. Now think of a riding crop against a bare bottom…

Welcome back.

Without first establishing an element of truth within the storyline — in this case, basic human nature regarding lust, the desire for power, need for acceptance and a possible Armor All deal — the “sound” of the climactic encounters doesn’t carry because it doesn’t come back to the reader with an echo of truth. Without that echo, you might as well be watching sex in space: silent and no one really knows which end is up.

Speaking of being a columnist, the same rule applies to humor. In this case, however, punchlines take the place of climaxes (or so I keep telling my wife). Again, for humor to resonate it has to bounce off of an element of truth. For an example, re-read the second sentence in this paragraph. And let me just say some elements of truth are larger than others, and mine happens to be enormous. If you laughed at that, then you understand what I’m talking about. Or possibly saw me naked in middle school gym class — and I should clarify I’ve always been a late bloomer. Or so I’m hoping.

What I’m getting at is that whether you are a humor columnist, erotica novelist or mystery writer, always remember that I no longer have the body of a middle schooler.

Oh, and that you can take readers to extremes with your fiction as long as you first establish a subtle structure of truth for the sounds of laughter, anguish, pleasure or surprise to echo back from.

But please, try to keep it down.



imageThis has been an excerpt from Ned’s upcoming book, “Pearls of Writing Widson: From 16 Shucking Years as a Columnist,” coming out this September in both print and eBook from Port Hole Publishing. Ned is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)




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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

46 thoughts on “Even when writing fiction, honesty is the best policy”

  1. SWEET! I love that you’re starting to provide excerpts of your book.

    This particular piece was extremely helpful, and your timing is impeccable. I’m stepping away from my blog for a moment to spend more time with a small group to do some team writing – zombie apocalypse-type stuff. What you revealed about having some truth in fiction seems especially true in dystopian and/or fantasy stories. My character is a little Mexican woman who just happens to talk to dead people – there has to be some element of truth or she just becomes another trite witch doctor.

    I know I’m supposed to be on a break, but when I saw your post and the title show up in my e-mail, I just had to read and respond.
    Thank you! Thank you!

    1. I’m so glad, Michelle! And you’re absolutely right. Without a foundation of truth to build on, out-of-the-ordinary characters will eventually crumble under their own weight. But if you take the time to establish that element of truth, there are no limits to how dynamic and/or weird a character can become. (Donald Trump is the obvious exception to this rule…)

  2. As you have stated so well (but I still feel the need to run over), truth is the key to any effective storytelling. No matter how fantastical the concept, there must be an underlying honesty or the audience will not embrace your idea…cannot, in fact.

    As I’ve learned time and again (I’m slow that way), the most powerful and effective scenes performed in improv or puppetry are the ones that touch on a core truth. It is not enough simply to be funny (and god knows, I’ve tried). While you may get a laugh, the humor doesn’t last…dying away as quickly as the last echo of the punchline.

    Tell your audience the truth, however, and they will hang with you until you are done…and likely continue to think about what you said/wrote long after they have left the theatre or put down the book or newspaper.

    Even when answering the question “Does my butt look big in these pants?”, it is important to tell the truth. But for god’s sake, DON’T answer the question. It is critical you be honest, but kamikaze truth doesn’t help anyone.

  3. My policy has always been that in humor writing, it is okay to use hyperbole or fiction as long as your audience is in on the joke and your lies are obvious. The humor is not in the story, but in how the story is told.

    1. I stopped in and, after reading it, am bringing you to our next safety meeting, Paul. Great read and, even more importantly, great example of how doing the right thing is often the hardest thing.

  4. Looking forward to your new book Ned. And 100 % stories come from some element of real life. You know what they say . . . ‘There’s truth in fiction.’ 🙂

  5. This piece gives me a lot to think on. I feel like honesty in writing happens on several levels: Honesty in genuinely wanting what you write to be taken at its tone and seriously(even in comedy you take the intentions of it being comedy seriously), authenticity, who the author may or may not be, the purpose of writing…the list goes on and it makes it very complicated. Thank you for writing.

No one is watching, I swear...

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