Recently I forced my middle-aged Ukrainian ESL student to play something that is usually brought out as a drinking game in college dorm rooms or as an ice-breaker at Christian youth groups: Two Truths and a Lie.
If you’ve never played this game, the premise is simple: tell two true things about yourself and one lie, and make people guess which is the lie.
Sergiy got the hang of it pretty quickly. It’s all about making up lies that contain enough of the truth to sound plausible.
Funny, that’s what most fiction is, too.
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The other day I was bemoaning the fact that if I rewrite the novel I recently finished to make it more plot-heavy and commercially-viable, it’s going to stray too much from real life. But then I had to remind myself: fiction is not real life. Fiction resembles real-life, but it’s a story: a way to take bits and pieces of the real world and mold them into a structure that makes more sense than our random, crazy lives usually do.
When my friend Jeni was reading my novel and giving me feedback, she said my main character (a nineteen-year-old girl who has just moved to Los Angeles and has some suspiciously-similar qualities to yours truly) seemed way too naïve. She suggested getting rid of the scenes where the girl goes for runs at night in her sketchy Long Beach neighborhood because they made the character seem crazy and stupid – unbelievably so.
But, Jeni, I wanted to object, when I was nineteen and living in L.A., I did go for nighttime walks in my dangerous Long Beach neighborhood. All the time. At nineteen, I was incredibly naïve and crazily stupid. My character is realistic!
Once, for example, a friend and I went under a freeway overpass in Compton to take pictures of gang graffiti for the friend’s school project and ran into a bunch of very weird bums and saw what we were thought was a dead body. (We never did report that to the police, come to think of it.)
Another time, I was walking by myself in the park at night and was approached by a bunch of sketchy dudes who were probably in the Crips, judging form the blue bandannas they were all wearing. I said hello to them, told them no, I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend when they asked me, and then I continued on my merry way. When I got home, I was all giddy and bragged to my roommate: “I talked to some gang members in the park!”
As fascinating (and disturbing) as these anecdotes are, I can’t necessarily use them in my fiction. It’s frustrating, but the old adage is true: fact is stranger than fiction, and can often come across as unbelievable. When writing fiction, you have to write what seems real in the story world you’ve created, and that’s not always the same as the real world.
Take dialogue, for instance. You should never write the way people actually talk, or your dialogue would go something like this: “Ummm, yeah. I don’t know. I mean, it’s sort of like… It’s sort of like I want to, but um, I don’t, I don’t know how exactly. Or something, like maybe… Yeah, no, I don’t really know.”
Yuck. Get rid of those ums and wells and likes unless you want to completely bore your readers. Screenwriter John Trubly has a good quote: “Dialogue is not real talk; it is highly selective language that sounds like it could be real.” There it is again: a lie that contains enough of the truth to be plausible. Good dialogue, he says, “is always more intelligent, wittier, more metaphorical, and better argued than in real life.”
Back when I used to be in creative writing workshops, this would happen all the time: Someone would say to the writer whose story was being critiqued, “I didn’t really believe that your character would do x-y-z,” and the writer would get defensive and say, “but that actually happens all the time! It happened to me!” The writer is bewildered – how can something that has actually happened in real life not be seen as realistic?
The answer is because it’s not believable in the story. The writer has chosen to create a fictional world, with fictional characters, and now the writer has to stay true to the story’s reality and not his or her own.
* * *
I’ll admit, the novel I recently wrote had a lot of autobiographical elements. Not everything, of course — I never had an affair with a movie star. But enough to where I’ve been hanging on to some of the aspects of the novel that don’t work because “they really happened.”
If I want to improve the plot, and the novel itself, I have to remember that it’s fiction. It’s a story. I need to separate myself a bit more from the main character and tell her story, not my own realities. It will be a lie – all fiction is a lie – but it will contain enough of the truth to seem real, and through this carefully-crafted lie, I will hopefully reveal some truths about real life.
Eva’s Two Truths and a Lie: Hollywood version
1. When I talked to Sarah Jessica Parker on a movie set, I told her I was sweating like a pig.
2. When I talked to the youngest Hansen brother on a movie set, I told him I loved “MMMBop.”
3. I once had a speaking part on a TV pilot, and my line was “that guy’s hot.”
Answer in next week’s blog post!