Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kernel of Truth: When Real Life Experience Informs Fiction

Remember when you said of a story, “Wow, that sounds like it really happened”?

In this instance, we’re not talking about verisimilitude — the appearance or semblance of truth — but about an entire story that feels, on an emotional level, like it could have taken place because some aspect of it actually did. One key to writing fiction that has a real experience, or experiences, at its heart is knowing to what extent real events should inform fiction. 

As we writers go through our lives, we often find that personal experiences foment ideas that form the basis of our fiction. But beware of sticking too closely to experience. Why? Because, as Robert Olen Butler warns in his seminal From where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, “literal memory is your enemy”.

Why is this? Because memory constrains you to the facts of your experience or to the facts as you recall them. Either way, you’re constrained. The reasoning? As Butler cautions, “What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.”

It’s this rich soil of imagination that organically germinates the seeds of fiction. The richness of imagination also enables the writer to conceive a story that is more than a little inspired by life. For the most part, this approach can work wonderfully, until the moment when it doesn’t.

At this point, the writer can try to rationalize away the bump in the road by telling herself that’s the way it really happened. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean the event should play out the same way in your fiction.

One way to tell when a section of your story isn’t served by its real life counterpart is precisely when you find yourself defending that point in the piece in just this way. Such moments might stand out more than we writers realize, but we often don’t notice them because we’re too enamored with the reminiscence of the real life event to see that the moment will bring readers out of the fictional world we’ve so carefully constructed instead of moving them effortlessly (or apparently so) through it.

If, or rather when, you come up against such a moment, ask yourself these questions. Why is the reader brought out of the story at this precise point? Which fiction element, or elements, of characterization, pacing, plot progression, setting, prose, etc., is not served by the real event? What would serve the work, the story and its people, better?

Be honest with yourself in answering these questions, and if your fictional work is based in more than one point on reality, be prepared to ask the question more than once. The result will be worth the effort. Great fiction often carries a kernel of truth, but usually more in emotional truth than in the facts.

For more on Robert Olen Butler’s From where YouDream: The Process of Writing Fiction.