Come play inside a writer's brain, scary!

“Is truth not truth for all?” asks a character in Star Trek, the original series. Well not necessarily. The quote may not even be accurate, since I’m relying on memory. To be sure, I’d have to check.

In my writing workshops, a common defense against criticism is, “But that’s how (the event) really happened.” Yet truth does not automatically make a piece of writing better than something you made up. In real life, coincidence is all around us. In fiction, a writer has a hard time making coincidence acceptable to a reader. It seems too easy, too convenient for the author. We’re permitted a certain amount of coincidence, usually at the very start of a book, often as a way of bringing the characters together. After that, a good story should rely on cause and effect: this happens because that happened, leading to this happening. When you plot out a story, this “domino effect” of one thing leading to another needs to be there and the connections should be clear.

When events in a story seem inevitable – as if they couldn’t have gone any other way – the story is convincing. Using cause and effect makes our lies seem like truth. The reader suspends disbelief long enough to enjoy our lies without questioning them. Sometimes the lies become so strong, people believe they are true. Visitors to Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Scotland, more than doubled since author, Dan Brown, used it as a location in his mega-seller, The Da Vinci Code. Another location in the book, the church of St-Sulpice in Paris, really exists and has a brass “meridien line” on the floor used for scientific observations in the 18th century. But the church was not built on the site of an ancient temple and Dan Brown changed or invented many other details used in the book , not that fans visiting the church are fully convinced.  Much of Dan Brown’s success depends on the literary lies he makes us believe.

If truth is not a defense, how does it work in fiction? The answer lies in the universal truth underlying the actual events. Thankfully, few families lose a member as a result of violent crime. Yet sooner or later we all lose someone or something we love. The universal truth we share is that sensation of loss.  If you can pinpoint and use  the feelings that accompany great loss, and apply them to the characters in your fiction, readers will be right there with you. They’ll mentally nod and think, “Yes, that’s how it is.” They will be convinced.

In a previous blog, I mentioned that it’s okay to be real, your family won’t even notice. Many writers worry about hurting someone if they include a real life event in a book. If you’ve done your job properly, that person won’t realise their involvement. You’ll have picked out the universal truth, the feelings associated with the event, rather than the event itself. My family were migrants from England, and the resulting sense of being a “stranger in a strange land” stays with me. I give many of my characters similar feelings – not always consciously. But because I write about the feelings, rather than the exact details,  others take my story at face value. It’s about the daughter of refugees, not migrants. Or an adopted child seeking her origins. Sharing the universal truth rather than the actual truth is what matters.

Next time you’re alone, afraid, exhausted or reduced to tears, try to record your exact feelings. Take note of your body language, specific responses, thoughts, behaviours. Then use them in a completely different story where only the feelings are similar. I guarantee your story will ring true.

Have you used your own experiences in your writing? How do you translate them into something a reader can “get” even if they’ve never had the same experience? Have you read a story that totally convinced you even though you knew it was fiction? Please share your comments here.


Proud Friend of the National Year of Reading 2012

Established Writer in Residence, Katharine  Susannah Prichard Centre, Perth, July 2012

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Comments on: "How much truth should be in your fiction?" (4)

  1. lisaheidke said:

    Great post, Valerie!

  2. Good post, Valerie. Truth is often stranger than fiction. Change the names – and details – to protect the innocent (and guilty) and go for it, I say. As long as you don’t upset or hurt anyone.

    • It’s amazing how people read themselves into characters they didn’t remotely inspire, yet overlook stories we know are based on real life. Shows me how differently we recall the same incidents – those that affected us most, others may not even remember. Truth is *not” truth for all, or at least not the same truth.

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