In the last two posts there were some suggestions about where you might find ideas. There will be more in the next post, too, when you begin looking at how to grow one into a story. Often an idea springs from something that really happened to you, that you want to make into a story but you may be disappointed with the result. This post will help you discover why that might be.
“I’m not very imaginative and I’ve always thought it would be easier to base my stories on real life. I’ve read that I shouldn’t use real life experience but authors do it all the time, so how come it works for them?”
We are drawn to writing about our own experiences because they are personal. They make our writing sound more confident, more authentic. We can draw on settings and images that we are familiar with. So why are we told that actual experiences in our lives are not good enough to use in fiction?
The short answer is that they are; but only as a starting point.
Writing from personal experience has several disadvantages:
- When you focus on what really happened you move away from what works as story. Strange as it may seem, this means that even the real truth may not sound credible in the world of your story. Fiction is not concerned with facts; with whether something “actually happened” or not. It’s job is to create meaning through character and action and this takes precedence over simple truth. Not being clear about where fictionalizing demands that you move away from autobiography will weaken your writing. Your story may feel flat and lack energy. Use real life experience but accept that turning it into fiction must change it in ways that are necessary for it to become story.
- Writing about a real experience makes it more difficult to step away from it. You are bound to it in a way that resists change. Fiction frees you from this, allowing you to use your imagination in any way you want to infuse the event with new energy. Invention also allows you to make use of emotions (even difficult ones) because you can hand them over to a character who isn’t you.
You have probably heard the advice ‘write about what you know’ but this can be limiting and prevent you from exploring anything new. You may also have heard ‘write about what you don’t know,’ which may be too large a leap. I would suggest it is more sensible to start with what you know and work out from there towards what you don’t know. Use what you know about an experience to enrich your writing and then invent around it, gradually exploring new possibilities, rather than staying with it as it really was. When you are not held back by truth and exact detail, you open yourself to finding new perspectives and truths.
If you have tried to write a story about a real life event, see if you can make it stronger as a piece of fiction by trying some of the suggestions below:
Make big or small changes: When you choose to turn life into fiction, you can get caught up in the detail. Try changing the city where the story takes place; the viewpoint character; the weather; the gender of your character or of type of person they are, or their profession. These changes force you to imagine which will create new dynamics and prompt further ideas.
Exaggerate: If the weather was cold turn it into a blizzard. If it was raining, make it a downpour. Add something outrageous or untrue.I once wrote a story about laughing at my mother’s funeral.
Find the Meaning: What was important about the experience? Can you craft the story to reveal its meaning? Make someone else the central character, not you.
Use old Memories: These cause you to invent to fill gaps in your memory. If you use a childhood experience make it happen to someone else. Use the third person to distance yourself and a voice that isn’t yours.
Play with Point of View: Describe a true event from the point of view of a fictional character and make up what you don’t know.
Make a Switch: Create a fictional event but one that occurs in your house, around your things: your parrot, your sofa, your pen. Some of these details may not be important in your life but they could become important in the story.
When I write a short story based on a true event, this is what I do. I choose an short episode that has a natural beginning, middle and end and that involves two or more characters and some dialogue. It might be an evening out, a boat ride, a trip somewhere or a picnic on a beach. I use details from the surroundings, some of the real conversation or aspects of the people that were there, and make the rest up. I make one of the characters striking in some way, create some sort of conflict between the characters and then figure out how they might try to resolve it. You can use an even shorter episode for practice: Have someone painting a wall or climbing a flight of steps to a temple. A whole story can be crafted out of a small window in time, like this. Ask yourself what sort of person would be climbing those steps to the temple early that morning and might happen to him or her?
This approach provides you with a framework to work within. Why not try it? Let us know how you got on; what you found difficult.
“The proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook makes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard” (Lorrie Moore)
Next post: ‘Ideas with Legs’ – I’ve got have an idea but it doesn’t seem enough to make a story. What do I do now?