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”.
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
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
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?
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.