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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.