Of the three different types of truth, objective truth is the most straightforward. Just because it is simple, however, does not mean that it is any less important. Any number of amazing stories have been ruined by a lack of research. Even time can hollow out a story that once had all the wonder of possibility-can we believe that a story about the cities of Mars could be true knowing that they do not exist? Stories that have aged well often rely on another mode of truth to compel the audience. It’s rare to find a story that hinges completely on objective truth, and those that try to run the risk of being a casualty of the next big breakthrough in science and technology. But whether it’s mathematics or philosophy, objective truth is a critical ingredient to an effective and compelling story.
Objective truth is a signal to your audience. It tells them, “Hey, here is the stable ground. Start with this.” If you want your audience to feel grounded and connected, they need to feel like they are inhabiting the world of your story. This objective grounding is a contract that you, the storyteller, make with your audience. History is a critical part of that; even alternate history stories need to get the background right. If the story is set on Earth in Richland, Washington in 1986, for example, there had better be a nuclear facility that employs most of the town. That’s because we know that it existed. That was the case for my story One With the Gang, and I did a lot of research on the objective facts and truths of that town, in that year, to give the story a basis of objective truth so that I could then play with what could have happened. So one critical aspect of objective fact is the historical accuracy of setting. Your audience will believe you if you get it right, and will feel like their trust has been broken if you don’t.
Another type of objective truth lies in the science of your story. If you are telling a speculative fiction story, then so much the better for you-there’s a lot we don’t know yet. But by the same token, there’s a lot we do. When crafting the science in a story, we see that theme of research rear its ugly head once more. To be sure, you don’t actually need to solve the secret of exotic matter generation or faster than light travel, but you have to know what isn’t possible. There is simply no substitute for it. It’s no accident that writers with strong technical backgrounds often write stories playing with ideas in their own field of expertise. They’ve done the research as a matter of course. If you are staying inside your own field, then you can usually feel confident that you are well enough informed of what we know to be impossible.
And here’s the key-it’s the impossible that matters. Your audience will meet you where you are when it comes to the science in your story, but if you ask them to believe something that we already know to be impossible, it is a different contract you are penning-a different foundation for that trust. More on this in the next chapter.
The last type of objective truth that every storyteller needs to honor is less clear cut than history or science but no less important. It is that of the individual. Every good story has characters that people can empathize with. Note this doesn’t mean that they agree with them; some of the most compelling characters in the history of storytelling have been antagonists. See Eden, Garden of. But every character established objective truths that define that character in the mind of the audience. The simplest example here is that of name-if I tell you this character’s name is Fred, then that’s their name. I can’t go on to refer to them as Nancy without my readers feeling like trust has been broken. This type of objective trust is built when the storyteller defines character to the audience. There are many variants of this outside of the realm of storytelling, from politics to philosophy. The emergent property of a failure to honor this type of objective truth is apparent when the audience says a character lacks integrity-the character has said or done something that is against the objective truth that the author has established for that character.
History, science, and character-these three areas of objective truth are critical to master in the art of storytelling. They form a common factual ground, where the audience and the author can begin their journey together. This context is the epistemic modality of the meta-conversation in which authors and audiences partake; the conversation that is happening about the conversation. Few compelling stories hinge entirely on the facts, but without getting them right, the audience will not follow the author on their journey. When you tell a story, know what objective truth you are offering to your audience, and honor it. With this trust, you can build that relationship to even greater leaps of faith.