Say it Isn’t So! Truth in Creative Writing

As often is the case, a raging argument in an open forum has fueled the thought behind this article.  A very outspoken member of an adult entertainment site has brought up an intriguing question.  “If a story is labeled as ‘true,’ did the author label it as such because he/she wanted the reader to believe that it was actually a true story?”

Readers, of course, will automatically tell you the answer to this question is “yes.”  As readers, people expect that when something is labeled as ‘true’ then it will be 100% true.  Whether what they are reading is for entertainment as in a novel, a newspaper article, an encyclopedia, or a history book, readers expect that every single word, event, and opinion written will be nothing but the truth.

As writers, we often see this view as being a bit naive on the reader’s part.  Of course, the reason why we think this way is because as writers, we know that not every single word written, even in nonfiction, will be  100% truth.  This is because truth is subjective to whoever is telling the story.  Take for instance the American Revolutionary War.  While certain parts of the story will remain true regardless (such as dates, places, and people), other parts of the story are subjective depending on whose point of view the story is being told from.  The retelling of the history of the American Revolutionary War will differ greatly from the point of view of the British as compared to that of the Americans.  Likewise, the story will be different between classes of Americans. 

Consider a news article in a local paper.  Journalists decide which events to include in an article, how much information to include, which names to keep and which items have no merit on the subject at hand.  What results is NOT the entire truth from all sides, yet the article is considered to be 100% true.  The point is that truth is not always 100% true.

As writers, we already know this.  We know that writers embellish, even when writing about ‘true’ events.  Moreover, writers know a good marketing ploy when they come across one.  Writers will often have novels and stories labeled/marketed as ‘true’ events or ‘based on true’ events or people, even when a large portion of the story has been fabricated.  We do it for shock value.  A novel about a murder mystery is interesting, but thanks to the animalistic part of our human nature, a murder mystery based on true events intrigues us as a fictional story never could.  It will get more reads, sell more books, and get more publicity than its fictional counterpart.  It is a marketing ruse that has been used for decades. 

Unfortunately, as simplistic as it is, readers just simply do not understand the use of this in the literary world.  They expect that anything labeled as ‘true’ should be true down to the last word on the page.  Even more importantly, they not only expect it, but they believe wholeheartedly that it is the truth.  And the backlash for discovering that an author lied to them can be huge.

This begs the question of whether or not authors should label a story as ‘true’ if even the smallest part of it has been fabricated or embellished.  That will ultimately be the decision of the author and the story in question.  As I have pointed out, even nonfiction books are not completely, 100% truth.  As far as the literary world is concerned, some true stories will be categorized as fiction while others will fit in the nonfiction category. 

A fellow forum member made an interesting point.  Whenever someone reads a ‘true’ story, they make common sense decisions about that story.  One reader will read a story labeled as ‘true’ and believe every single word of it.  Another reader will read the same story and think, “That’s a crock of shit!  Half of that isn’t even true!” 

Interestingly enough, the literary world does not consider all nonfiction works to be true.  Also, there is a branch of fiction, called semi-fiction, that “based on a true story” themes go into.  So even “true” stories are not considered full on actual fact.

The original question behind this article was ” If a story is labeled as ‘true,’ did the author label it as such because he/she wanted the reader to believe that it was actually a true story?”  Since some readers will think a story is true while others will know better, I think that asking this single question is like taking a post out of context.  The real argument would be “Are all true stories really 100% true?  If an author labels a story as ‘true,’ does that author want the reader to believe that it really happened?  So are all stories labeled as ‘true’ really 100% true?”

If asked “Are all true stories really 100% true?,”  99% of readers will say, “No!”  That’s because we have all heard someone start a story off by telling us, “Now this really happened!”  and then proceed to tell us some story that they read or heard elsewhere.  In this context, we usually think to ourselves, “Sure it is.”  And usually after hearing the story, we decide that a good portion of the story did not actually happen the way it was recounted.  This same principle applies to writing.  Just because it is written down and the author labels a book as “This is a true story” does not make it is any more true than an oral recount heard from your best friend. 

When taking in the entire argument, the original question is meaningless without the other two questions.  And by asking all 3 questions together, it helps readers to make the connection that no, not all stories labeled as ‘true’ are going to be true anymore than someone telling you a story is true is going to make it true.  It also helps them to realize that authors do not label stories to proclaim them as truth, but to make the readers believe that it could happen in some form at some time to some person.  Because if writers can make their readers really think that they are a serial killer living their life out in secret in Montana, then not only does the writer deserve commendation, but the readers who believed it deserve to be considered a bunch of naive, uneducated, nitwits.


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