How it actually happened isn’t good writing

“But that’s how it actually happened!” is a familiar riposte when writers try to follow that tired advice to “write what you know.”

But what actually happened doesn’t make for a great story.  Even in the most chaotic, car-crash lives, there are the boring bits.  Even the most ambitious, career-driven executive with twelve hour working days and a packed out-of-hours diary needs to sleep now and again.

Writing is capable of so much more than breathing life into real-life stories.  A true story-teller doesn’t just skip the boring bits and shift all the verbs from passive to active, but also considers shifting the actual linear time line, giving the reader all the crucial action and hook into the story at the beginning and saving some of the background information for when the narrating character is stuck in the boring bits: dreams and flashbacks are great tricks to do precisely this.  Great writers also filter out the less important events and re-order the important ones to suit the dramatic curve.

Along with “But that’s how it actually happened!” is “This is how people really talk.”  A real life conversation is often two monologues with each speaker focused on what they want to say and the non speaker waiting their chance to interrupt.  And people repeat themselves, go round in circles, forget names, places, dates and use tone of voice or gestures to get their point across.

On paper or on a screen that makes for a boring read.  Dialogue is an artificial construct.  Usually dialogue has a main purpose of moving the plot forward and the restriction that characters have to speak in character (even if they are lying or trying to be someone else within the story).  Using dialogue as an information dump can sound false unless one character is bringing another up to speed with a situation or passing on information the second character doesn’t know.  And giving one character a monologue without the character(s) they are talking to chipping in or commenting results in false-sounding dialogue too.  Successful dialogue knows it’s a construct but also manages to sound as if it is real conversation. 

All good writers naturally do a lot of eavesdropping, picking out how people speak and the words they tend to use, but instead of re-writing the conversation verbatim, filter out the repetitions, deviations and hesitations in favour of focusing on what the character needs to say and how they’d say it.

Bear in mind the following quotations.

“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth,” Khalid Hosseini

“We all know that art is not truth.  Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Pablo Picasso.

How it actually happened isn’t good writing.

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3 Responses to “How it actually happened isn’t good writing”

  1. Sheenagh Pugh Says:

    I used to get the “that’s what actually happened” excuse from students. I’d tell them that nature was not the best shaper of fiction and that it was a bit unambitious of them not to want to improve on her.

    What bugs me is when readers think it makes writing better if the thing “actually happened”, and are positively disappointed if you explain that in fact you are inventive enough to have made it all up….

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Sheenagh

    Yes, I once had someone get rather enraged about the behaviour of a character in a poem until I pointed it out it didn’t actually happen and the poem was inspired by a theme suggested at a workshop. The reader was put out that I had made up something that seemed so realistic…

  3. Sheenagh Pugh Says:

    *headdesk*

    Why is this person reading fiction? Are there not plenty of manuals, encyclopaedias and timetables to be had? (Not the Virgin train timetable obviously, because that’s far too much like fiction…)


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