The Truth of Fiction

Fiction is, by definition, a lie. We even put disclaimers in the front of our books warning readers that any resemblance to persons or events is completely coincidental and has nothing to do with fate, marketing, or fandom. But there is powerful truth in fiction as well. This truth grows from the reader’s trust in the narrator, and their connection to the characters and story.

The First Truth – Realism in Situation

Your world is pretend. Your characters are pretend. Your plot is pretend. Even contemporary novels based on real places or historical retellings are false because they’ve been fed to your muse and regurgitated into a fictional account. Like a child playing house, they may be using real pots and pans, but it’s still just a lie.

But, says you, the pans are real. That’s the truth. Give yourself a cookie because you’ve found the first truth of fiction. Our stories, even the most fantastical ones, have a basis in the real world. Every story builds on what we know to be true, either adding to it or taking it apart. That’s why an author has to research. If you create a believable world, your reader is more likely to accept the unexplainable, and reality will act as a tether so the reader doesn’t get lost.

“And a lie, Mr. Mulder, is most convincingly hidden between two truths.” ~ Deep Throat (X-Files)

But it’s not just the setting a writer must keep in mind. You have to shine a light of reality on your characters so they cast the shadow you want the reader to see. As with your setting, start with a character type and adjust for your vision. Allow the basic character attributes to show through to ground the reader and help them grasp the character’s uniqueness. Use dialogue to your advantage.

Which brings us to the writer’s best friend: the subject matter expert. These people are valuable, and smart writers will cherish them. Nobody can experience everything. To portray details reliably a writer must lean on the experiences of others. Start building your little black book of subject experts now. Treat them well. Let them read your work and tell you where you goofed up, because otherwise people who know better will be yanked right out of your story without you knowing why. Case in point:

While writing a hospital death scene I had the patient flatline. I had a doctor administer the paddles three times with a flurry of activity around the bed, and the patient died. Then I had a nurse look at my scene. Did you know they don’t shock someone without a heartbeat? They give the patient epinephrine or chest compressions until they get a pulse and the shock THEN resets it. Also, they rarely use actual paddles. They use patches now.

If you want details like that in your story, make sure to get them right. They will pull a reader out of the immersion quicker than the sight of your three-headed, eight-legged, fire-breathing chicken. These are the first truth in fiction.

The Second Truth – Reliable Narration

The details are the first truth, but their delivery is the second truth. Every story has a narrator, even if said narrator is invisible. A narrator is the link between the story and the reader and can act either to pull them together or rip them apart. Sometimes the idea of an unreliable narrator is used intentionally as a plot device to cause confusion or deception, such as with a story from a mental patient’s POV. Another narrator’s voice can distance the reader from the emotion of a scene, or plunge them headfirst into it, like how scenes that should inspire horror are instead comedic. These are unreliable by design, and should be approached fully aware of the disorienting effect they cause.

Creating a narrator that’s unreliable for no reason is a breach of the reader’s faith. Examples of this are a narrator that tells a reader one thing, when you show them another through the action of the scene; a narrator that divulges information the writing doesn’t support, making the reader take a leap of faith; or a narrator that contradicts himself as the story progresses. The narrator is the reader’s guide through your story, and you should think carefully about destroying the reader’s trust in that guide.

Another aspect of the delivery of the story is point of view. POV is more of a gauge for the intensity of the third truth we’ll be talking about, but it also pulls in the first and second truths and delivers them to the reader. You can mess up here if you allow your characters to know more than they should, or less than they ought.

Always take care not to give the characters meta-knowledge. Just because the reader knows what Suzy is doing in the next room, doesn’t mean Nancy knows. When we hear someone in real life who knows something they shouldn’t it sends up a red flag. I promise you it’s the same thing with stories. Your reader will immediately stop thinking about the scene and either try to figure out what they missed or disapprove of the story for lying to them.

The Third Truth – A Sympathetic Bond

The other truths were tangible things, learned skills, and improve with attention and editing. Mastering the third truth is what distinguishes a good writer from a great one. This truth is the one that speaks not to the reader’s mind, but to their heart and soul. It gets together at the bar on weekends with Metaphor and Parable and wakes up on the couch the next morning not knowing how it got home. It’s a Fundamental Truth.

This third truth creates a connection between the reader and the story. On the surface, the end product for a writer is a book, but reality (and what great writers will tell you) is that the true end product is an experience for the reader. An emotion. A reaction. It allows the reader to learn a Secret Of The Universe they really knew all along. It connects them to the characters, to each other, and to the writer.

This is a truth of the human condition, or of the human spirit. It’s hard to craft, and delicate to edit, as it breathes throughout your entire story. It’s created by building a reader’s emotional investment in the characters, and revealing a character’s humanity. Showing a reader this subtle truth makes the story real.

How can a story that is by definition a lie, be true? Because the reader’s experience is real. As a teenager I read Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of Sorrows. All the characters are talking animals. It’s a beautiful piece of prose, stately and dream-like. At one point in the story I always cry. It’s when a struggling father is forced to do anything he can to protect his family, and he hits rock bottom but hopes it’s worth it, then he learns they’ve been taken from him because of his own efforts. You FEEL this pain. It hits you right in the gut. It’s real.

“Son of my sorrow, where have you gone?”

The Lesson in the Lie

This is the truth in fiction. Even casual fiction teaches us about human experience. We empathize with the characters and grow as people from that interaction. That’s an author’s responsibility to the world as well. In ancient times storytellers were also teachers. They taught us morality and courage, pain and perseverance. These lessons are still the domain of writers, and still serve to make our lies real.

So craft your stories with all the truth you can, and let the lesson follow.