“It’s just a story”

Yesterday I was happily discussing with a friend the awesome book I’d just finished — and which she’d read previously — when I happened to mention a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me.

(I can’t help it — attempting to write novels has somewhat killed my ability to just read and enjoy… now I analyse what works and doesn’t work, and why.)

Anyway, my comment related to one of the major characters’ core motivations for the books. Can one really, at age 16, be so utterly convinced it’s true love that one will sacrifice everything for the object of one’s affection? (Some readers might guess which books, from that. I repeat, I think they’re awesome!)

It was an idle comment, and an issue that doesn’t really bother me or detract from the novels, but my friend’s response brought me almost to a standstill.

“It’s just a story. It’s not real life,” she said. Patronisingly.

I reeled. Pressure built in my chest, but with effort I replied with something vague and evasive and continued on in silence, stewing.

I suppose my reaction was so extreme because it felt as though everything I strive to do — everything I love about both writing and reading — was being dismissed as fluff. For me everything is about characters and making them believable and consistent and multi-dimensional. Show me a writer (and surely many readers as well) who doesn’t feel that way.

Books and stories that make my throat clog with emotion are the benchmark. Experiencing such is transcending and can make me view the world completely differently thereafter.

So, to have someone dismiss as irrelevant — It’s just a story. It’s not real life — the fact that a character might possibly not ring true, cut me deeply.

More to the point, it suggests that writers shouldn’t bother about verisimilitude or believability. That writers shouldn’t bother trying to move people or make them think differently. That fiction is just entertainment, pure and simple, not worth an ounce of idle thought.

Am I overreacting?

Maybe. But I strongly believe that readers want to be moved, to be touched, to have their world view challenged. All wrapped up in a great story of course. A story that is written so well that it’s easy to imagine that it could be real life, that such events could happen. That the characters truly could live, eat and breathe themselves right off the page…

I’m sure my friend has no idea how deeply struck I was by what was probably merely an idle comment from her. Maybe I’d poked a stick in the eye of her favourite character or something!

What would you have done?

13 thoughts on ““It’s just a story”

  1. I agree with you, Ellen. I want to immerse myself in a book, but when something is off, I can’t quite do that. Then I end up being more of a critic than a story lover. I do the same thing with grammar and punctuation. When something else other than the story line snags my attention, I become the critic.


  2. Ellen, Ellen, Ellen. When will you learn? Friends are not Writers! (unless they are.) When you want to critique a book, you talk to WRITERS! Non-writers just don’t get it. Besides, when she said “it’s just a story” she could not have said that if the story totally sucked. Then, it would not be “just a story”. Our job is to write it so they THINK it’s just a story. They go in to that world without question, and they immerse themselves in it.
    So, shake it off. Your friend meant no criticism. And I agree with you, writers lose the ability to just read and enjoy. It’s part of the package.


    1. Hmm, I’m not sure. That is, I agree with you about not critiquing a book with ‘civilians’ (to coin Liv’s awesome expression!), but this wasn’t anything so rigorous. I’m sure writers aren’t the only ones who discuss books… But you’re definitely right in saying that someone wouldn’t say something is “just a story” if they thought it sucked.


  3. I agree with everybody. How’s that for helpful? Excusing a character’s behavior by saying, “it’s just a story” sorta does miss the whole point of the exercise – we are trying to tell the truth in the context of our fantasies, after all – but i can see where a civilian wouldn’t exactly understand why you got all riled up.


    1. Yeah, I think that’s my main point. And it’s probably a good thing she didn’t know I was riled up! (PS – Gotta love that ‘civilians’ expression… think that one’s going to stick!)


  4. “Civilian” deserves a ka-Snort! Love it, Liv!

    I don’t have much else to add other than I agree with all that’s been said and especially with your sentiment, Ellen: “I strongly believe that readers want to be moved, to be touched, to have their world view challenged. All wrapped up in a great story of course. A story that is written so well that it’s easy to imagine that it could be real life, that such events could happen. That the characters truly could live, eat and breathe themselves right off the page…” Totally. Well said.

    I just finished reading John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and was laughing, choking up and crying with the characters the whole time. THAT’S what a story should do, even if the events aren’t “real life.”


  5. Coming to the comments a bit late on this one, but it sounds like you hit the barrier between people who read books for the experience and people who read for light entertainment. I think that those people who are just after a slight diversion from life, never understand that passionate response to story, no matter how much they enjoy reading.


    1. Ah, Ms E! I’ve been thinking about you!
      Yes, I fear you are right. The friend in question is a big reader, but probably more for entertainment as you say. I find it hard to understand how people don’t have passionate responses to stories, but there you go.


  6. I’m feeling a little wishy-washy about this because I like to read a lot of different things for different reasons. On the one hand, yes writers strive for realistic characters, which is important for the reader to make a connection. It’s harder to make a connection with a sloppy character. That being said, the situations the characters find themselves in create special circumstances. Let’s take the hot theme of past years- vampires. Now we have to explore how a realistic person would react in a theoretical situation. When I watch TV with my husband, he will often say something like, “why didn’t he just…” to which I reply “because then there wouldn’t be a story.” So, a character who is willing to throw everything away at age 16? Sure it seems unrealistic (we hope!), but then again, the story probably made for a great escape from reality. And now all those real 16-year-olds who feel like they want a change can live vicariously through a character for a bit without throwing their own life away.


    1. Good points! I suppose I’m content if the character is fully fleshed out and the author makes me believe that for this character it’s the natural action. I suppose my dissatisfaction with the other was that I didn’t ‘buy it’ (which may have been my original words during the conversation).


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