“. . . tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story.” —from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
At my writing circle last week, our group discussed how fiction writers often draw on real life experiences for their work. In some cases, these writers try really hard to transfer the factual events into their fictional stories exactly as they happened. They assume that something that really happened will end up feeling more authentic than some fictionalized flight of fancy.
Memoir writers must stick to the facts, because their readers approach non-fiction books expecting truths. But fiction writers get to have more fun. Their readers come to fiction with a different mindset. When fiction readers pick up a book, they do so with the unspoken understanding: This writer is going to tell me a really good story. They want the story to be the best possible version of a set of circumstances. Reality usually isn’t the best possible version of events so, paradoxically, fiction stories that stick too closely to real events end up feeling oddly . . . out of sync. Fiction works better when a writer takes the seed of a real event and then plucks out the weak spots and makes the story about what should have happened.
Sometimes it’s helpful to look at life this way. Our past, the events and twists of fate that lead us to where we are today are the facts, and we can tell people exactly what happened. When we look to the future, we can say, “Well, that’s all well and good, but what should have happened is this . . . ”
We can aim for the best possible version of events.