Every day, I tell stories, read stories, talk about stories, think about stories, obsess over stories, dream about stories. Every day, I ask questions about stories, like,
What meaning does this story generate? What’s the impact on me?
But what I want to talk about today are the questions I make a point never to ask:
Is this a true story? Is this based on a true story? Is this autobiographical?
In fact, I bristle when I hear someone ask these questions. I bristle when a storyteller prefaces or follows a story with, “Oh yeah, this is based on a true story. It really happened,” even when it’s blatantly obvious.
The funny thing is that I myself draw from historical events and personal experience to write fiction. Not only that, I help others draw from these sources to do the same. So why do I dislike questions about whether a story is “true,” or not?
Here, I investigate this topic and arrive at a few answers:
What is a “true story,” anyway?
To be clear, I am excluding memoirs from this discussion; those are a special case for a separate post. I’m also excluding non-fiction books that use anecdotes to make a point about the topic at hand. The stories I’m referring to in this discussion are self-contained creative narratives, like a short story, flash fiction, or a novel.
The way I see it, there are two main ways to define “true story”:
- a story about events that happened in real life
- a story that conveys TRUTH with a capital T, about events real or imaginary.
Let’s just say that people who ask “Is this a true story?” are referring to No. 1, events that happened in real life. I will also hazard to suggest that the purpose behind the question is to assign value to a story based on where it lies along the FICTION-FACT spectrum. As in,
- Person A) “The story is NOT true, and therefore FICTION, and has little value other than entertainment.”
- Person B) “The story IS true, and therefore not ORIGINAL enough to be considered creative.”
- Person C) “This story is SO off-the-wall, that the writer has to be pretty crazy him/herself to have written it … either that or on drugs.”
Person A is virtually impossible to indoctrinate when it comes to valuing works of fiction and the characters therein. Believe me, I’ve tried.
To Person B, though, I might suggest that even the act of arranging narrative elements and (de)emphasizing details when reporting FACTS and ACTUAL EVENTS is a creative act that reflects the storyteller’s unique worldview. Don’t believe me? Consult any two mainstream news sources and compare.
And to Person C, I would say, Don’t place limits on human creativity. Some of the most sane people, by virtue of their sanity and sobriety, can conceive of narratives that are out of this world.
So, why do I hate these questions?
It’s possible I’m just an ornery weirdo. Or worse, a control freak who likes to regulate the kinds of questions people get to ask or the labels we put on things. But the further I go with this investigation, the more distaste I feel for “Is this a true story?” questions. I’ve come up with a few reasons why:
- Qualifying a story as “true/factual/based on real life” or otherwise diffuses the story’s power as a work of art. I like for stories to speak for themselves, so that they make the maximum impact on the intended audience.
- There are more important aspects of story that we need to consider, like whether, I don’t know, the story has been told skillfully, what message the story conveys, what impressions it leaves us with.
- Asking the storyteller these questions could be invasive. Like, “Crazy story you just told/wrote. Did this really happen to you?” For example, on one occasion, I shared with a group a short piece I wrote. The piece drew from a recent interaction with my parents, but it was NOT autobiographical and its characters included an unnamed “daughter,” “father,” and “mother.” At the end, someone said, “Wow, it seems like you have a close relationship with your folks.” And I remember feeling that the whole point of the story was missed. It wasn’t a story about ME and my personal business. It was a story about identity and the passing of time.
True, truer, truest
When it comes to stories that convey TRUTH with a capital T, about events real or imaginary, this is where I start to perk up. I love questions along these lines and can discuss them all day long. Why? Because truth with a capital T is what every human searches for, whether we admit it or not. And stories, the GOOD ones anyway, tap into this universal longing.
Arriving at one single truth we can all agree on is beside the point, as far as storytelling is concerned. The attempt is all. In fact, craft is all.
And I’d like to take this opportunity to offer encouragement to beginner storytellers who are at this moment exploring ideas for a novel, short story, memoir, or screenplay. It’s imperative to learn what a story is, what elements it consists of, how those elements fit together.
Whatever source you draw from to tell stories–whether it’s that thing that happened when you were a kid, that thing you learned from a history book, or that thing an ancient Greek muse whispered into your ear, I say fine by me.
Seriously, y’all, reach out to me. I’ll be honored to read whatever you write, or view it or listen to it, depending on your medium. I’ll give you my very best feedback, designed to help you reach your full potential. I’ll never ask you if the story is true. I’ll be too busy focusing on your act of creation to care.