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.


3 Basic Plot Types


Many critics subscribe to the idea that there is no original idea or thought anymore, hence, nothing completely original that anyone can write about. Themes or plots? There are books and lists discussing every possible plot there ever was for a story. Depending on who you want to follow or believe in, you can classify every story or plot as one of three, nine, thirteen, twenty, or thirty-six plots. In the years I have studied and taught literature, I find that all plots can be reduced to three very basic plots, which my senior high school literature teacher introduced to me, and which I later encountered again while taking my Masters in literature. I find that all other plots are simply variations or elaborations of these three plots, based on the actions of the protagonist. For my teaching, I have decided to modify them slightly to suit my personality and preferences:

  • Running Man
  • Standing Man
  • Trapped Man

Consider every possible motivation, action, reaction, and consequence you can think of putting into a story and you will find that your plot will always be one of these three. The RUNNING MAN plot is all about a person running towards something or away from something. It’s the classic action-adventure plot and, understandably, the most exciting. You should write with this plot if you want to keep your readers at the edge of their seats. The STANDING MAN plot is all about a person who hasn’t decided what to do and needs to make a decision. It’s the type of plot for anything cerebral or introspective. If you want to focus on a character’s thoughts, personal development, and reactions to external influences and use up your whole story waiting for that character to make a decision, this is your plot type. Remember that from a standing position, your character can sit, lie down, fall down, or remain standing, all of which symbolize defeat, regression, or retreat. On the other hand, your character can decide to move from his spot, either walking or running. If this happens early in your story, then your plot is really the running man. If this happens only at the end of the story, then your plot is the standing man. Many post-modern stories fall under this classification because of their focus on metacognitive thought. I would classify coming-of-age stories as having this type of plot, particulary when the main character is at a loss which way to go; the main character is “standing” figuratively because he is being affected by an uncontrollable (external) factor—growing up—and he doesn’t know if he really wants to grow up or change. Classically, Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. Finally, when your character has a problem or is in a situation that he actively or desperately wants to get out of and the whole story involves trying to get out of that situation or problem, then your plot is the TRAPPED MAN. Unlike the standing man, who sometimes doesn’t know he’s actually “trapped”, the trapped man is fully aware of his situation. Being trapped can be literal, e.g., your person is in a physical prison, captured, shackled, or what have you; or it can be figurative entrapment, e.g., a loveless or bad relationship, an oppressive home. All other types can easily be fit into these three types, which is why I prefer to teach just these three. However, for more mature students or more advanced classes, I will mention other plot classifications because they are more specific and more descriptive. As for the use of “MAN” in the names, I’m neutral in this use. I don’t subscribe to being overly politically correct or excessively feminist. I like the use of the word because it’s short and universal. If I ever were to change this word, especially in the light of inhuman characters as main characters or protagonists, I might resort to just using the adjectives or replacing “man” with “protagonist” or “character”—both of which are such unwieldy long words. I do like brevity in titles.