One of my favourite shows in the history of ever is Doctor Who. I remember a little of the original series and though I enjoyed it, it never captured me the way the new series has. Now I just need to hear the theme song and my mood improves. I get all dork-buckety and start speaking in a mock English accent. Ehlaoh.
There are a hundred reasons to love Doctor Who – the adventure, the humor, the wildly inventive stories – but I think the biggest reason I’ve come to love the Doctor is character.
I started with the wonderful Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor. His devil-may-care attitude and his ability to convey intense emotion with the merest shift in facial expression held me spellbound. Billie Piper as Rose Tyler was impossible not to watch, and impossible not to root for. She seemed human. Fragile. But also blessed with an intrepid curiosity that made us believe she would climb into that phone box with a Yorkshire-voiced alien. Rose and the Doctor were a winning team and I was ready to follow them anywhere across space and time.
But then the unthinkable happened. Christopher Eccleston left. Regenerated right out of the Tardis. Sure, it was part of the script but I was heartbroken. The role of the Doctor would now be played by some guy called David Tennant. It was a sad end to what could have been the best television series ever. No one could replace Eccleston as the Doctor because he was so perfect: muscular, energetic, occasionally manic. He was, as he would say, fantastic. Now I was stuck with a wispy Scotsman I’d never heard of. This would suck. This would be the end of the show…
Fiction writers are liars. Liars, thieves, and con artists. We make things up and try to pass them off as true. And thank god for that. (Tweet this.)
In our culture, lying is not often considered a useful, valuable skill (except in politics, but more about that later). For a fiction writer, however, whipping up a mess of lies and distortions is not just a skill, it’s a virtue.
Now let’s be clear, nobody reads a story hoping to be lied to. Just like no one drinks water hoping it will be wet – it’s expected. The word “fiction” means “a belief or statement that is false.” The irony, of course, is that people read stories in order to suspend disbelief and enter a world that seems… true.
Every reader has had that experience. You’re reading a book and you fall into its reality.
You can feel the heavy jeans sticking to your legs, hear the squeak of wipers on the bus window, sense the rush of water thundering through the tire wells.
It’s as though we’ve been transported into another reality and we willingly surrender our disbelief to enjoy it (or enjoy hating it).
So how is it done? How do storytellers make us believe in make-believe?*
(Plus a bonus writing pump up!)
Remember that time when you were a kid, perhaps seven or eight, and you had a killer idea for a story? It may have been loosely based on The Six Million Dollar Man or Wonder Woman or The Facts of Life (unlikely), but it was such an awesome concept that you HAD to get it down. You rushed to find your favourite, least-chewed pencil and some good paper and began writing your epic. You were on fire! The words flowed like cracked fire hydrant and soon you had your epic: the amazing story of THIS THING THAT HAPPENED! followed by THIS OTHER THING THAT HAPPENED! to this really, really, really cool hero and his super duper funny friends. It was such an awesome great tale, so scary or funny or sad or brave.
Oddly enough, though, when it came time to read your masterpiece to mom or your friends it didn’t quite come across. You read louder, with more enthusiasm, and perhaps a few explanations but it was like trying to resuscitate a fish. With your mouth. Somehow, what had washed up on the page was not half as glorious as the rumble and flash between your ears. What was wrong? you wondered. Why was your awesome story so boring? More monsters perhaps?
If your experience was anything like mine, you probably swore off storytelling for a while, or at least kept your efforts hidden. I’m just not good at telling stories, I told myself. And I continued to believe that for a very long time, even though my English teachers gave me top marks. I still had fun daydreamy ideas floating through my head, but it was frustrating because I had no way to share them. (Robot monkeys from Jupiter, people!!) Eventually, though, I realized that being able to write well is not a gift you’re born with, like blue eyes or an ability to curl your tongue. Writing is more like juggling, a skill that can be learned, but only through practice.
One of the first bits of advice any writing student is likely to hear is: SHOW, don’t TELL. In other words, don’t tell me it was a rainy day. I can’t really see that. Instead, show me the boiling puddles, the buses splashing pedestrians, the squeaky wipers on frenzied full. Make me feel the cold water in my boots, the heavy wet jeans sticking to my legs, the difficulty walking, etc. Showing engages the senses and lets readers experience a story. It’s the difference between telling you that this cup of tea is hot and pouring it in your lap.
“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
– Mark Twain