As I wrote yesterday in “Write what you…No!”, I wanted to talk about a variant of writing on a topic in which you have expertise: the true story.
Now let me start off by saying that I have never written anything directly lifted from a true story—at least never attempted to fictionalize one—but I have spent the better part of two years listening to people try to do same, and it seems to me the effort is fraught with pitfalls.
(Ironically, however, I am about to start a project with someone that will be based on his true story, so let’s see if my attitudes change once I’m on the inside.)
The biggest challenge I have seen is that many novice writers forget that they need to tell a story. On the surface, that may sound ridiculous. It is a story. I know. I was there. The problem it seems is that a lot of writers try to chronicle the actual events that occurred rather than try to tell a story. That is a history, not a story.
It’s like sharing a joke with someone and having a third party enter asking what’s so funny. When you think about it, you realize the joke itself is not the funny part and you respond “You had to be there.”
The same holds true for the true story. With rare exceptions, while experiencing the actual events, you experienced emotions and actions that are just too difficult to translate into a narrative. And without your context, the audience loses something.
Likewise, you may be leaving out critical facts that are obvious or second-nature to you but elude us. When this happens, characters do not feel fully developed or plot points don’t seem connected, because we don’t instinctively see the link.
And ironically, despite what I just said, novice writers working on such stories tend to want to stick to the facts as they know it to the detriment of any sense of story…they refuse to fictionalize their story beyond changing names, settings and the odd plot point because to do more would be to remove the truth of their experiences.
Let me give an example.
A friend of mine was trying to develop a screenplay about a family coping with young adult son with a psychological disability, and the young man’s attempts to find his personal space. It was very well written, but at least in its initial stages, it felt like there were plot and motivational holes throughout the manuscript. As we discussed it in class, we learned that this was effectively a fictionalization of the writer’s family.
In her manuscript, the protagonist—the young man—was largely shut down from his family and even they largely repressed their feelings with each other as a coping mechanism. As an audience member, this made it difficult to get into the characters and rather than feel empathy or any form of connection with the protagonist, he just pissed many of us off. We hadn’t lived the experience the writer had, so we couldn’t see her story the way she did.
Try as we would to get the writer to see our dilemma, she was equally adamant that to make the protagonist any other way would make him unrealistic given his condition; a defensible position within limits. She couldn’t let go of enough of the truth to develop a story.
The story must come first if you ever hope to engage an audience. Even fact-laden documentaries and news items focus on a story or narrative. Without that, you are reading a dictionary or encyclopedia entry.
The truth or reality of your personal experiences are vitally important, but only in so much as they are used to bolster or support the story you are trying to tell. It is almost impossible to successfully do it the other way around.
(Image used without permission, and that’s my true story.)