Even when making stuff up, honesty is still the best policy for writers


By Ned Hickson
Being a humor columnist, I am often asked:

“Where do you get this stuff?”
“How did you even think of that?”
“Do you just make this [censored] up?
“Isn’t marijuana legal in Oregon?”

The answer to all of those questions is a definitive “Yes,” particularly on Ballot Measure 5. However, each of the first three include an important addendum that reads as follows:

While the consumption of humor shall be made available to everyone regardless of race, color, creed or whatever they happen to be eating that may unintentionally exit a nostril, the distributor of said humor is required to provide a basic standard of truthfulness, therefore guaranteeing consumers a more pure grade of laughter. At least until they try passing mixed-berry yogurt through their nose.

If we cut through all that legal jargon prepared by snooty lawyers making seven-figure salaries somewhere in the back of my mind, there is a point: Elements of truth play an important part in all forms of good fiction.

There is also a secondary point, which is that I will probably never get a Dannon Yogurt endorsement.

Fictional writing is at its best when it is structured within some basis of truth. Whether you are writing a murder mystery, humor, horror or erotica, in order for it to fully resonate with readers, the “sound” of your writing must have something to bounce off of before it can ring true with readers. Using 50 Shades author E.L. James as an example, think of your writing as sound waves. Now think of a riding crop against a bare bottom…

Welcome back.

Without first establishing an element of truth within the storyline — in this case, basic human nature regarding lust, the desire for power, need for acceptance and a possible Armor All deal — the “sound” of the climactic encounters doesn’t carry because it doesn’t come back to the reader with an echo of truth. Without that echo, you might as well be watching sex in space: silent and no one really knows which end is up.

Speaking of being a columnist, the same rule applies to humor. In this case, however, punchlines take the place of climaxes (or so I keep telling my wife). Again, for humor to resonate it has to bounce off of an element of truth. For an example, re-read the second sentence in this paragraph. And let me just say some elements of truth are larger than others, and mine happens to be enormous. If you laughed at that, then you understand what I’m talking about. Or possibly saw me naked in middle school gym class — and I should clarify I’ve always been a late bloomer. Or so I’m hoping.

What I’m getting at is that whether you are a humor columnist, erotica novelist or mystery writer, always remember that I no longer have the body of a middle schooler.

Oh, and that you can take readers to extremes with your fiction as long as you first establish a subtle structure of truth for the sounds of laughter, anguish, pleasure or surprise to echo back from.

But please, try to keep it down.

image Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

9 thoughts on “Even when making stuff up, honesty is still the best policy for writers

  1. “Elements of truth play an important part in all forms of good fiction.”
    I agree. Probably less with fantasy and scifi. But even dystopian stories need some elements for the reader to believe in the world that the writer creates.
    Not much is totally done from scratch, right?
    As for humor, it’s tricky since humor takes roots at the heart of every culture. Something funny for a westerner won’t be for someone living in Asia for exemple, and vice versa. Even between French and American jokes, it’s sometimes challenging. A funny joke will fall flat if some common grounds are not shared or established.


    • I agree on all counts, although it’s been my experience when it comes to humor that there are certain truths shared by nearly all cultures, as long as you’re dealing with the human condition. There’s a reason Charlie Chaplin chose to slip on a bannana peel.

      But absolutely — when you start trying to be funny with social, economical or political jokes, you better know your audience. My latest post about bacon-scented pillowcases probably would go over well everywhere in the world 😉


  2. ‘keep it down’? I’d have thought you’d want us to ‘keep it up’ . . .
    Good post, though. and I agree with Evelyne (above); even between Canada and the US, some jokes fail to register as funny.


  3. OH, Ned. I’m so glad I wasn’t drinking my Earl Grey (or eating a cup of yogurt…which I’ll probably never do again…) while reading this! You were exactly what I needed today, and I think this is one of the most important rules a writer of any kind really must follow. I don’t care if it’s a love story, a children’s book, science fiction, or a story about sparkling vampires. There has to be a core truth somewhere. Usually that involves emotions we can relate to, even if the setting is far removed from our real world. There is some thread to be found that will connect readers to the written word, and I think our job is to find it. (And by thread, I don’t mean ropes tied to bedposts, though that could work in the right book, I guess. If that’s your thing. 😉 )

    Thanks so much for this one, and I’m sorry it took me until this morning to find it! WordPress still doesn’t want to alert me to new posts and/or comments. I’m blogging in the dark, which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds like.

    Liked by 1 person

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