Problems In Reality-Based Fiction

For this blog post, I'd like to focus on fiction based on true events. I’m not referring specifically to memoir here, or even completed works, just fiction – be it a scene drawn from one’s own life or a Proustian exploration held together through memory. It’s here where I see many authors run into issues. Whatever your interest is in writing, you’ve probably heard of the idea that the best fiction comes from our experiences. In a way, this is absolutely true. In my own works, I’ve drawn from my life time and time again. In fact, it was my own philosophical ponderings that served as the inspiration for Tiny Instruments… but in my time as an avid reader and an active editor, I’ve seen several disturbing new tendencies develop through a misapplication of this idea, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss them, so my readers don’t make the same mistakes in their own writing.

                1) Basing The Entire Plot Of A Novel/Screenplay Around Your life

Okay, this doesn’t apply to memoir because that’s the very thing that makes it memoir, but I can’t be the only person who has noticed the surprising number of “fiction” novels and especially screenplays revolving around starving writers who can’t get a break. They mope around, putting their heart and souls into their work, all the while never receiving any credit. By the end of the novel/screenplay, the under-appreciated writer’s very own novel or screenplay is finally published or made into a movie… I’m sorry if you’ve written something like this. If you have, maybe it’s really great – a glorious close-up on what it’s like to be a writer in the modern era… but more than likely, you’ve fallen into the trap of writing exactly what you know instead of using your experiences as inspiration to write something better.

                2) Assuming People Will Know What’s Real And What’s Not

Just because it happened doesn’t mean it has a place in your story. It’s nice to use real events to give your story authenticity, but fiction is not the same as reality. Sometimes, putting in what actually happened can make a story feel fake! It can also change the tempo of your story which, if done too abruptly, can be very jarring for your readers! It is your responsibility to uphold the structure of your story. When you inject reality into it, sometimes it works perfectly, and sometimes it doesn’t. Readers are not equipped with a reality radar. If your reality infusions ruin the flow of your story, most of your readers won’t know why it doesn’t work, just that it doesn’t.

                3) Insisting That You Know Better Than Your Readers

This one sounds obvious, but there are a surprising amount of new writers who think that, just because it’s real, it isn’t subject to the same rules as the rest of literature. This point reminds me of a girl I once knew in college who had me edit her play. She was from Norway, and it was about the shocking suicide rates over there. In her play, she had a scene where a kid pushes her mother down, runs into the other room, locks the door, and slits her wrists. The mother comes in and tries to help her, but the girl just keeps pushing her off until she bleeds out… I told her that this scene could be much more powerful with a few minor tweaks – like if she locked the door and barricaded it so her mother couldn’t get in, but the author refused to change it saying “that’s the way it really happened!” In this case, the author’s work was loosely based on life in most other parts, and not altogether based on truth like memoir. The scene in question was based on a newspaper article she'd read in high school, but for some reason, she refused to change it. Eventually, as it was in my class, we all had our plays staged for us. The goal of the performance was to see our work presented in order to figure out how the words we’d put on paper translated to the stage. After her play was put on, during the comments section afterward, everybody started rounding on her. They said things like “It didn’t feel real”, “Why didn’t the mother just call the police?”, “Someone wouldn’t want to put their own mother through that kind of pain,” et cetera… And the Norwegian exchange student just stood there listening to everything, shaking her head, saying “but that’s the way it happened! It's real!!” The moral of this story being, you might have captured word-for-word what your mother said that one time, but it doesn’t matter. Ironically, this is all the more important in memoir because if it comes off poorly, you’ll lose credibility in your story – and when it comes to anything officially based on reality, that’s the last thing you want. Am I recommending you change what your mother said? ABSOLUTELY NOT. In memoir, you cannot lie. You can however omit, summarize what she said, or simply write a description of the fight you two had. Outside of memoir, there are no excuses for dialogue that doesn’t work or moments where your leads do things outside of character. Remember, people do things outside of their own character all the time. Characters do not.

The tendency to “write what you know” is a good one, but as an author, you are responsible for knowing its limits. Your life is always present in your work, whether you want it to be or not. The best work however, uses life as inspiration, not a crutch.


Writing Prompt

Write 500-1000 words about an event in your own life, and then write 100-150 words on what kind of character the event might apply to. Send your completed assignment to my email through the contact tab on the website and I'll edit it for free!