Just because it happened doesn’t make it a story

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Based on a true story. The relentless lure toward so many movies. Film is an art form where the story’s structure is tantamount to bedrock. But veracity, the truth of reality, is a flimsy foundation for good writing.

A recent book arrival in my library, So You Want to Write, speaks to this. I’ve seen writing that wants to be compelling by being complete. A thorough accounting is the bedrock of this writing. That approach can be a mistake. Marge Piercy and Ira Wood, both novelists and authors of this book, explain.

For those who choose to fictionalize their life’s adventures… even a life full of incident however close to the truth, need to know something about plotting. Plot is the element of fiction most often in disrepute.

Not so for some readers. My beloved wife, an avid mystery reader whose tastes also run to non-genre literature, is my plot guru. She draws my eye to an element that “you dispense with at your own risk.” And a severe risk, too, especially in the view of Robert McKee in his screenwriting structure book Story.

But plot structure makes a life full of incident into a story we are hungry to read. Plot needs a spark, though. The characters’ inner lives are what makes writing sing a memorable tune. And characters, dreamed up and lived in your imagination, can lead to a fundamental plot, much better than Based on a True Story.

One basic plot is The Quest… the main character wants something and sets out to get it. What does your main character yearn for?

Yearning is essential to the practices of Robert Olen Butler’s Writing from Where You Dream. Yearning is a wonderful word to write next to your monitor or tape up next to your notebook while you create characters, people whose inner lives are a story’s bedrock. What is your character yearning for during your story? Even a True Story needs yearning.

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