What to Watch Out For When You’re Writing Fiction Based on True Events

By Katrin Schumann

Even if you’re writing fantasy, creating an invented world that readers can believe in—and be moved by—is our #1 one priority as fiction writers. 

Have you ever had someone read your work and say, “I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem that plausible to me…” when you’ve written about something that really took place? As a criticism, that can be amazingly frustrating: How on earth can something seem unrealistic when it actually happened?

Here’s the crux: It’s not the plot that is the problem, it’s how you’ve conveyed the facts.

I know because I’ve been there. I’ve written a book based on a grueling experience that shook me to my core. It’s hard for me to even conceive of readers not being as moved by the story as I am. Yet at one point in the editing process, one astute editor remarked casually, “Hmmm, would this really happen? I doubt it.”

That comment stuck with me for months. My first reaction was defensive. Yes, it could really happen, because it did really happen. But then, as invariably happens with great advice, the kernel of truth at the core of the comment began to gnaw away at me. If readers couldn't believe the story, then I hadn't done my job as a writer. It was as simple as that.

As far as what to do to fix the plausibility problem, author Alyce Miller identifies six pitfalls in her essay, Why True-Life Stories Often Don’t Make Good Fiction. It’s helpful to consider these because then we can take steps to shape our narrative and our characters in such a way as to breathe life into a story that resonates deeply with us, but may fall short on the page.

In summary, those pitfalls are when we:

1)    are either too close or too distant from the “real” story. “With too much distance, you may not know enough to flesh out your story beyond anecdote; with too little distance, your familiarity might get in your way as you assume your reader will automatically feel the same way as you do about the material,” Miller writes.

2)    let the real life plot drive the story forward rather than exploring alternative routes

3)    neglect character development

4)    try to explain why everything happened the way it did—thereby overlooking ambiguity, irony and understatement

5)    limit the potential of the writing because we already know where the story is going

6)    fail to include convincing details that give the story texture

Has this happened to you? What do you think can be done to make the real seem plausible in fiction? Are there books you’ve read that are based on real life stories that ring false—or the other way around?

Katrin Schumann co-facilitates GrubStreet's Launch Lab program, designed to help new authors develop sustainable, individualized marketing plans for their books and their careers. Get more information here

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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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