Updated: Feb 24, 2021
In my first graduate workshop, I wrote a short story based on Christmas at my grandma’s house. If you read my post from a couple months back recounting one of these holiday horrorshows, you remember that this topic is not nearly as idyllic as it sounds—inedible dinners, terrible gifts, passive aggressive behavior, you get the idea.
The story in question recounted one of those Christmases from the perspective of my dad, looking back on his difficult childhood though the lens of the present.
When my classmates workshopped the story, the prevailing sentiment was that it was way over the top and generally not believable. The character of the grandmother, they agreed, was simply way too “out there” and needed to be toned down. A lot.
It was then that I uttered eight fatal words that should never be spoken in any fiction workshop, ever…
“But that’s how it happened in real life.”
Here’s the problem with this whole situation. My Christmas From Hell scenario, as sadly true and bizarre as it may have been, was too weird to be fiction.
As a real-life anecdote, it was completely believable because it carried the authority of my eye-witness account.
But as fiction, it just sounded like it was written by someone who was high on drugs (not that I was).
As Robin Hemley says, “It doesn’t matter whether it really happened. The real question is, is it believable?”
Just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean it will make a good story.
There are a lot of reasons for this. First, although it might sound obvious enough, fiction is not real life. It takes the raw materials of reality—that leaf mould Tolkien talks about, the compost of experiences, interests, and people that layer in our minds—and forms itself into people and situations that carry the weight of reality while not completely conforming to it.
This is why so many works of fiction seem so real to us. Because the author’s experiences are but one part of the story’s formation, it gives us more space to move around inside them, bonding and relating to the plot and characters. The Lord of the Rings is a great example of this. Frodo’s battle for the soul of Middle Earth has its roots in J.R.R. Tolkien’s experience of serving in the British army during World War I, especially his involvement in the bloody Battle of the Somme.
Tolkien easily could have written a novel about a man fighting in World War I. Instead, he expanded the story beyond his own experiences, fusing his unforgettable combat recollections with his passion for fantastic worlds. This is why the battle sequences of Lord of the Rings are charged with so much emotion and detail. He is channeling his own experiences of warfare directly into those of his characters.
Another important point is that time operates differently in fiction than it does in reality. Real life is linear, with one event unfolding after another. But in fiction, time is a malleable construct; events can be skipped, summarized, and edited to suit the pacing and structure of the story. There is no way to perfectly superimpose exposition, rising action, and falling action over the real world.
So, if you find yourself responding to constructive criticism about your writing with, “But that’s how it actually happened,” you might want to think about whether your fictional story should really be nonfiction.
I know what you’re thinking. “But Kori—how do I know which one my story is?” Let’s talk about that. I think one thing writers need to understand is that there is a good part of the process that only comes from experience. The more you write, and the more you challenge yourself to write in different genres, the more you’ll be able to intuit whether your idea wants to be a poem, a story, an essay, or something else. You get to know the advantages and limitations of each, which helps you to see more clearly what you should be writing. There are many forms your life experiences and memories can take. Your job is to find the framework the idea best fits into. The truth is, it might not want to be a short story or a novel, and it’s best to let go of your own expectations so you can really create something organic rather than shoehorning it into a form that doesn’t match the content.
So, here are a few telltale signs that story you’re writing based on events #IRL might work better as essay.
Sign #1: You aren’t willing to change the details of what happened to better serve the story.
Writing fiction is about engaging your creativity and inventing new characters and situations. While this innovation can certainly come from real life, good stories bend the realities of these details to create a powerful experience for readers. And sometimes, that means aspects of your real-life experiences or anecdotes need to be changed or eliminated altogether.
In other words, to borrow from William Faulkner, kill your darlings is not just an axiom for editing. It’s a rule for designing a story from the raw material of life.
If you are married to the facts of your real-life characters or events and aren’t willing to divert from what actually happened, be open to writing an essay or a memoir instead. Telling the story in that form might actually get you to the point of seeing how it could be effectively adapted into fiction.
Sign #2: The real-life people are compelling enough.
Is there a significant person in your life that you want to base a story on? Think about whether writing about the actual individual would be more effective than creating a fictional counterpart.
I can now see how “Christmas at Grandma’s” would have made a hilarious and downright disturbing essay because the real woman was just that weird. In that respect, my workshop colleagues were right: perhaps the reason that story came across as unrealistic was because nothing could possibly measure up to who she really was. You have to be able to recognize when the people in your lives are too interesting not to write about as they are.
Sign #3: You want to teach the reader something.
The purpose of fiction is not to teach the reader a lesson.
The purpose of fiction is to tell a compelling story.
A statement often attributed to Samuel Goldwyn teaches, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Message-centric fiction emphasizes ideas over characters, points over plots, and often comes across as preachy, high-minded, and condescending. At its best, it is an oversimplified, bland story. At its worst, it’s propaganda. However…if you’re interested in teaching your reader something based on your life experiences, you have more leeway with writing an essay or memoir. It’s more acceptable in nonfiction to directly state what you want readers to take away from it. More importantly, you have greater credibility and authority as a writer because you actually went through the event you’re describing.
One of my favorite essays is “Looking at Emmett Till” by John Edgar Wideman. Wideman was 14 when Emmett Till, a black teenager visiting family in Mississippi, was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman—the same age as Till himself. In it, Wideman recounts the first time he saw the famous photograph of Till’s face, beaten and battered beyond recognition, in an article in Jet magazine.
The essay is primarily about how Wideman sees his life as intertwined with Till’s, their shared experience of being young black men in a time of widespread discrimination, and how Till’s death changed the way Wideman viewed his racial identity. I first read “Looking at Emmett Till” as a junior in college who had never heard Emmett Till’s name. The essay, however, did far more than simply make me aware of one of the most heinous hate crimes that has ever taken place in this country. It made me experience the fear, anger, and grief Wideman felt in response to Till’s murder.
By telling both his story and Till’s as an essay, Wideman gave me the chance to feel something that I could otherwise never experience for myself. If Wideman had chosen to write about a fictional character based on himself, it might have worked…but its urgency and potency would have been drastically reduced.
This is perhaps the most important question you can ask when you want to write something inspired by your own life.
Are you robbing your readers of something by telling it as fiction rather than a true story, in your own words?
If your writing is a gift that you give to your reader, is fiction the right gift?
Or, is it as ill-conceived as any of the gifts my grandma gave us for Christmas? Figure out what your idea wants to be. Get rid of any preconceived notions of what you want the final product to look like. Then, write what it wants to be.
Want to learn more about how to adapt your personal experiences into fiction? My Ultimate Writing Project Workbook is a great place to start. It contains activities, worksheets, writing prompts, templates, and more tools for developing and crafting your story. Click here to request a copy for free.