There’s a woman who attends my local writers’ group from time to time. Let’s call her Alice. For several years she’s been trying to write her memoirs. Now and then she’ll finish a chapter and she’ll bring it to us, looking for feedback.
When Alice first started showing up, I offered her suggestions. “Why don’t you reverse the order of events so you have a stronger climax?” Or “If you eliminated Ted from that scene it would be tighter,” and so forth.
Her answer was always the same, “But this is the way it happened.”
I don’t write memoirs. If I ever get around to writing my life story it will probably be categorized as science fiction. But it seems to me if you want to write anything, whether it’s based on real events or not, you must make the narrative interesting to the reader.
Writing is two-way communication. Without a reader it’s no more than one hand clapping. The writer has to keep the reader in mind. It’s all right to be self-indulgent during the early stages of writing; in fact, you should just get it out of your system, but at some point you’re going to have to make that prose palatable for other people. You can be as ‘la-la-la, I’m the writer and it’s my story’ as you want, but you’ll discover readers don’t care for self-indulgent writing. If you want people to actually read what you’ve written, you need to learn the lesson that every two year old gets eventually: It’s not all about you.
As you’re telling your tale, you need to think about the impact it’s having on the reader.
While I applaud Alice’s determination to stick to the facts as she relates her story, as a fiction writer I feel she needs to imbue her scenes with some colour in order to bring them to life. The Joe Friday approach is too black and white.
For instance, if you are writing about an argument you had with your sister, then you need all the usual ingredients of a scene — the build up, the climax, and the aftermath — even if the argument really happened.
Who cares if the argument happened on Monday or Wednesday? Was your brother Michael home from university, or was it before he moved out? Or perhaps he wasn’t there at all… Does any of that really matter? It seems to me that getting bogged down in the details is one of the reasons Alice has spent a couple of decades writing this tale and is no closer to the end. What counts more than the picayune details is the emotional truth. Two characters have an argument. What was the build up? What factors led to this argument? How did the argument make them feel? What impact did it have on the relationship afterwards?
By the way, if you and your sister argue all the time, you really don’t want to describe every single event. Give us one example and move on, otherwise you’re going to come across as having a grudge, being a lousy writer, and, oh yes, being a lousy writer. The rest of the quarrels can be summed up with a, “That led to the usual argument, tears, and recriminations…”
Now, you can argue — if you’re constantly getting into it with your sister, I assume you are good at it — that a fact is the truth and vice verse, but that’s not the case.
A fact is something indisputable. The sun rises in the east. London is the capital of England. Snow is cold.
Truth is a much trickier concept. It is subjective. You can say, “John Lennon was a good man,” and many people will agree with you. However, a lot of other people will dispute it. Still more will challenge what you mean by ‘good’. Truth is subjective. (This is a subject that has been extensively covered by philosophers. If you are interested in learning more, you might enjoy this article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
For the purpose of writing, truth can be described as the essence of the story. Again, it’s subjective, so you’ll find different writers have their own interpretation of what it means. I think we can agree that it’s more than the avoidance of lies. And for the record, my suggestions to Alice were not intended to encourage her to be dishonest, but rather to help her get to the core of the scene, to be true to that, rather than fussing over irrelevancies.
Even if you’re writing genre fiction, you owe it to yourself and to your reader to produce the most truthful work you can.
In Dorothy L Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night, Lord Peter Wimsey discusses the matter of intellectual integrity with a group of Oxford dons. He poses the question, “How about the artist of genius who has to choose between letting his family starve and painting pot-boilers to keep them?”
On of the dons replies, “He could stop painting. That, if he really is a genius, would be a loss to the world. But he mustn’t paint bad pictures — that would be really immoral.”
Another don, Miss Shaw, agrees and adds, “A bad picture by a good painter is a betrayal of truth — his own truth.” (p. 411-412)
I’m with Miss Shaw. In terms of writing, a bad book by a good writer is a betrayal of truth. Assuming, that is, the writer is actually capable of doing better but chooses not to because he believes a bad book will sell better.
Surely the first rule of truth in writing is to produce the best work of which the author is capable.
“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~
Stephen King in On Writing
The second rule of truth is to own your beliefs and values. If you and your argumentative sister write about the exact same event, do you think your accounts will be identical? Isn’t it more likely that she’ll make herself the injured party and you the villain, while you’ll probably do the reverse?
We all want to be honest in our writing. Any story, be it truth or fiction, needs to touch the reader, needs to resonate with an air of authenticity. From that point of view, obviously you want to be as honest as possible in what you write. BUT… If you allow an OCD obsession with getting every single detail right, you may not ever finish your manuscript. This insistence on recreating every detail is another form of procrastination. The heart of the narrative, the emotional core, is what really counts. It’s irrelevant whether you and your sister were fighting over a red dress or a blue one. How did you feel? And, really, you must know by now you weren’t ever really fighting over a dress. It’s never the dress. Or the boy. Or whose turn it is to do the dishes. It’s about your relationship and how you feel about one another.
If the devil is in the details, then maybe the details need to get over themselves.
Which brings us to imagination.
Just because CS Lewis created Narnia doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It may not be real any more than Hobbiton or Earthsea, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Lewis — and Tolkien and Le Guin — brought these fictional places to life and filled them with believable beings.
Imagination brings the colours. It takes a flat recitation of the facts and splashes reds, and yellows, and blues all over them, not to disguise those facts, but to make them resonate.
Consider the difference here. First my flat reworking of the scene in Jane Austen’s Emma in which Mr Knightley chastises the heroine for her behaviour on Box Hill:
Mr Knightley scolded Emma and she felt humbled by him. She resolved to do better in the future.
Now see Jane Austen adding the colour and shade:
(Mr Knightley): This is not pleasant to you, Emma-and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will — I tell you the truths while I can…
She continued to look back, but in vain…She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed-almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it in her heart… And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!
Jane Austen Emma
Even if you aren’t a fan of Jane Austen’s, (gasp!) you have to see the way the layers of Emma’s reactions reveal the character, suggest her relationship with Mr Knightley, and bring a sense of truth to the scene.
Imagination can mean making things up. JRR Tolkien and Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman have invented worlds and good for them. But imagination isn’t limited to creating the bizarre or the vivid, it also means creating scenes that hum, that vibrate, that resonate in the mind of the reader.
How do you do that? Well, the scene has to resonate with the writer before it can resonate with the reader. You need the scene to become as completely alive for you as possible, and that means using your imagination. Not sure how to do that? Well, here are some exercises that may help:
Start with the Facts
If you are a writer who has to start with facts, then explore what happens when you change a few of them. If the scene in real life takes place in the morning in a city, try to set it at night in the country. If possible, find a very specific place and time to make the changes. Turn the boy into a girl. Turn the car into a boat. Once you’ve made one change, others should follow logically.
Again, starting with the facts, ask yourself what the story would look like if the events had turned out differently. The argument with your sister ended with a big fight and you going your separate ways for a year, but what if someone had intervened? What if your sister had suffered a heart attack in the middle of the quarrel? What if the love of your life had suddenly shown up and seen you fighting? What if one of you had picked up a weapon?
Start an Idea File
If you get stuck with ideas, then keep a journal. As you hear news items that resonate, make a note of them. Listen to conversations and write them down. Having an idea file can give you options for changing a scene when you’re feeling stuck. Snatches of stories force you to fill in the gaps on your own. That’s a good thing if you have a tendency to insist on fact-only prose.
If you find it difficult to let your imagination soar, take time to meditate, even if it’s just for 10-15 minutes a day. Clearing out your thoughts, calming them down, will give your mind space to create. Meditate and then write for a few minutes. It may take some time, but you should eventually see your work loosen up.
Read widely. Read everything. Newspapers, novels, science, manga, history, graphic novels, science… Read genres you’ve never read before. Read books you think may be too difficult for you. Read rubbish. Read, and learn from what you’ve read. See how the various writers tackle themes and scenes and, yes, truth. Take your favourite stories and imagine how you would change them. Would Gatsby run away with Daisy and end up in Vegas? Would Frodo decide to hide the One Ring under the mattress and hope for the best? Imagination needs lots of exercise.
“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll — Alice in Wonderland.
Be like the queen and try to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Or at least supper.
Make each scene as real to you as possible. See each detail. Smell the environment. Taste it. Touch it. Hear how people talk, watch how they move. The more real a character is to you, the more real they will be to your reader.
If you are stimulated by the visual, use pictures to inspire you. Make a folder of images you like and find intriguing. Thumb through them when you need an imagination nudge.
Design your own book jacket and put it over your writing desk. Cut pictures of people out of magazines or find them on the internet so you have a real face to go with your fictional character. Draw maps of the towns where your characters live; draw floor plans of their homes.
Embrace the Surreal and the Absurd
You’ll find it everywhere. In the art of Magritte or Dali or Frida Kahlo, for instance; in the writings of Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Italo Calvino, or Spike Milligan. In the comedy of Steven Wright, the Monty Python gang. The surreal and the absurd can trigger all sorts of ideas and images. Start with a surreal picture or joke and write a story based on it.
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ―Muriel Rukeyser