Think the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, etc. Then, nearly 20 years ago, a movie titled Dumb and Dumber was a smash hit. I didn’t see it because the title turned me off. While I’m not an intellectual snob by any means, I do like the movies I pay to see (and the books I read) to have some redeeming value. Nor am I opposed to something being genuinely funny. Humor holds an honored place in entertainment and in writing. Laughing at a hilarious joke, an amusing story, a giggle-producing autobiography, or reruns of Carol Burnett’s sidekicks (Conway and Korman) or Dick Van Dyke’s antics can be a huge stress releaser or a family fun fest. Great comedy is, indeed, an art form. However, it needn’t be dumbed down to utter stupidity for an audience to “get it.”
Several years ago I was discussing Harry Potter with a lifelong elementary schoolteacher and administrator. After mentioning that none of Rowling’s books had made my favorites list, I received a good scolding for my narrow mindedness; then she informed me that Harry had kids reading voraciously, kids who had never before willingly read any book and whose reading levels varied widely. Elle Carter Neal commented on Susan’s post that the more advanced vocabulary used in the HP books did not deter readers. In fact, the books were wildly popular despite the author’s challenging word choices.
What’s the message here? Great stories trump dumbing down to sixth-grade reading level.
How does this invaluable bit of information affect us as writers? We must write well—but exactly what does this mean? After all, well written pieces can be more than a trifle boring and uninspiring. Consider the following criteria for creating great stories:
1. Interesting plots keep story moving forward and readers turning pages to see what happens next.
2. Strong, three-dimensional characters invite readers to connect and become friends who care or enemies who hate. Cheering sections form for threatened protagonists, and protestors rally against the bad guy(s).
3. Great dialogue sounds so realistic that every word could be spoken aloud and accepted as actual conversation.
4. Readers can step into story and become silent observers or perhaps even active participants, at least in their own minds.
5. Imaginations spring to life as readers ponder the “what ifs” and expand the story beyond its current parameters.
6. Story becomes a hiding place, a refuge, a place where life takes on meaning and interest, an inspiration to broaden horizons, a gold mine of coping mechanisms, and so much more.
Of course, many other elements contribute to a great story with potential to rival Harry Potter in creating reader interest. What points would you add to the above list?
Do you believe that we, as writers, inspire our readers to learn and grow?
Do you find any value in stunting that growth by capping your story at a twelve-year-old’s reading level?
Do you challenge your readers to rise above the occasional word that cries out for definition and head for the dictionary?
How do you stimulate readers to expand their horizons?
Do you believe a mandate to keep your writing at a sixth grade level should be honored?
Or do you think J. K. Rowling should be validated by our following her excellent example in showing kids (and adults!) how to enjoy reading while learning not to be satisfied with being “dummies”?
Is it time to reverse this appalling trend and show the world that we are quite capable of being smart and smarter?
Linda Lane is proofing the ARC of her latest book and has begun working on the sequel. Several other novels ranging from young adult to thriller wait in the wings for long overdue attention and completion. Despite her busy schedule, she loves to help new writers (as well as more experienced ones) realize their dreams of creating press-ready books with great audience appeal. You may visit her editing team at www.denvereditor.com.