It may seem brash, but I’m going to share two amazing sources of lessons I’ve learned about writing: Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I’ll start with Jon Stewart.
As he ends his years as the guiding spirit of The Daily Show, I’ve been reflecting on his work, and I’ve realized that he’s leaving me an important lesson about writing fiction. Four nights a week, he has turned serious, complex, and often disturbing news stories into informative and insightful 20-minute laugh-riots. As a fiction writer, I’m intrigued that he can produce such quality night after night.
Granted, he has a team writing with him. An article on the New York Times City Room blog revealed that his scripts are written by his team of roughly twelve writers, producers – and himself – each working about eight hours a day: 96 writer-hours produce 20 minutes of hilarious and penetrating social criticism: Rachel-Maddow-meets-Robin Williams. So, how does that shake out? So: One minute of high-quality writing for The Daily Show requires 4.8 writer-hours!
Let’s see: I write, on good weeks, about fifteen hours, so using The Daily Show as my standard, I should produce about 2.4 pages of excellent content each week! (I can read a page in about 74 seconds.) That’s double-spaced, of course.
Sure, it’s a cliché: Devote more time, do more revisions, and your product will improve. Jon Stewart’s success adds dimensions to the cliché: “Good” writing requires a serious story, a wildly entertaining way of telling it. and many hours of hard work. Seems like a no-brainer, eh? Maybe, but I think there’s something else at play in great writing. This is where Himself, as the Irish call him (Jesus, not Stewart), comes in.
Full disclosure: My mother’s career choice for me was the priesthood. Although I drove that train off the tracks early, I’ve stayed engaged with Jesus as a hero, a prophet, a teacher. I don’t actively practice Christianity; in fact, I prefer his friend, Gautama Buddha’s, approach better. In any case, Jesus wasn’t a writer, so what relevance does he have to the craft of writing?
Well, first, he had a team of writers working for him—you know, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the guys. Jesus himself, of course, never wrote a word, or perhaps I should say, never published one. Nor was he a demanding editor: When his writers quote him, they often differ! With his writers, Jon Stewart runs a much tighter ship; Jesus, not so much. And loose ships confuse lips.
Still, his message endures. So, what’s that got to do with writing a novel, like my Climbing the Coliseum?
Note the word: message. Think, “Have a message, but bury it in a story.”
That is, parables. Embed a message in your story that touches people’s desires, but don’t say the core message in so many words. People say to Jesus: “Tell us how to find God!” He replies, The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Huh? Say again?
The parables raise questions and generate tension by forcing those who hear them to ask questions, to think. I can imagine his listeners looking at each other: What’s he mean by that? He forces people to engage, to dig in. Just what writers want, correct?
The covert message (or theme, if you prefer) of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, is that when folks skirt the toughest challenges life throws at them, they suffer, and when they turn around and face their challenges head on, redemption happens. It’s about how ordinary folks in small communities help one another survive terrible things. However, nowhere in the novel will you find that message. It’s hidden, like a treasure buried in a field, woven into the story and the plot, but never spoken out loud.
Jon Stewart taught me to entertain, but to entertain about subjects worth grappling with. And Jesus’s parables taught me to hide that message in the field of plot and story. Keep readers entertained, engaged, and wondering—that’s the art of fiction. But make the story worth wondering about. That’s the morality of fiction.
What are your thoughts about this? Send me a comment so we can talk . . .