Truth, Strangeness, And Fiction

Have you ever written a story based on something that happened to you in real life and had a reviewer, beta reader, or editor say, “That would never happen?”

In that situation, most of us automatically think (and sometimes say), “But, it did.”

Unfortunately, we can’t walk around with our novels explaining to readers that certain things really did happen or certain words really were said. Even if you write a piece labeled based on a true story or that’s marketed as a memoir, readers aren’t obligated to believe any of it is true. And they won’t, unless you lay the proper groundwork.

So what to do? Try these 3 steps:

  • Remember the cliché about truth being stranger than fiction
  • Recognize what you know that your reader doesn’t
  • Be true to your story
Truth And Fiction

The old cliché that truth is stranger than fiction is a good reminder that just because something really happened doesn’t mean your readers will believe it.

In real life, if your friend does something that’s out of character, you believe it because you see her do it whether you understand her motives or not. In fiction, though, rather than believe it when a character does something that doesn’t ring true based on what you’ve seen so far, you’ll likely instead feel the author has done a poor job with characterization.

Similarly, if a reader’s understanding of a particular situation, workplace, or topic clashes with what’s depicted in a novel, the reader most likely will believe her own experience and figure the author failed to do enough research.

That assumption might be completely unfair on the reader’s part, but as story expert Lani Diane Rich often says, truth is no defense to fiction. The fiction must stand on its own.

I ran into this with a story about a lawyer who, in the first scene, was meeting an important client for dinner and hoping to make a good impression that could help him get a promotion. Nervous, he adjusted his tie, which he had borrowed, as he hadn’t worn one to work that day.

The critique group with whom I shared a first draft couldn’t believe that a lawyer at a large firm with business clients had gone to work without a tie. One writer said flatly, “There’s no way this guy who’s bucking for a promotion doesn’t wear a suit and tie every day.”

The firm in the story was modeled after the large law firm where I worked as an attorney at the time. My first instinct was to point out that no one in firm’s Chicago office, which included over 200 lawyers, one of whom was the Chairman, wore a suit every day.

But I realized that didn’t matter.

The people in my critique group knew I was a lawyer, and still they thought I had written an unrealistic lawyer character. Clearly, readers who didn’t know me would be even more likely to assume I had no clue what “real” lawyers’ lives are like. Regardless what was true, I hadn’t done my job as a writer.

What Do You Know

If you have a point that seems clear to you because it really happened, but it doesn't strike the reader as true, you've probably left out facts or details that you think are obvious. Think about what you know about the backstory, the larger world where your story takes place, or the characters that you haven’t shared with the reader.

As I talked further with my critique group, I learned that their views of lawyers came mostly from two types of experiences. First, what they’d seen in TV and movies. Second, from personal experiences with an attorney they’d hired for a personal matter such as a divorce, a will, or a personal injury lawsuit.

Those types of lawyers are more likely to wear suits when meeting with clients, and they’re more likely to appear in court where suits are required.

What I knew and the readers didn’t is that at a large firm that handles litigation for large corporations, the client contact person is a lawyer who works for (or “inside”) that corporation. Those inside lawyers don’t go to court, and they generally wear business casual attire to work. If the lawyers at the law firms wear suits, that makes the inside lawyers feel underdressed. The firm lawyers dress to match their clients.

Also, in that type of commercial litigation, trials are rare, and there aren’t a whole lot of court appearances. Especially for more junior lawyers, nineteen days out of twenty the work is all about writing on a computer, talking on a conference call, and corresponding with clients via email. (Which is why you don’t see a lot of TV shows about commercial litigators.)

These sorts of details, perhaps told from of the perspective of a new lawyer nervous about fitting in and wearing what everyone else was wearing, probably would convince the reader that my protagonist wasn’t used to wearing a tie.

But should a writer always includes those types of details?

Being True To Your Story

Whether it makes sense to include details or backstory to make your real life experience believable depends on the type of story you’re telling.

Sometimes that detail is the story. Giving readers the inside scoop on a milieu with which they’re not familiar can make for a fascinating read.

In the 1960s Arthur Hailey did this with hotels and airlines in the aptly named novels Hotel and Airport. While probably everyone who read the books had stayed in a hotel or flown in a plane, they didn’t know what happened behind the scenes. The novels gave readers an inside view through compelling, likable characters facing challenges in getting their jobs done, dealing with coworkers and superiors, and handling difficult customers.

By bringing us deep into the viewpoint of someone striving to make guests happy, Hailey showed the stressful nature of tasks that seemed from the outside to be simple, such as ensuring each guest got an on-time wake up call (back when actual people made those calls).

In contrast, in my example above, my story wasn’t about life inside a large law firm that handled complex commercial lawsuits. I was writing a horror story about a lawyer meeting a client in a fancy restaurant where everyone morphs into monsters.

In that type of story, sharing backstory about the law firm and how people dressed, or adding scenes with conflicts on that point, would only slow the plot and bore the reader.

So I dropped the part about the tie being borrowed. I had the lawyer fiddle with it out of nerves, but I didn’t otherwise comment on what he normally wore. That got us to the monsters much more quickly.

Next time you write something that comes from real life, keeping these three steps in mind should make sure it also works as fiction.

Good luck!

Until Friday—

L.M. Lilly

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