Reality—‘This is How it Really Happened’–is No Defense


Reality—‘This is How it Really Happened’–is No Defense

Sometimes a writer will be told that whatever scenario he’s written doesn’t work to which he may indignantly reply, “But that’s how it happened!” and assume that reality is an acceptable defense.

News. It is not.

As we discussed in a previous post, Fiction is Not Life, story-telling has requirements which can be, and often are, quite different from real life. Without realizing it, readers expect the conventions of fiction to be followed even if they are unaware that they exist.

Why reality is not an adequate defense

If the world were fair, you’d just have to record your searing experiences and that intensity would be communicated to the reader. Sometimes that happens but sometimes it doesn’t.

Whether autobiography or memoir or even just a thinly disguised piece of reality in your fiction, you can’t possibly record every moment even if you could remember them. Bowel movements and grocery shopping are not usually the stuff of drama. Therefore, as a writer, you are constantly making choices of what to include, what to emphasize, what to ignore. It is in these choices that things can go off the rails.

An example

Say you want to write about the death of a friend in a car accident. There are any number of things you could choose to include in the account:

  • The road conditions
  • The condition of the car
  • The police report
  • The bystanders’ reactions
  • The time of day
  • The make of the car
  • The driving experience of the friend
  • Others in the car
  • The conversation in the car before the accident
  • The background to the friend’s erratic driving
  • How you met the friend
  • Your reaction to the news of his death
  • The condition of the car after the accident
  • His relatives’ reactions

I’ll quit now but I wasn’t even trying hard to generate the list. The list could probably go on for quite a while. You have to make choices of what to include in your story.

How do I make reality compelling?

Say you intend to focus on your reaction to the death. Then it’s possible that the first part of the list will not help you hone in on your story and will either bore your reader or make it feel more mechanical than you intend.

You need to pick the elements of the event which are dramatically interesting even, or perhaps especially, in a piece that is close to your heart. If you don’t, you will not be able to communicate its importance. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, readers unconsciously expect writing to follow the conventions of fiction and are kicked out of the continuous dream if you don’t.

So use auto-biographical material by all means, but make sure you pick those elements of the event or events which are both dramatically interesting and which support your intent.

And quit saying, “But this is how it really happened!”