5 Ways to Tell The Truth in Fiction Writing

In his wonderful book, “On Writing”, Steven King admonishes fiction writers to “Tell the truth!”

At first glance this is a rather confusing directive.  After all, we are writing fiction, right?  If we wanted to tell the truth we would be writing non-fiction.  OK, OK, even non-fiction is mostly opinion;  opinion and truth are distant relatives.  So, what the hey?

What I think King was getting at could be paraphrased as “…tell the truth within your story…”  rather than “…have your story tell the truth.”  The definition must be something like, “don’t cover up the humanity of your characters”, and “avoid witless, childish fantasy—even in a fantasy novel”.  I think what he is talking about is learning how to connect with your reader, and the best way I know to do that is to speak—or rather write—in a way that your reader can get your message without the need to make up a new world-view.

But wait a minute, you say, didn’t Uphill Writing feature a rather lengthy series on Building New Worlds for Fantasy and Science Fiction writers?  Why, yes we did.  Thanks for noticing.  If you read it you may recall that we focused on a certain level of reality, even in a fantastical world.

I think there are any number of ways to “tell the truth” in your writing. 

  1. Don’t hide the dirt.
    Your characters need to eat.  They need to go to the bathroom.  They need to bathe.  This does not mean you have to write long scenes of your characters sitting on the pot, but a full bladder, or the grumblings of hunger can do much to widen your story.
  2. Your characters can lie to each other, they can lie to themselves, but should you allow them to lie to the narrator?
    Unless your narrator is an active character in your story, make sure your narrator always tells the truth.
  3. Stay logical.
    Even a fantasy story, filled with dwarves, pixies and dragons needs to have its feet planted firmly in logic.  Yes, you can have flying dragons, but when they land there will be a shaking of the ground and dust in the air, because dragons are big and heavy.  Your dwarves can get jealous of the elves, and their way of life.  Jealousy is human, and a dwarf or an elf that is not “human” to some degree will be out of the reach of your reader.
  4. Don’t “clever” yourself out of a corner.
    Resolving an issue by “waking up”, by unexpected “divine intervention”, or by pulling a super gadget out of thin air robs your reader, and it robs you.  Use your logical mind to resolve conflict.  Yes, you can kill off the bad guy to get your hero’s neck out of a sling.  That works.  Introducing a theretofore unknown character, secret power, cool weapon and the like is cheating.  Cheat your reader and your reader won’t come back.
  5. Watch your language.
    There is nothing wrong with flowery prose or description in a pastoral novel, but for an action piece, keep it short, impactful, energetic.  More importantly, watch the way your characters speak.  Yes, there are examples of criminals who speak in cute and clever way (Damon Runyon‘s characters, for example), but if everyone in your story has an affected way of speaking, it will grow old and tiring quickly.  People—characters—should talk like people.  It is how we connect with our readers.

Finally, rules for doing anything are just that.  Rules.  They are not laws, and while there can be severe penalties (e.g., lack of readership) for breaking certain rules, the powers that be will not arrest you for it.  You have to decide what works best for you.  The chances are that when you start to look closely at telling truth in your writing, you will come up with your own rules.  If you do, please post them here.  I’d like to learn what you know. 

It will help me learn to tell the truth.

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6 responses to “5 Ways to Tell The Truth in Fiction Writing

  1. Thanks, Rik; some good points of discipline in there.

  2. More gems to store away in my ‘writing folder’. Thanks Richard. And I’ve just been put on the list for jury duty. This fact in my life has thus given me the ending of the third part of the trilogy. Whatever it is in life, the fiction I will choose to write in the book will be the fact of Penny on a jury deciding on a rape case. That is more true to the story, although it may not turn out that way in life. I may be serving merely on a ‘mere’ murder case! But what a perfect ending to the novel, the direction of my life has given me. I would never have thought of it on my own. Thanks again, Richard.

  3. Just thought of some cons against the pros of your five points:
    l. As you said, when it comes to swearing, it must be truthful, i.e. have a real purpose, appropriate, i.e. follow the relevant social codes, and sincere, i.e. spring from an emotional necessity as felt by the character.
    2. Keeping skeletons in the closet. Although most people in life don’t like airing dirty laundry in public, when you write a novel about such a matter as a dark deception, it is important that the dirt not be flung. If there is lying, I believe it should be done in good taste. That is often what separates ‘good’ fiction, from ‘real life’.
    3. Not everyone remains logical in life at all times. Indeed absurdity can be a benefit to the writer, e.g. Lewis Carrol, for example. In dealing with mental illness, however, this has been a problematic for me, and in order to accentuate the perplexities of psychosis, is one of the reasons I feel grateful to write in an ‘elevated’ style. It can both accentuate the illogic of psychosis, and be a contrast with it. In other words, there is a time and place of illogicality within fiction, prose, poetry.
    4. The ‘Deus ex machina’, was a method of resolving the plot of the dramas in ancient Greece. I feel that the unexpected, the synchronicity of finding the right answer at just the right time, can be fruitful, if used with discretion.
    5. The only rules in this regard, I believe, would be to use language appropriate to the individual characters. It would thus be a wonderful gift to be able to ‘speak in many tongues’; it would accentuate the differences between the characters.

  4. Great truths, here. One of the worst novels I read on WEbook dealt with a hero (NOT a superhero) who got shot in the chest . . . and kept going. Then he got shot a second time in the chest . . . and kept going.

    Wow! That’s the kind of adrenaline we all need, right? It was so far-fetched that I was laughing too hard to finish reading the chapter.

    Even so, I think that you should write a scene where your writing super-hero pulls out his super nifty Echo pen and transcribes his way out of the corner you’ve painted him into. 8)

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