You’re in a darkened theater, watching the interminable trailers, with fiery crashes, explosions, quick cuts, and music welling up like to bust your eardrums, and there it is:
BASED ON A TRUE STORY
And maybe you ask yourself, What does that mean?
Good question. I say, Not a damned thing.
All you fiction writers out there, tell me, have you ever written anything that isn’t somehow based on the story of your life? I’m not sure we can ever do otherwise. Never mind the genre, never mind if the characters are all aliens, never mind if it’s a James Bond-type thriller. They are us, they are our families, friends, enemies, and acquaintances. Write what you know is common advice given to writers; I’m saying that, no matter how much research we do, we can’t help but write what we know, or what we think we know.
There are facts, and there are facts. We can look up facts of history, of science, geography, and culture. We can interview people closer to the world we’re writing about than we are. But when we start to imagine our characters lives and their relationships with one another, we are stuck with ourselves, our relationships, and our understanding of our various human selves.
My first published fiction was confession stories, in confession magazines, such as True Romance and Secrets. They present themselves as non-fiction. In Writers’ Digest, however, you will find the titles listed under Fiction. Along with the acceptance letter, I would be given a contract, selling all rights, which would include a clause (paraphrasing here) swearing that the story either happened to me, or happened to someone I know, or was based on interviews with someone I had talked to. The gist of it was, they had to be “based on a true story.” Then, because I had sold the rights, the editors were free to change the stories as they saw fit. (Although they usually did not.) Ultimately, the stories were published anonymously.
Friends would tease me, understanding the stories were fiction, but “wondering” if this bit or that part were about my husband, or perhaps some secret life I had hidden. In spite of their knowing the stories were not true, I believe they somehow felt they ought to be.
When I started writing science fiction and fantasy, all such teasing stopped. It occurred to no one, apparently, that an alien or monster might be drawn from someone I know, that an interplanetary journey might reflect a commute to work, or that a story about a melting reality might reflect my own occasional neuroses. And, indeed, it is dangerous business to psychologize about an author based on his/her work. You will almost certainly get it wrong.
I have such great respect for fiction, for its ability to relay truths about our common, shared humanness. Fiction hits on all cylinders, all levels, in a way unadulterared non-fiction rarely can. Adulterated non-fiction, a true story that has been “enhanced” until it is untrue, often gives itself away by one or two wrong fictional details. Apparently this was the case with the Mike Daisey Apple expose, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The Wall Street Journal reporter who investigated the story had noted the detail about the factory workers sitting around a Starbucks, and talking about their lives. He knew Chinese workers were extremely unlikely to be sitting around a Starbucks. The wrongness of the detail caught his attention, and ironically so, as the bit was more likely than not added to increase verisimilitude, not destroy it. [For excellent posts and commentary on Mike Daisy’s theatrical concept of journalism, take a look at Alec Nevala-Lees’s blog, where he discusses the issue of bent journalism. http://nevalalee.wordpress.com]
In conclusion: I believe to label fiction as “based on a true story” is an insult to the entire field of storytelling, fictional and nonfictional. While all fiction, in my view, is based somehow, some way, on some true interaction within our universe, the entire point of fiction is to rearrange reality in such a way as to point to something true, particularly the elusive, and the difficult to define. The scenes in the story aren’t my scenes, the protagonist is not me, the enemy isn’t one of my real-life antagonists, but the are close enough to identify. The similarities and the differences work together to give me a bigger, more interesting view of my life, my world.
I apologize to anyone who thought the stories in those confession magazines were “true.” The term that might be more apt is “truthiness,” although they preceded Stephen Colbert by many decades. Some people I talked to way back then were surprised to learn the stories were not true-life confessions. The sin-suffer-repent formula of the genre played in beautifully to the shame-saturated society we lived in then. Now fans of that sort of thing can revel in the shameless doings of the “real” housewives. (Also based on a true story, I understand.)