Writing the Truth

One of the things many of my short story writing students seem to find most difficult is writing fiction based on fact. They try to fit a real story into a short story plot without changing a thing, but want to use the true story as the basis of their short stories anyway, because they want to explore why it happened, help others understand the situation, or just share it because it was interesting to them. The hardest thing to explain is that they do not need to stick to the truth when they are writing fiction. In fact, many times, the truth might seem stranger than fiction. Many things don’t make sense, especially when the writer learns about the story from several different sources. Probably the hardest thing to teach aspiring writers is how to sift through all the details they think they should include to find the greater universality—the truth they want to really write about. Quite often, writers might start out without even knowing what truth they are writing about and go about it in a roundabout way. In fact, we are surrounded by stories, a great deal of them worthy of writing. However, we might not always have enough information to write the story. Thankfully, there is such a thing nowadays as microfiction. If we can’t write that novel, we can find publishing platforms for stories under 1,000 words. All you need to start with is a single event. As a writer, it’s your job to fill in the details that led to that event and the details that ensue from that event. If you were a journalist or a researcher, you would be looking for all the people involved, uncovering motives, personalities, histories. You would look at what happened to the people involved, how each of them felt after the incident, what they did, what they thought, what it did to their lives. Because you’re writing fiction, however, instead of looking for the facts before and after your story event, you weave the stories, inventing lives for each of the characters, giving them motives, personalities, histories so your readers know your characters intimately. You create an ending after the event, allowing your characters to somehow triumph over their situations even if it did not happen that way in real life. You devise some form of closure so your readers will have closure, because readers need that—even if their closure happens several books after the first. When that happens, you can celebrate your success in producing a series.

We know that the universal truth conveyed in timeless stories—the classics—is something we seek as writers. To plan a story around this universality is usually not as easy as it is to write about an event and discover the universality from that. The value in starting this way is that the writing can be more spontaneous and less forced. What is important is that the story itself is sound: in plot and structure, language and imagery, characters and motivations. As you develop your story, you need to weave in elements that resonate with the rest of humanity, mostly by working around powerful emotions: love, hatred, triumph, despair, fear, greed, ecstasy. These are what make stories interesting. If your characters don’t feel any of these, your readers aren’t likely to feel much for them, either. You need only read an anthology of short stories from any cross-section of history to find all these emotions. You need only read the winning stories from contests over the last handful of years to get a feel of the emotions that litter fiction and you will understand what makes fiction universal. Everything else can be invented. What will stand out and touch the readers are the emotions. Those are your greater truths.


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