Posted by: Kerry Gans | March 13, 2014

When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

I know very well that writing a story based on real events can be tricky. I also know that things have to make sense in fiction in a way they rarely do in real life. I wrote an entire blog post on why events have to make sense in a story.

But I fell into the trap anyway.

I wrote a short story based in my experience of being robbed at gunpoint. At one point, the gunman said something, and my critique partner said, “He can’t say that.”

“But that’s what he really said!” I blurted, knowing full well I shouldn’t.

“It doesn’t matter. You can’t use it. In the story, it makes no sense.”

Grrr.

However, she was right, and that will be revised.

My critique partner also said something else that made me stop and think. She pointed out that my intention in writing the story will determine how much of the absurdity of real life I can get away with keeping.

If I write and sell this as a “true crime” story, much of what seems weird (but actually happened) would likely be accepted by the reader–because they know it really did happen that way. But if, as I intend, I am trying to evoke a feeling, immerse the reader in the moment, then I need to clear away the irrational, the coincidental, the odd. I need to make sense out of the chaos and guide them to the feeling I wish to convey.

I need to think about that in the rewrite. Why I’m writing this. What I want from it. What I want my readers to get from it. And then I have to remove anything in the story that will detract from that goal, confuse the reader, or break the spell of the story.

So when you write about something that actually happened, and a critique partner tells you it makes no sense, bite your tongue and nod. Because there are very few times when the random senselessness of life translates well to the page. Just go with it. It’s fun, really.

After all, you get to make sense out of life, and how many people do that every day?

Have you ever had a story based on true events where you could keep a lot of the “reality” and still have it work?

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