Friday, April 24, 2009

Truth vs Drama

Not so long ago there was a scandal when a writer published an inspiring autobiography of their recovery from a life of poverty and drugs when the truth was revealed: the story was fiction.

Some people were very upset and others merely confused.

Where were you?

The author's defense was that it was a great story, why does it matter whether it was literally true or not? Certainly many novels start with the conceit of telling a true story.
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank...
Many writers get lost in the balance between drama and truth - all writing (fiction and non-fiction) need a balance of both. Most writers have a preference, much like a preference for right- or left-handedness. Something unconscious but obvious to everyone we meet. Some writers are closer to Mark Twain - great storytellers, truth be damned, while others, think of your college textbooks here, completely ignore the narrative and stick to the facts.

You might imagine that this is the way of the world and the chasm between fiction and non-fiction will never be bridged. That is not true.

First, there is an enormous demand for non-fiction books with drama and human conflict (beyond the novel alluded to above). Think of all the biographies (A Book for Today: Skakespeare by Bill Bryson), histories (A Book for Today: The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, A Book for Today: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson), and all popular science and math volumes (A Book for Today: Group Theory for (non) Mathematicians). Non-fiction with a strong narrative and drama can be very popular, and without it, you have textbooks (the number one reason people hate school).

Similarly, good fiction needs to have the feel of truth whether it is a child's fantasy or a political thriller.

I notice many beginning writers, especially in speculative fiction, become so enamored with their ideas (truths) that they ignore the demands for drama. All the ideas, no matter how inventive and enlightening, can make up for a dull story.

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