By Kasie Whitener
My stories are always true and always fiction:
· My friend’s high school sweetheart died in Afghanistan.
· Thick sexual tension hung between me and the tattoo artist when I went for my cover up.
· A derecho racked the resort at Wintergreen, ripping branches out of trees, one of which landed on a car.
I take that real thing that happened and fictionalize it for the story. Real life is messy and funny and sad and frustrating and it rarely fits inside 3000 words. In stories, real life is confined to a bounded space.
When fictionalizing real stories, ask yourself these five questions:
What is the most important moment?
Is it when someone discovers he’s been cuckolded or when his wife confesses? Isolate the most important moment of the series of events and then magnify it for the story. In the best stories, the author has magnified a moment that is unexpectedly poignant.
Richard Ford’s “Grand Central” focuses on two men, the husband and the lover, becoming aware of one another’s presence in a crowded place. The lover’s choice of whether to approach the husband is the drama of the story.
What are the stakes?
Find a pivot point. After that moment, the character’s life will go off into one of several possible trajectories. Even if the moment is small, like deciding to ignore a painful truth, that choice will impact the character’s life.
Why does this story need to be told?
I’m always encouraging my friend, Jodie Cain Smith, to write down the stories she tells. They are funny, unbelievable, and so beautifully told; it’s her gift. There are plenty of decent stories and then there are those that MUST be told.
When you fictionalize a real event, ask yourself why this story needs to be told? The answer to that question creates the sense of urgency that pulls readers in at the title and through the final punctuation.
Which character should tell the story?
Even if the story is in third person, it must have a central storyteller. That person can be witnessing the main conflict, experiencing the main conflict, or causing that main conflict.
Think of selecting a perspective like a film technique: putting the camera on each character’s shoulder to see what he or she sees. Which viewpoint is the most compelling?
In “Choose Life,” I deliberately chose the character who only witnessed the tragic loss of an ex-boyfriend, not the woman who actually lost him. I wanted the distance that creates perspective and grief would cloud that.
Where can you use creative license to make the story more compelling?
Anne Lamott said: tell your stories; if people wanted you to say nice things about them, they should have behaved better. The life you have led should be the trunk from which you pull your stories. Fictionalize them to make them compelling, more interesting, even more useful.
Real life is boring but the stories we write about it remind us of what it means to be human.