“When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainers, they don’t like to hear it — the word smacks of carnivals and jugglers and clowns. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than anyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment.”
This comment from William’s classic guide, On Writing Well, appears in the final chapter, called “Write as Well as You Can.” While the book focuses on writing nonfiction, it’s full of advice and ideas that we writers of fiction can benefit from.
I love the notion that one aspect of writing as well as we can is to divert and entertain our readers. Here’s a concise and direct definition of the word “entertain:”: “to provide with amusement or enjoyment.” When I think of books that I’ve really cherished and returned to over time, the word “enjoyment” certainly springs to mind. These books have captivated me and given me pleasure in deeply satisfying ways. They’ve taken me into new worlds and given me a window into the minds and hearts of memorable characters — and made my life richer and fuller as a result.
How can we make our writing more entertaining — more enjoyable and fulfilling for our readers? Our boy William has a few helpful suggestions:
First, we can introduce the element of surprise into our stories and offer something unexpected and/or unusual. This can take the form of an anecdote, a paradox, an outlandish detail, or a plot twist that shakes up our characters, shifts the path they take, and creates anticipation.
Second, we can use humor — moments of levity and lightness that let the reader rest for a moment, even in the midst of a tragic story. Flaubert’s deft touch with details and his exuberant dialogue in Madame Bovary come to mind. Though his tale is anything but light, some of the moments and characters sketches Flaubert provides are fun and witty.
Third, a writer can entertain through style — through “his personality as he expresses it on paper.” “Given a choice between two traveling companions — and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him — we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.”
So, whether we’re laboring in the vineyards of fiction or nonfiction, let’s make sure that we give consideration to one of our fundamental jobs: offering our readers entertainment. And then, let’s write on!