There is one thing (of many I have noticed) that is rarely talked about when one talks or reads about writing. The reason is because it is unquantifiable. It is subjective, — elusive. At the same time, though, it is imperative for any piece of writing to be successful in the mind of a reader. I have chosen the word “Sincerity.” It is not the only possible word choice.
By sincerity I mean the writer, particularly in works of fiction, must be absolutely convinced that this is what really happened. That is how the book, any book must be written, no matter how far-fetched the premise. Does that mean the fiction writer needs to be a skillful liar? Absolutely not. It means that given event X happening to person Y the writer is completely convinced the result will be Z. That sincerity will show on the page and convince the reader that what they are reading is “real.” Maybe it can’t be quantified, but it must be there.
The minute the writer thinks, well, this is just a bit of fiction after all, then all is lost and the reader will know it. We must always remember that readers are like dogs and children – they can sniff out a fake in a heartbeat.
What came to my mind as an example was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Yes, there are some people who might insist that animals cannot talk and therefore the whole thing is bunk. But assuming you don’t have that particular mental problem, the minute you start reading you will be captivated by the “reality” of the piece. Orwell never lets up. Each event follows reasonably, down to the emotional responses. He is utterly sincere throughout, and it works.
My feeling is when writers start thinking of their own piece as fiction, when they start telling themselves they are just making it all up, they are in trouble. My advice (as always worth what you pay for it) is to step back and ask, okay but what REALLY happened? How did this person (not character) honestly respond to this situation? How do these two people really feel about each other? Do you see?
I once wrote about a knight – a heroic figure, who came to face a dragon. I wanted him to stand up at one point and chase off the dragon, but sincerity forced me to portray him cowering in the corner and almost eaten. He had to spend the next two hundred pages seeking redemption. It was a much better story once I asked what really would happen or even what really happened.
Truth is a good thing. Honestly matters and researching your subject to portray things accurately is important. But if the story is not told in all sincerity, it won’t be worth telling. Orwell himself said it very well:
For a creative writer possession of the “truth” is less important than emotional sincerity.
I could not agree more.