Turning Truth into Fiction
As novelists, we are always adding “real life” happenings to our stories. Bits and pieces. Here and there. Mashups of truth layered with fiction. But have you ever come across a real life story—your own or someone else’s, historical or contemporary—and wanted to use it as the plot of your entire novel? My guess is yes. And yet attempting to actually translate a true story into fiction is not as easy as it sounds.
I ran up against this problem fifteen years ago when I wanted to write my great-grandparents’ story of love amidst the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic. Wrangling it into fiction proved unwieldy, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I set the story aside for nearly ten years. When I came back to it, I’d learned a few things that helped me take a story from my family history and turn it into a readable novel.
Here are three of the biggest problems I’ve found in turning a true story into a novel:
Real life stories don’t usually have a clear story structure.
Few of us have situations in our lives with a definite beginning and a definite end. Perhaps we can find one or the other. Rarely both. Often neither. Add to that the need for a novel to have clear conflict and defined turning points and you will notice that it becomes almost impossible to plop down an entire real life situation and find story structure in place.
Real life stories rarely have a character arc in place that follows the true timeline of the story.
We process the things that happen to us and to others through the lens of time. In the midst of the actual events the person experiencing them may have had little self-awareness as to how the events or situations were changing them. Yes, they might have be aware that their thinking shifted, causing them to make different decisions, but most likely true clarity came as they lived their lives in the aftermath of that change.
Real life stories are often too complicated for a novel—or too simplistic.
Tension and conflict are desirable for a novel. But sometimes a real life situation has too much—too many characters, too many outside issues, too many different threads. Telling that story “as is” makes for a convoluted novel. Or the opposite might be true. A story that sounds rife with conflict and emotion up front might not have enough in the surrounding story or characters to create a full length book.
These three issues can build a brick wall between our efforts to translate the true story of a person or an event into fiction. But there is a sledgehammer that will break through and help us get where we want to go. It is this:
A novelist is a storyteller, first and foremost. When we tackle a real life story, we can have a tendency to allow the substance of the story to overcome the essence of it. Remind your inner historian or journalist that they must let the storyteller drive this train. If you insist on staying true to every fact of the story you want to tell, you need to write it as non-fiction.
With your storytelling sledgehammer in hand, approach the true story with three swings.
Be willing to add to the facts.
Add subplots that heighten tension over the main conflict. Create new characters that didn’t exist in real life to act as mentors or foils to your protagonist. Make sure the protagonist has clear “want” and isn’t just reacting to a situation thrust upon them. Draw a clear epiphany that maybe didn’t happen in real life until much later.
Be willing to subtract from the facts.
You might need to condense the facts of the real story. Shrink the number of characters or the timeline or both. Reorder events. Simplify backstory.
Be willing to reimagine the facts.
Assign motives to characters whose actions in real life were inexplicable. Create logical connections between people and events that remain disconnected in real life. Rethink conflict to make it relatable to the reader. Make the inner or outer journey of the main character more visible than it was in real life. Maybe even reimagine the conclusion of the story, especially if in the true version there was no actual moment of closure.
When you can allow your storytelling sledgehammer to break through the wall of fact, you can transform a real life story into a focused and compelling work of fiction. And if you feel the overwhelming need to set your readers straight on some of the more important facts, there is always the Author’s Note at the end.
Missy here… Do any of you have true stories you're dying to turn into fiction? Do share!
Anne Mateer enjoys exploring history and spiritual truth through fiction. She is the author of four historical novels set in the years just before and during World War I. Besides writing, Anne also teaches an online class on historical fiction through Margie Lawson’s Writers Academy. Anne and her husband live in Texas and have three young adult children. Find out more about Anne’s books and how to connect with her at www.annemateer.com.
Playing By Heart
Lula Bowman has finally achieved her dream: a teaching position and a scholarship to continue her college education in mathematics. But when she receives a shocking telephone call from her sister, Jewel, everything she's worked for begins to crumble.
After the sudden death of Jewel's husband, Jewel needs Lula's help. With a heavy heart, Lula returns to her Oklahoma hometown to do right by her sister. But the only teaching job available in Dunn is combination music instructor/basketball coach. Neither subject belongs anywhere near the halls of academia, according to Lula!
Lula commits to covering the job for the rest of the school year, determined to do well and prove herself to the town. Reluctantly, she turns to the boys' coach, Chet, to learn the game of basketball. Chet is handsome and single, but Lula has no plans to fall for a local boy. She's returning to college as soon as she gets Jewel back on her feet.
However, the more time she spends around Jewel's family, the girls' basketball team, music classes, and Chet, the more Lula comes to realize what she's given up in her single-minded pursuit of degree after degree. God is working on her heart, and her future is starting to look a lot different than she'd expected.