The problem of writing from real life events
I’m still looking for a new story, so I’ve been mining events in my life, just writing. For example, my son had to take a Parenting class in 9th grade and there were at least three hysterical stories from that class, including one egg-baby named Adolf. When I stopped to evaluate what I wrote, though, they were very flat. Fortunately, Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall explain why in Chapter 23 of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A guide to creative fiction. This is what I learned.
Problems with turning life into fiction
- Too faithful a telling. Often writers cling to events because “they really happened.” So what? That doesn’t mean the event will successfully become a fully developed story. To turn life into fiction, you must be willing to turn loose of the “reality” to find the “truth” in the fiction.
Suggestion: Try to deliberately change one major thing in a story. For example, change the setting. Look for the larger story embedded in the event that keeps you coming back to the event.
- Too few details. Sketchy. Because life stories are often told to friends who already know you, your life, your situation, life stories are often told in a shorthand. Fiction, though, must assume an audience who knows nothing beyond what is on the page.
Suggestion: To change life into fiction, work hard to describe everything in detail. You can edit out some later, but start by giving way too much, so the story is grounded.
- Point of view problems. The narrator (you) is also a character in the story. But when you write the anecdote and try to remove yourself, the story is boring; at best, it’s flat. You must find a way to endow the story with fully-developed characters separate from yourself, including the first-person narrator. Developing that first-person character on the page is important and often neglected when telling something that “really happened.”
Suggestion: Removing the first-person narrator and write it in third person is also an option. Evaluate how well the incident might work as fiction. Or write it from first person, but change something significant about the narrator: age, sex, culture, etc.
- Too slight an event, not yet a plot. Sometimes, it’s just a running gag in your family; or perhaps a “cute” moment in your child’s or grandchild’s life. But remove the sentiment and it has no lasting entertainment value and no enduring themes or ideas.
Suggestion: Look for the conflict and enduring themes and enhance them in the next revision.
In general, as you work with real-life anecdotes (either yours or historical events), look for the conflict and universal themes. For example, I’ve been researching a historical event, thinking it would be a picture book biography of a famous person. Instead, when I found an account written by someone who was a child at the time, I found a new theme: don’t believe everything that is printed. Today, that would translate to “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” That theme makes the story worth telling. The biography is gone, but I think I’ve found a stronger story.
As you work with real life events you will discover what “Story” means to you. The anecdotes you so cheerfully tell your friends are “slices of life” not Story. Those events can provoke a story, if you let them. So, tell the anecdotes, rehearse it, enjoy it. But when you commit it to the page, be ready to struggle with it to find the story that lies within.