Monday, September 06, 2010

The Facts of Fiction and Facts

By Bryan Gruley

Because I’m a long-time newspaper guy, people often ask me if writing facts is all that different than writing stuff I made up.

Yes, I say. Then I think about it some more and say: maybe not that much.

Some of my smart-ass newspaper sources will insist I’ve been writing fiction for years. But I couldn’t have made up some of the true stories I’ve reported and written: A man strangles a deer with his bare hands. Another guy goes undercover to catch karaoke jockeys who use counterfeit discs.

Writing non-fiction works like this: You assemble a big, lumpy pile of clay out of interviews, documents, observations, and whatever else you can scrounge in however much time you have to report a given story. Then you hack and carve and whittle the pile down to its essentials. What remains is your story.

Writing fiction is no different insofar as you’re also amassing a pile of clay for sculpting. But that mound is constrained only by your imagination and your memory, by everything you’ve ever seen, heard, read, tasted, touched, smelled, dreamed, or just stumbled upon. That can be a pretty big mound. The carving can be a bit more complicated.

In either case, you have to figure out what happened before you can render it properly as a tale. In either case, that’s a journey of discovery, whether you’re wheedling documents out of a reluctant attorney or conjuring the scene of a strip-club magnate expostulating on the meaning of capitalism.

The key difference—at least for me—is in how I take those journeys.

The journalistic one involves shoe-leather reporting, plain and simple. The novelistic one is about sitting down and writing. I do a little traditional research for my novels, but my day job (that journalism thing again) limits my time for it. Most of my “reporting”—the figuring out of what happened—occurs on early mornings with my hands on the keyboard of my laptop.

The months I spend writing the first draft is the equivalent of the weeks I might spend reporting a complex newspaper story. Sometimes I pretend that, instead of imagining what Gus Carpenter did the night his team lost the state hockey championship, I am remembering it.

After that, it’s all about cutting, shifting, adding, revising, trimming, enhancing--my favorite part, actually, because the hard stuff is behind me. I know what happened. I just have to figure out how best to get the reader into the room and keep her there—and that’s no different whether you’re giving people the facts or making them up. Either way, if you do your job well, you might even approach truth. And either way, you'll probably have fun.

I'd love to hear from others what they think about the difference between writing fact or fiction, even if they don't write one or the other.

20 comments:

Sarah W said...

Maybe good non-fiction is supported by primary sources, while good fiction is supported by primary truths?

A.J. said...

I think the biggest challenge of writing fiction is making it interesting.

The non-fiction story relies on built-in interest and the writer rarely has to worry about such things as suspense, tension and so on--all these are not essential to, say, a story about problems with drug trials or corruption at city hall. Such stories are interesting at face value. Also no one questions the believability of such a story.

But write a novel about problems with a drug trial and you have to make that story interesting by creating suspense, which implies a great deal of thinking about what to present and when. You also have to worry about readers identifying with your protagonist, about believability and so on. I think these issues are less prominent in a non-fiction account. Though, I have to admit, some creative non-fiction does use the tools of the fiction writer's trade.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Non-fiction is much harder--all those pesky facts you have to keep straight.

Either way, though, you have to have a story--something has to happen. And it has to involve someone or something people care about.

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