Every so often, a student attempts to validate an implausible storyline on the grounds that it really happened. I’ll suggest that it might be a good idea to provide the asthmatic ex-nun, who becomes a feathered-fan dancer, with convincing motivation, the author says, ‘Yeah but…’, and I sigh, knowing what’s coming, ‘…my Auntie Vera really did that.’
The truth is no defence. Unless your story’s USP is that it’s based on true events, like a biographical made-for-TV movie, then truth is irrelevant. Real life has loose ends, non-sequiturs, unresolved plot points, uninteresting characters just as often as it has amazing turns of event, ironic reversals, fascinating people. Real life meanders on until we die; it may not have much romantic interest or poetic justice; it may lack surprising twists and a satisfying ending.
Of course, all writers pick through their life experiences (and those of friends, family, complete strangers) for material, like Burke and Hare in a plague pit. We select scraps and fashion them into a meaningful whole. Evelyn Waugh put it eloquently in a 1930 Daily Mail interview: “One does not just sit behind a screen jotting down other people’s conversation. One has for one’s raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish-heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scrapping and delving until one finds a few discarded valuables. Then one has to assemble these tarnished and dented fragments, polish them and set them in order, and try to make a coherent and significant arrangement of them. It is not merely a matter of filling up a dust-bin haphazard and emptying it out again in another place.” (Wouldn’t you hate to be the person who said, ‘So, Evelyn, for this novel writing lark, you just do a bit of eaves-dropping then scribble it all down?’)
Our job as writers is to create an artistic representation of life that is more resonant and satisfying than real life. The truth can get in the way of this. I recall a belligerent ex-army man who came once to my Adult Education class, smelling of Scotch and demanding help with a script about the 1976 raid on Entebbe. I tentatively suggested that, as it was 2002 and Irvin Kershner had made the movie in 1977, he should use his military experience to set a story in a more current war zone. Rather cross (which is never a good thing in a man who likes a wee dram and may still have a service revolver) he shoved the script at me. I read it and, with some relief, said, ‘Oh I do like the bit with the tank going through the jungle. Very tense.’ ‘Pah!’ he snarled in disgust, ‘Some daft wee lassie from a TV company wrote that. She did nae even say it was a FV 4201 Chieftain with a Barr and Stroud LF-2 laser rangefinder ranging gun!’ Which rather proves my point – the truth doesn’t always work.