Monday, June 6, 2011

Secrets to Spinning a Believable Tale

Thought for the day:  If you can't win 'em over with facts, dazzle 'em with malarkey.  

Ever catch any of Judge Judy's shows on TV? She's a little bit of a thing in a lace-collared robe who sits behind her bench banging her gavel, screeching at people, and waggling her finger at them. She's feisty and funny as all get-out at times, but I've seen enough snippets of her in action to know I wouldn't ever want to face her in court. I can just imagine how that would go. She'd be screeching, "Button your mouth, ma'am! I'm not interested in hearing what you think! Just tell me exactly what happened." And she'd probably laugh me right out of the courtroom if I tried to explain my trips into fantasy by telling her I'm a writer. But I ask you, don't writers have a certain latitude when it comes to spinning our tales? Hmmmmph.  Not to Judge Judy, because that lady has a built-in Malarkey-o-Meter the size of Montana.

I dunno. There's something about her that rubs me the wrong way. Strident? Oh yeah, but it isn't that. And did I happen to mention she screeches? That's a real nerve-grater, for sure, but it isn't that, either. She's just too darned ... how shall I put this? She's too doggoned judgmental! I mean, who made HER the judge of all she sees? Oh. Yeah. (ahem) Never mind.

Anyway, Judge Judy wrote a book with one of the best titles of all time. It's called, Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining. Priceless, isn't it? Or maybe worth, say, sixty-four thousand dollars, anyway.

And the sixty-four thousand dollar question for the day is : HOW do we writers make our readers believe we're tinkling rain??? HOW do we make the implausible plausible, the insurmountable surmountable, and the outrageous the norm? To find the answer, let's take a gander at the gurus of garbage, those writers with unsurpassed skills in turning tripe into something that passes for "truth." I have no names for these people, but believe me, their skills are vast. I'm talking about those nameless instigators who post something on the Internet and then sit back with smirks on their faces, while their post turns viral and essentially morphs from fabrication into fact.

WOW.  How can WE harness those skills? I suggest to you ...

Three simple steps:

  • Include a smattering of verifiable facts in your writing. It'll demonstrate how smart you are, and establish you as an authority.
  • Write with confidence and authority. In fact, if you demonstrate ample confidence and authority, you don't have to concern yourself with facts at all.
  • Never be afraid to address hot-button topics. In fact, embrace them, baby. Any segment of society with a strong enough bias about any given topic will gladly believe whatever you tell them, as long as it reinforces the beliefs and hatreds they already harbor. As for facts? Pffffft. Don't need 'em. When readers go all Judge Judy on a topic, they're in danger of developing a serious medical condition known as psychosclerosis. Otherwise known as hardening of the attitude, this is not a fatal condition, but has been known to kill conversations and end relationships. (So, how'd I do with that one? Make your malarkey-o-meter tingle?)

OK, so we're not really interested in manipulating the minds of our readers, but you gotta admit, it's downright phenomenal how successful others have become at doing just that, thanks to the viral potential of the Internet. For some reason,  people who wouldn't dream of turning to the National Enquirer as a source for the latest news have no problem believing an article they find on Wikipedia or within a zillion-times forwarded email they receive from a friend. (Would you believe a new error-laden fourth grade social studies textbook entitled Our Virginia, Past and Present had to be recalled earlier this year because the writer of said textbook gleaned her erroneous "facts" from the Internet?)

Seems to me, we should all learn, not necessarily to be Judge Judy-ish, but at least to learn to take the things we read with a grain of salt. But oh, what we write, now that's another story. We don't WANT our readers to reach for the salt shaker. We want to spin locations, characters, and stories that are so well-seasoned and believable, no extra salt is ever needed. How can we do that? Let's backtrack to those three steps:

  • By all means, weave verifiable facts into your story. Unless you're creating a fantasy world that defies our laws of physics, it's best not to buck science. Two examples where writers tried to do just that: In one book, the good guy electrocuted the bad guy by tossing an old capacitor (that he'd been carrying in his pocket for decades) into the sink while the bad guy was washing his hands. WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! Ain't gonna happen. In the second case, the damsel in distress successfully prevents her pursuers from following her by removing the valve stems from the tires of their car ... and thereby flattening the tires! More WOOP! WOOP! 
  • Writing with confidence and authority is always a good bet, even if you have to fake it. (Also known as flying with the eagles when we feel like a chicken on the inside.)
  • And finally, the hot-button topics. Well, that's up to you. Some excellent books have been written about some of these topics, and they've been written with great sensitivity and intelligence. And I already know that all of you have sensitivity and intelligence out the wazoo, right? Now, I'm no Judge Judy, but if you DO tackle one of these hot potatoes, please rely on verifiable facts, okay?

After all, too much salt isn't good for anyone.

So, what do you think it takes to make a reader believe what he reads? Have you read anything that dispels that belief by trying to suspend the laws of science? Do tell, do tell.

Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.


  1. Ha! Hubs calls Judge Judy the "Queen Bitch of the World" (in an affectionate way, of course). He loves watching her rip dumb people a new one, but admits he's never want to appear before her himself.

    I think readers are pretty much willing to suspend their disbelief as long as the author writes like s/he believes it. It must ring true within the parameters of the world the writer creates.

  2. Your third point is why I love listening to Sarah Palin talk lately. She wouldn't know a fact if it slapped her in the face - and I am not talking her politics. It is something like her whole "Paul Revere" speech the other day which she stumbled through, with about 10% true recitation of history. She is so pathetic it is funny. Unfortunately there are so many people that believe whatever comes out of her mouth that she now has people that believe Paul Revere rode to support our right to bear arms not, in fact, to warn that the British were coming.

    But she said it SO convincingly. So wrong. [And she is just an example - I am not picking on her politics - just her lack of intelligence and her ability to spin.]

  3. To add on to what Skippy Mom said above, Sarah Palin presented her erroneous facts so convincingly because she truly believes whatever she says. Even when confronted with her errors, she didn't back down and say, "Sorry, I tangled up my words while speaking (again)." She shot back with, "I know my history!" Suggesting that everybody else is wrong.

    I guess as long as you are convinced your facts are believable, your readers will be too!

  4. My daily siesta is taken with JJ; the most soporific show on TV.

    School children now download reams of guff from the 'net for their coursework. I'm sure most of them don't even know what their downloading!

  5. I, also, get very annoyed by the mis-facts that are sent to me through e-mail by friends who want to inform me of a "truth" they believe. I used to ignore them, but now I forward a "fact check" to them. It might get them mad at me, but they know my feelings about this crap and still send it to me time and time again. I think people tend to believe what they want to believe based on political/religious/background and upbringing.

    I always think life experiences are the best stories, as that is what you know. However, if you step on some toes, make sure you shine their shoes before you finish. It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

    As for Judge Judy, it is all about her.

    What can you say about Sarah Palin? Even if you did not hear her words, you could tell by her face and tone that she did not know what she was talking about. I think we learned about Paul Revere in about the 2nd grade. What is more scary than her is that she has millions of followers who don't know about Paul Revere either.

  6. I'm not a big fan of Judge Judy either. It is ridiculous how people believe everything they hear and read. As for wrting, we just have to do our best to check and re-check the facts. Or we can just write about what we know, mixing in pepper with just a pinch of salt! Julie

  7. Hi, all. Whoopee! Blogger is finally gonna let me make a comment here. Not sure what was going on before, but all I could do was make a couple little meaningless "marks" when I tried to type something. Oh, well, it's working now, so I'd better take advantage of it.

    Linda- Your hubby is a funny man, and I'm quite sure he means that Judge Judy label in the most affectionate of ways. (Don't wanta cross THAT bee-itch...!)

    Skippy- Darn it, I didn't catch her latest speech. Sounds like I missed another "good one." Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of Americans are more bedazzled by the spin than persuaded by the substance.

    Dianne- You're right; maybe the reason she can speak so convincingly is because she honestly believes what she's saying. In her world, I guess not knowing is no reason for not saying.

    Cro- It's a whole different world than when we were in school, isn't it? It's hard to believe something like Wikipedia ever being as reliable a research source as our good ol' Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book.

    Starting Over- HA! I believe I found your hot button! One of the things that bugs me about those "factually deficient" emails is, even after I respond with FACTS, it doesn't make a bloody bit of difference to the people sending them. Arguing with some people is like trying to blow out a light bulb.

    "It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice." I LIKE that.

    Julie- Ooh, I'm a big fan of pepper ...

  8. I believe I hard this pee-pee line in an old Clint Eastwood cowboy movie. Seriously. A grizzly old cowboy turns to the other and says, "don't pee down my back and tell me it's rainin'." Interesting title.

  9. Hi, Florida. You're right! I forgot all about that. (You ARE the "movie queen"!)

  10. I've just noticed that above I wrote 'their' instead of 'they're'. I apologise to the whole world!