Is it enough for a writer to simply tell a good story? No. In the process of telling an entertaining story, a good writer, even if only implicitly, deals with important ethical, social, relational, or personal concerns. A good writer helps readers think about important things while they are being entertained.
There is a long and proud tradition in the Arts and Literature, going all the way back to ancient Greece, that utilizes stories as a way not only to entertain, but to teach and to provoke consideration of and reflection on important issues and concerns. Being born in 1951, one of the cartoons I grew up with was Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the regular segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle was Aesop’s Fables, a collection of morality tales designed to teach important concepts. Aesop was a Greek storyteller who probably lived between 620 and 560 BCE. His stories were meant to teach lessons about good character and proper behavior. They were designed to make people think. Why did the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle use these ancient stories in a cartoon program meant to entertain children? Could it have been that they believed that it was the responsibility of those who have the attention of people, even children (or maybe especially children), to say something meaningful, to provoke thoughtful consideration?
But even before Aesop and the ancient Greeks, tribal peoples utilized stories not only as a way to entertain but to teach. Anthropologists who work with tribal peoples know that this is still the case even today. Through storytelling, tribal peoples taught their children about their origin as a people, their religion, their culture, and wise and moral behavior. Storytelling has always been a way of teaching and provoking insightful reflection.
Good storytelling—in our Western tradition, good writing—has always involved more than just entertainment. A good story has to be entertaining. But it must also provoke insightful reflection. Consider Shakespeare’s work. He writes about moral corruption, social interaction, politics, love, and desire. He provides contrasts between virtue and appetite, sobriety and revelry, being trustworthy and untrustworthy. And in what may have been Shakespeare’s last work, The Tempest, at least one scholar believes him to have provided a theodicy, that is, a justification of God’s benevolence in a world filled with evil and suffering. Shakespeare did not simply write to entertain.
Later in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek. One of the reasons the TV and movie franchise has remained viable may be due to the fact that Roddenberry’s approach to exciting and entertaining storytelling, an approach that has remained foundational to the franchise’s success, was the use of morality plays. Episode after episode of Star Trek, especially the original TV series, deals with important human issues or concerns.
Those who are considered great writers today have adopted that same approach. Consider a few examples:
Jane Austin, in Pride and Prejudice, deals with the status of women and the institution of marriage in eighteenth century England.
John Steinbeck, in Grapes of Wrath, addressed the economic challenges faced by the rural class during the depression.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, wrote about conspicuous consumption, the generation of wealth by questionable means, and a deplorable general lack of interest in the social concerns of his day.
Ernest Hemingway, in For Whom The Bell Tolls, wrote about the brutality of war.
Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, wrote about the dangers and health risks of the food industry of his day.
Harper Lee, in To Kill A Mockingbird, wrote about the coexistence of good and evil and the moral nature of human beings.
George Orwell, in 1984, wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism.
What made those writers great? Was it that they got the grammar right? Probably not—though getting the grammar right is important. Was it that they knew how to construct an intriguing story? That was probably part of it. But each of those authors has a distinct writing style and their books have a different feel. So what made those books great books produced by great writers? While there was likely not one single thing that made their work great, I suspect one of the things was that they wrote not just to entertain, but to provoke thoughtful reflection. The fiction of these well-known writers (all of it, not just the stories mentioned above) helped readers think about important issues. They (and other authors like them) didn’t just write. They wrote about something, about something important.
Could it be that too many writers today have lost sight of this important component of good writing? Is it enough to simply write an entertaining story? No, it is not. The good writer finds a way to touch on some important human issue or concern. The good writer not only entertains, but also provokes thoughtful reflection.
The important human issues or concerns don’t always need to be huge issues such as the status of women, the brutality of war, social equality, or health issues. Things that might be considered lesser concerns by some can still be important. Issues such as personal integrity, self-control, loyalty, friendship, kindness, discretion, moderation, courage, trustworthiness, and the like are important concerns for human life and interaction. Think about what J.K. Rowling did in her wildly popular and influential Harry Potter books. While she entertained us with a wonderful world of magic, she wrote about the struggle between good and evil. She wrote about courage, friendship, loyalty, determination and sacrifice. And while some critics might say that Rowling is not a great writer, maybe it is possible for a good writer to write a great book … or two or seven.
Writing that focuses attention on important aspects of human existence, even if only implicitly, is, I believe, better writing than that which simply entertains without provoking any kind of thoughtful consideration.
Dr. Glenn Rogers is Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa. He is the author of twenty-six academic books on cultural studies, theology, and philosophy. Dr. Rogers is also a novelist, writing mysteries and thrillers. His fiction includes a frontier thriller trilogy: The Colemans The Reckoning, The Colemans The Journal, and The Colemans The Knife. He has a mystery series featuring a private investigator named Jake Badger: Family Secrets, Love and Lies, and Abducted; and another mystery series featuring an immortal detective named Aaron Archer: The Immortal Alabaster, The Immortal Betrayal, and The Immortal Carnage.
Glenn is a movie buff and a dog lover. His favorite author is Robert Parker. He especially enjoys Parker’s Spenser series.
Glenn’s fiction can be found on his website: booksbyglennrogers.net