If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I could write a book about my life,” I could stop using the cliché, ‘If I had a dime.’ I must confess; whenever I hear someone dishing the intimate details of their life I am always looking for a story in it…because…hey…you just never know.
But the truth is real life stories don’t always make for the best fiction. I think of the infamous James Frey. You remember the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces, a candid memoir which we later found out was not so much true as it was fiction, hence no longer true by any account. Oprah called him on it because it was one of her book club picks and it went on to become a New York Times best seller because of this. Yet no one could deny that the story was well written. (O.K. as it turns out some thought it read as something contrived.) A few million were moved by the story. The point is, arguably Frey needed to use creative license (make up stuff) to make the story sound, tightly woven and plotted, like well written fiction. As a true story, I’m willing to believe the story would have been lacking…something. And Frey obviously agreed, hence his reason for making up most of it. Here are a few reasons why fiction and true stories can’t always marry.
Fiction is a fabricated truth
It is true that fiction contains elements of truth. We take real life events and then we create a story. We build on that story from bits of our imagination, mingled with what we know and what we want to happen; we completely change the ending, maybe, or the location; we change the protagonist from male to female, from White to Black because, as fiction writer Alyce Miller says, “Fiction…is a method of transforming, not simply transcribing, life.” These liberties are like candy for a fiction writer. We have the privilege to create. Fiction is truth–fabricated.
The truth doesn’t always pan out into a sound story
The other day my brother was over and telling this joke which had him doubled over and I’m thinking, pull it together man and tell the joke we all want to laugh. Finally, he straightened up and told it between fits of laughter. We are all sitting there waiting for the funny part to sink in. Nothing. It was one of those workplace type jokes that just didn’t transfer to the general public. I’m sure if he would’ve told it to one of his coworkers they both would have been on the floor. Sometimes, with true stories, especially incidents which are personal and intimate the emotional attachment is so intense we somehow feel that those feeling will automatically transfer in our writing. But if the characters aren’t fully developed, or the plot is weak or full of holes, we won’t connect with the story. We don’t continue to read about stuff or people we don’t care about. Just because you care about them in real life doesn’t mean your reader will, unless given a reason.
No, seriously this is a true story
The saying that truth is stranger than fiction is absolutely true. But that doesn’t mean that it is good enough for fiction. I know, how ironic is that? But have you ever heard a story that was so absurd you absolutely didn’t believe it until the storyteller showed you proof? Well, real life events are like that. They aren’t tidy and neat. They don’t necessarily have story arcs or plot points or climaxes where the suspense is driving you crazy. Sometimes events shift suddenly without reason. True stories are all over the place rising and falling in the most unexpected spots. Frey said, “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” And dude, I get that. That’s what we all what. But we don’t always get that with true stories. Remember, fiction is about the suspension of disbelief. If it rings as absurd you’ll get called on it, no matter how true it is.
Sometimes you will get to tell that story for which the back cover of the book will read: Based on a true story. But if not, just keep making them up.
What do you think? Are true stories usually worthy to be told as fiction? I would love to hear from you.