Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Road to Fiction

[Note: There is one more installment of the Lies Writers Tell series, but that one will happen next week. More news about it, then.]

I was asked an interesting question recently. I like interesting questions; they make you think. Well, they make me think. I don't actually know about you. I don't actually even know if you do think, because so many people don't, though I like to think that if you're reading this blog then you're a thinker, so we'll just go with that.


The question was, "How do you write fiction?" Let me clarify that. I get the question, "How do you write?" a lot, but I've never had the question, "How do you write fiction?" Her contention was that writing non-fiction is easy; it just requires a bit of research and putting it together in a way that's easy for the reader to take in. But she didn't know how to go about writing fiction.

So I get the thing about non-fiction. I've never had a problem with it, though I know some fiction writers do. There is a lot that is easy about presenting information that already exists. So her real question, as I took it to mean, was, "How do you make up information that did not previously exist?" And that is a good and interesting question. And it made me think.

For me, writing fiction began with telling stories. True stories, I mean. Verbally. You know, standing around in a group and telling stories. During high school especially, I began to excel at this and became the preferred storyteller among my groups of friends. It probably didn't hurt that I also started doing quite a bit of public speaking stuff, all of which continued into college. Learning to tell a true story, especially one that is mostly boring, in an interesting way, embellishing without lying and adding humor where there might not, strictly speaking, be any is an excellent place to begin in writing fiction.

Of course, doing a lot of reading helps, too.

Once you have that down, the telling of stories, it's just a small step to making up your own. In fact, it's a natural extension. I know that part of my impetus was the repetition of requests to tell by my kids and their friends to tell stories. I'd answer, "But I've told them all to you," and they'd either say, "So, tell us again," or, "Well, make one up." So that's what I did.

Not that it's easy. It sounds easy, but it's not easy.

Fictional stories don't necessarily follow the same rules as non-fiction ones. Here's an example I gave back during the school year to my creative writing classes:
I was watching this movie once, a based-on-a-true-story movie, and it was moving along, and the action was rising, and I was wondering what was going to happen -- but it was getting close to the end (time-wise) and I was starting to wonder how in the world they were going to wrap it up in time -- and, suddenly, the protagonist was in a fatal car crash and that was it. It was one of those "what the heck!" moments, but that's how it happened. The dude just had a car accident and died and, when you're telling a story based on actual events, that's the kind of thing that sometimes happen.

But you can't really do that in fiction. You can't cut your readers off like that, because, well, they won't like you. People don't like stories without resolution, not in general. In fact, they want more than just resolution; they want it all wrapped up in a nice, pretty package with a bow on top. But that's the beginning of a different topic, so I'll stop right there.

I don't really think I've completely answered this question. I only know how I got to fiction. It could be completely different for other writers. Even so, I think it's a good place to start.
Read a lot.
Learn to tell true stories in an interesting way, a way that's not just about delivering a set of facts.
Go from there.

If you want a specific example of one of those ways I've done all of this, taken a real story and moved it into the fictional arena, check out "The Magic Cookies." It began as a true story and may have been the favorite of the stories I used to tell my kids and their friends.
Plus it has a great bonus story by Briane Pagel! It has nothing to do with cookies, though it does have vampires. And, hey, for $0.99 it's practically like taking a cookie from a... wait, do babies eat cookies?


  1. It's always interesting how different people arrive at the same place. For me, a lot of stories start when something catches my eye and I ask a question--"Where is that person going?" "What would happen if?" "Who is that guy?"

    Whether you base your stories off true events or not, 'truth'--of human experience--is critical in fiction, absolutely.

  2. I think I started telling stories to myself first through fantasizing as a child. And then, yeah, moved on to the "what-if" question Jeff mentions. That's always a great place to start a story. :)

  3. Leaving the reader hanging does have that does have an effect on some people. Funny, I was considered the preferred storyteller in my scout troop. :)

  4. I flirted with writing off and on since middle school. I wrote a play in German for our Foreign Language Fair, but it never got produced. I also wrote poetry in high school, which is when I realized I was good at writing essays. (They do have a definite structure, which makes writing them easier.) Later on, when I became dissatisfied with the direction of some stories I'd read, I started coming up with my own stories. I wrote my first (very bad) novel in grad school and during an internship. It wasn't until I became a Beatles fan that I truly became dedicated to writing.

  5. I spent a lot of time retelling all the movies I saw as teen for my mother who didn't like going to the theatre. The what if questions work for me too. I love those.

  6. Hah! You know, I was telling stories with picture before I could write words, but you just reminded me of how I used to exchange stories with my best friends all through elementary school during recesses. We'd see who could come up with the best ones, and I always won. I'd also tell stories to my younger siblings when they asked for a sleepover in my room. In fact, several of those stories that started verbally when I was a kid are still part of my writing world today. Crazy how that works, eh?

  7. Writing non-fic is way easier than writing fic, but painting a room is way easier than painting a masterpiece on the canvas. So it goes. ;)

  8. JeffO: Well, stories don't start that way for me anymore. That's just where "storytelling" came from for me. In general.

    L.G.: Which reminds me, I was always the one that came up with game-playing scenarios on the playground at school.

    David: Did your scouts stories have bears?

    Sandra: Oh, I wrote poetry during high school. Bad, bad poetry.

    Jean: Retelling movies has never been a thing I've much enjoyed.

    Crystal: That's pretty cool. I used to tell my brother and his friends ghost-ish type stories. I don't remember any of them, though.

    Lexa: I think you have not seen some people try to paint a room.

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