Not Directly Anyway


So, I’m not going to talk about fiction writing. Not really. Not directly. First I want to talk about a business book, and a comedian. And Pablo Picasso.


…I’m reading his book by John Kay, mostly a business book, with a few other things thrown in (I must confess to not having finished it), called Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, and the author talks a lot about how the businesses that are the most profitable are the ones that aren’t focused first and foremost on profits. He talks some about Apple, and how when Apple forced Steve Jobs out of the company and brought in some other dude to be CEO, the other dude was all about maximizing shareholder value and blah blah blah and the stock tanked. But when they brought Jobs back in to run the company, Jobs was focused on making the best and most beautiful and most functional products, and the value of Apple’s stock went through the roof.

And I nodded in agreement.


…I’m listening to a CD called “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour Rides Again.” Bill Engvall and Jeff Foxworthy and Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy. I’m sure you’ve heard some of their stuff. And Ron White says, “My brother is a doctor, and my sister is a lawyer, and I… hate Thanksgiving.”

And I laughed out loud.


…my favorite quote of all time: Pablo Picasso says “Art is the lie that makes us see the truth.”

And I repeat it every chance I get.


…I read this article online in the last year, and I wish I had the link so I could let you read it in full for yourself because it was fascinating stuff. But I don’t have the link, so you’re going to have to take my word for it. The gist of the piece was that fiction is actually more effective at persuading people to change their viewpoints on subjects than non-fiction. When people read non-fiction, they go in with their shields up, their defenses on, and they screen and they filter and they test. But when people read fiction, they are looking to become immersed in a story, in a world, in character. They’re open.

So don’t tell them the truth. Artfully lie to them and let them put the pieces together for themselves. It’s not funny if I say “My brother is a lawyer and my sister is a doctor and they make me feel insecure and insignificant.” But the way Ron White phrased it is hysterical.


…my question for you today is this: in your fiction, are you leaving gaps? Are you giving people an opportunity to figure things out for themselves? Do your stories, your plots, your characters give readers a chance to be an active part of the process? You don’t want to confuse your readers—I’ve written here previously about how frustrating I find it when a writer doesn’t know the difference between true tension and artificially withholding information—but the other side of that equation, the yin to that yang, is the need to not spoon-feed every last thing to your reader either.

You know what I mean?



14 comments to Not Directly Anyway

  • Edmund, I have missed you utterly and totally and I am so very glad you are here today! And I have to say that this is a beautifully rendered piece of fact, as lovely as poetry. You gave us just enough to make us think, which worked so very well. Far better than the way I try to phrase this, which is … much less artful.

    In the past I’ve said, sharing truth in fiction is like pulling the wings off a butterfly, taking the pretty and then the painful, and offering bits and glimpses of both, leaving the broken beauty to tell the tale.

    Ummm. Not that I ever pulled the wings off butterflies. But I did have brothers. And maybe I should stop here… Yours is so very much better.

  • You are far too sweet, Faith, but I’ll take it, anyway. 😉 I miss the Magical Words gang more than I realized; it’s wonderful to be back for a spell.

  • My sister is an engineer, so I used to hate Thanksgiving too. Until she had two daughters very close together. Now she’s a frazzled mommy who’d do anything just to get fifteen minutes to herself, while I am the serene madonna who lived through all that already. Heh heh heh.

    I’m dealing with how to dole out the truth in my current WIP, and I’m trying to be extra-careful not to make everything a pronouncement. I’ve read far too many books that spend so much time bashing me over the head with their messages that I lose track of the story, so I really don’t ever want to do that in my own work.

    Thanks for coming by today. We’ve missed you!!

  • An excellent post – I’ve rarely seen this discussed, so well.

    I wonder if there are limits to this sort of thing. What I mean is, how polemical can a book be? I tossed aside a fantasy novel, once, because it was turning out to be a thinly-veiled piece of propaganda for a certain political party – the author thought he could teach me how to vote through a fantasy story.

    But I’m not disagreeing with you. After reading about the noble acts of certain fictional character in fantasy stories, am I not encouraged to act noble, myself?

  • Misty – Thanks for inviting me. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. My brother had a PhD, but he’s my LITTLE brother and I can still beat him up, which is all that matters.

    DeepForestGreen – No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No polemics. I’m not talking about slipping messages or even themes into your writing. Yes, a noble character can inspire a person to act nobly, but what I’m more focused on is the difference between two characters walking down the street having conversation A:

    Joe: I hate my brother.
    Pete: I hate my sister.
    Joe: If you’ll go kill my brother for me, I’ll kill your sister.
    Pete: Great idea. That way we’ll both have good alibis for the crime we’re most likely to be investigated for.

    (Basically, the plot from the movie Throw Momma From The Train. If you’ve never seen it, go find it now.))

    Vs. conversation B:

    Joe: I was just thinking that if I were in a very public place when my brother died, no one would suspect me.
    Pete: That’s odd, I was just thinking the same thing myself.

    Obviously that’s off the top of my head and not the most clever iteration, but hopefully you see what I was getting after. It also conveniently raises the point that you do have to be careful. Miss the mark by even a little and you can end up confusing or misleading your readers.

  • Ah, my mistake. You were trying to talk about a writing technique, and I was trying to read about a philosophical approach to storytelling. That sort of thing has been on my mind, lately, so my preconceptions have obviously obscured my reading.

    I can tell that you were not espousing a method of brain-washing via storytelling, I was only musing about the way some people try to abuse their station as a writer. Your advice here is quite useful to hopefuls like myself. Thank you.

    (Also, I thought I was the only person who remembered ‘Throw Mama from the Train.’)

  • Hi, Edmund! Great to see you here again!

    I really like this concept. Thanks! I think I’ve used it my current WIP, especially with certain aspects about my main character. This all about implying rather than stating the obvious, right?

  • Classic movie, DGF. Glad to know I’m not alone in recalling it.

    100% correct, Laura. Great to see you again, too. Glad to know you’re still hard at it.

  • I’m so glad to see that you didn’t leave for long! Your sparkling wit and digits were missed!

    I’ll have to admit, reading Picasso in your first paragraph caused me to assume this post would be about thinking sideways. I wasn’t expecting the seque into the technique of using a feather rather than a sledge-hammer. In my writing, while occasionally my characters might be guilty of getting “on the stump” to preach, I try to make it clear that it is the character’s belief system, and not mine. I’ll leave that to others. I don’t want to change the world through my fiction, although if I occasionally get someone to think, well, hey… that’s a Good Thing.

  • quillet

    So … it’s sort of the difference between a diagram and a sketch. The first might show everything in complete and accurate detail, but it’s … *yawn*. The second, with just a few pencil-strokes, can evoke something magical in the viewer’s imagination. So … we should sketch in the words that evoke our story, and let our readers’ minds do the rest. Is that it?

    (Awwww, you mean we’re not allowed to hit them over the head with sledge hammers?)

  • Hi, Lyn. Sideways would be an interesting topic to explore. Maybe next time. I like the concept and Picasso is just such a fascinating character; you can go SO many ways…

    quillet: excellent analogy. You have a future in this business. 😉

  • Picasso and Escher walk into a bar…

  • So great to see you here, my friend. I have been having trouble accessing the site again, and yesterday I was doing taxes and filling out Student Financial Aid forms, so I didn’t get to comment. But I love this post, as I have always loved your posts. I think that this relates to something I posted about years ago: trusting one’s reader. That, at least is the phrase my editor uses. Basically it means just what you say here: telling our readers enough to allow them to put the pieces together for themselves. And, of course, trusting our readers is really shorthand for trusting ourselves, for believing that our narrative is working well enough to allow us to imply rather than explain.

  • Hey David. Been too long. Sounds like you’re using your writing skills for good and not evil (well, maybe a little evil with the tax stuff). I remember the post you’re referring to about trusting your reader (I think because it ended up in the MW book). You gave an example of how you had written something in one of your earlier books and the contrasted it with how you would have written it later on, with more experience and trust. I always like the posts that give real examples.