Until I became a writer, I did not notice the puppet strings that make a story work. Now the strings are obvious to me when I read, as obvious as thick ropes.
Kathy Cowley, a documentary filmmaker, discusses filming decisions in a blog post, "In Which I Attempt Not to Manipulate You or Take Advantage of My Subjects" (Her current project is a year long documentary called Days of Film.)
Since I read her post, I've been contemplating manipulation in stories.
She writes, "emotion is powerful, and can also be manipulative." Later in her blog post, she adds, talking about some films: "I'm upset, because I feel like I've been manipulated as a viewer."
When a story works well, the reader enters the setting, walks in the shoes of the character, and experiences strong emotions. The writer crafts a story to make a fictional reality, so it is critical to understand writing craft as well as how to create characters who experience real emotions, but where and how does the writer cross the line into manipulating of the reader?
Kathy Cowley also wrote,
"What is the key to being an ethical documentarian? Thinking about it. Reevaluating. Asking myself tough questions. I think this is something every documentary filmmaker should consider, because film is too powerful a medium to be used carelessly."The same is true for writers. Story (and books) are a powerful medium.
Because I respect both the reader and the story I am telling, I don't want to fall into the trap of manipulation. By understanding writing craft and knowing how I use the puppet strings, I can make sure I am not manipulating readers. Ideally, my stories use the film equivalent of a well done blue or green screen and my sleight of hand will be unnoticed.
In the end, it is most important for me to focus on telling a story well, but it is also important for me to pay attention to craft and understand how I create the illusions, the effects, the smokes and shadows, a fictional reality.