The Truth Behind Fiction

Fiction is a lie that tells truth – I’ve seen versions of that insight attributed to authors from Albert Camus to Stephen King. What I’d like to emphasize here is that the truth they’re talking about is yours. Your own truth underlies your writing even if you don’t always realize it. The urge to write fiction represents a kind of sounding – you’re drawn to a particular character or sequence of events because they resonate with you. They connect with something deep inside you that yearns to get expressed, something about life that you believe to be important and true. Something that matters intensely to you.

I’m not talking about truisms. In The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, the truth I sense isn’t simply that war is bad or that people can be evil or that Afghanistan is a scary place. If you think specifically of Amir, the protagonist, and his journey, you can feel it pushing at him throughout the story: the evil of others doesn’t acquit you – responsibility is part of love. In Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, in which Calliope, a hermaphrodite, is raised as a girl but emerges from puberty as a man, the truth has more teeth than mere acceptance of self. It’s about accepting what you feel to real and true, however bizarre it may seem. In contrast, consider Life of Pi by Yann Mantel, the story of young Piscine Molitor Patel and his survival on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger, when another layer gets added that makes it seem as if the whole thing was a lie hiding a more desperate reality. But readers know which they feel called to believe. This book makes the case that stories may hold more truth than mere facts.

I don’t know why these truths matter to these authors, but I can tell that they do. These books reverberate with the power and authority of personal truth.

Writers don’t have to be able to articulate this at the outset. What you believe as expressed through your words can be something you discover through your writing. Our most startling insights often happen that way. But at some point, one way or the other, you want to go looking for the deepest connection between yourself, your characters, and your story. Ask yourself, what is it about this that matters so much to me? What is it that I most want these characters, and my readers, to hear?

Dara Marks discusses this in her excellent work on screenwriting, Inside Story – The Power of the Transformational Arc, and her advice applies to writing books for adults and children as well. You want your protagonist to have traits in resistance to your central truth – to need the journey to get there. You want your plot to include circumstances that challenge that resistance until it breaks. She cites John Keats: “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make a soul?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, says this in a somewhat daunting letter to a young would-be writer:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reaction, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. . . . This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories In Our Time went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In This Side of Paradise I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

You don’t need to share your characters’ same experiences for them to tell a truth that your own life has taught you. But if you aren’t in there somewhere, then you haven’t gone deep enough. Yet.

Photo courtesy of Todd Arkebauer.

The Writer’s Truth Writing Workshop at OCWW

I’m very excited to be speaking at Off Campus Writer’s Workshop this month. The topic is important to me as a writer. Our own truth underlies our work even if we don’t always realize it. Awareness of it can help us crack open our characters and increase the tension and complications in our plots. We can also use it to move from one to the other: to find the best plot for a intriguing character or the best character for a clever plot. Perhaps best of all, it can give us the key to talking about our book to others in a meaningful way. I’m especially happy to be presenting this topic at OCWW, the oldest continuously running writer’s workshop in the country. I served on the OCWW Board for 15 years. The details are excerpted below, or you can visit the OCWW website.

The Writer’s Truth: Connecting Character, Plot and Thematic Values

Thursday, March 26, 2015, from 9:30 to Noon

Winnetka Community House, 620 Lincoln, Winnetka (North of Chicago)

Members: $10; nonmembers: $15. All are welcome.

The Writer’s Truth is something that you as a writer believe in your heart to be true. What, at the deepest level, you’re trying to say with your work: your thematic values, not merely “theme.” Awareness of your truth can lead you to the characters and plot that will most profoundly express it. If you begin with character, but have trouble with plot, this will help you to discover the challenges your characters need to face. If you begin with plot, this will help you to create characters in resistance to your truth: characters who need to be tested and either fail or grow. You can use this awareness to begin a new book, intensify a book in progress, or break down stumbling blocks along the way. And at the end, you’ll be able to articulate to others why your book really matters, with a pitch that carries the ring of personal truth.

Ellen is a fiction writer and poet whose work has been published in literary journals and anthologies. She is currently at work on a novel, The Ex-Mom, which made the Finalist Short List in the Faulkner Writing Competition as a novel-in-progress. As a Board member of OCWW for 15 years, she helped to bring programs to hundreds of writers in the Chicago area. Visit Ellen’s new website at and follow her on Twitter @EllenTMcKnight.

Members of OCWW may submit manuscripts in advance for critique by March 19. Please visit the OCWW manuscript submission guidelines for more information, including an email address for submissions.