the sin in writing

mantiI’ve been following the Manti Te’o debacle for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that am a Notre Dame football fan and though not an alum, part of the ND family and have friends who are professors there. The truth will out, if not soon, then eventually. That’s usually what happens and my point is not what did he know and when did he know it or whether he was duped or in on it. As of now, besides one statement, he has not come forward. (UPDATED 1/18 he spoke to Jeremy Schaap) I’d just as soon give him the benefit of the doubt until all the facts are in, but right now it doesn’t feel like it will end well, no matter how it plays out. I can see several scenarios – in on it, totally duped, or partially duped, then trying to avoid public humiliation by continuing the story after he realized there was no girlfriend. However, my point is to look at what can we learn from this story – a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story – and how that applies to writing. Coincidentally, the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is “traduce.” 

Someone told a lie and over time a web of lies was created. For a number of reasons, the story blew up. Notre Dame kept winning. That was an unexpected element. Reporters had a talented football player, a nice kid, a team leader with a compelling story and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Some of them scratched the surface – at least one reporter looked for the girlfriend’s obituary and did not find anything. But though no obit is unusual, it happens. Plausible deniability. Could happen. Could a naive young man of faith be so taken in? Well, one of his strengths in football is the kind of focus that doesn’t allow for other possibilities. Just win. Could happen.

mjQnY24-580x386But look at the ripple effect. The original lie, the original impulse to deceive, started rolling, picking up steam, more lies, more deceit, and suddenly it’s all over the news, tabloids, talk shows, breaking out of the sports world to the general news. Seasoned reporters with over thirty years experience say it’s the most bizarre story they’ve ever seen and they don’t know what to make of it. Don’t underestimate the power of shame or the damage of humiliation. Humiliation is a murder of the spirit. People behave in ways that invite a number of different interpretations when shame is involved. And just because you would not feel one way about a given situation, does not mean someone else wouldn’t – slipping into another’s skin is essential to being a good writer.


How does this relate to your writing? Drama comes from conflict. Truth vs. lies. Good vs. evil. Gullibility vs. cynicism. Narcissism vs. altruism. You get the idea. What is your central conflict? How can that ripple out to affect the greatest number of characters? What’s the unexpected element beyond anyone’s control? In the Te’o story, one lie mushroomed and affected not only Te’o, but his family, his teammates, his coaches, the University, the fans, even the way sports reporters will cover the human interest angle going forward (which is sad because the last thing we need is more cynicism).

white-roses_1920x1200_15316Sin has gone out of fashion. It implies a divine intelligence, a moral standard. I’m not here to debate that. I do argue that having a moral viewpoint will make your fiction stronger. The best definition of sin I’ve heard is that it begins with treating other people like things and lying is foundational to that. When you wrong someone, when there is conflict, often it begins with a lie to the self or to another. Someone who plays the “catfish” game, who creates a deliberate deception, may do so out of vanity or thinks it all in good fun and no one will get hurt, or worse, that the deceived person deserves it for being gullible. Think of the pedophile – they lie to themselves that it won’t harm the child. The thief lies to himself that he’s justified in taking what does not belong to him. What do your characters lie to themselves about and what are they lying about to others? Do they treat others as things? Does it all escalate? Add the element of surprise and watch it ripple out in your fiction. And please, keep it to fiction. Don’t muck up real lives. As to motive?

are you an agitator?

While trying to decide whether to go see a play (Burn This in Los Angeles), I read in one of the reviews, “…the production ‘doesn’t agitate from an essence.’” A great phrase that the reviewer borrowed from a friend. Most writing instructors find a way to say the same thing – and it’s related to what motivates you to write in the first place – what is the piece about? There has to be some central conflict.

Ha, it just occurred to me that the central agitator has largely disappeared from our washing machines. In top loading washers, there used to be an agitator that pulled the clothing downward in the center towards the agitator; the clothing then moved out and up the sides of the basket and the cycle repeated. In front-loaders agitation is supplied by the back-and-forth rotation of the cylinder and by gravity.

This doesn’t seem like a bad metaphor for what’s happened to drama in general lately. Instead of real conflict between characters that generates their actions, we get a lot of back and forth and it leaves us unsatisfied, regardless of whether it’s in a book, on TV, a stage or in a film.

What is your book, play, film really about? What’s the core conflict because chances are, that conflict is the motor driving you to write as well. Good vs. evil? Justice vs. injustice? Ignorance vs. wisdom? What makes you angry? What really gets to you?

Next, pay attention to how you traditionally have your characters solve their conflicts. The major strategies are to ignore it, negotiate it, smooth it over, use their power and authority to settle it, or collaborate to resolve the conflict.

There’s no right or wrong answer here; it’s about finding your voice, your style, your reason for moving forward as an artist. What is the essence that agitates you? Once you can identify it, you’ll see that you can’t help but keep writing about it. Now go write something great.

If you’re a procrastinator, check out this blog post

p.s. I decided to pass on the play.