Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why your fiction should transcend life? Author Jody Hedlund explains

I "met" author Jody Hedlund on Twitter where she posts writing tips and links to posts full of common sense, quiet encouragement and insight. Then one day I saw a #WriteTip from her: "Fiction shouldn't imitate life, but transcend it."

A total light-bulb moment.

I'd heard the idea before, but never quite put like that. And I loved it. I wanted her to expound on it. Fortunately for us, she agreed to do a guest post at Romance Magicians. It's my pleasure to present Jody.

3 Tips For Making Fiction Transcend Real Life

Many fiction writers like to base their stories to some degree on real life—things that personally happened to them, news articles, crime stories, real people, or past events. We draw inspiration from many sources and pull them together for our stories. That’s only natural.

In fact, my first two published books are based on real heroic women of the past. The Preacher’s Bride (2010 Bethany House Publisher) is set in 1650’s England and is inspired by Elizabeth Bunyan, the wife of the prolific writer John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.

My second book, The Doctor’s Lady (2011 Bethany House Publisher), is set in 1830’s America and is inspired by Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel overland across the United States to reach Oregon. If you were to travel to South Pass Wyoming today, you’d find a monument there in her honor.

I’m the queen of using real people and events. I love it. I thrive on it.
But there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of reading and writing . . . fiction cannot imitate real life; it must transcend it.

That means while we can draw inspiration for our stories from real life, we have to make them bigger, better, more entertaining, more alive, and more vibrant than everyday occurrences.

Let’s face it, most of life is pretty ordinary, even dull. If we were to translate exactly what happens into our stories, we’d likely end up with a boring book. Even the most fascinating and bizarre real life events are often drawn out, too detailed (or too simple), lacking enough fiber and force, or just not exciting enough.

We can use the true details as a springboard, but then we need to push them off the ground into a new realm. Here are three tips I use in taking my fiction to a level above real life:

1. Use what’s true as a framework, then let our imagination fill in the rest.

Since I’m basing my stories on real people, I like to stick as closely as possibly to the true events and details of their lives. But I can’t possibly create an entertaining story if I stick ONLY with what’s known. Real life just doesn’t provide all of the necessary ingredients for a page-turning novel.

So while we can start with a foundation of truth and build a framework around some of the events that happened, we’ll usually have to invent greater conflict, more tension, and bigger than life characters.

In my books, I have to create more problems and obstacles than the real characters had. I leave out some of the dull, inconsequential parts of their lives. And other times I have to manipulate events to fit the story I’m creating. Because of that, I change the names of the characters within my books and in the author’s note explain that my story is “inspired by” real people. I fill readers in on what really happened and also what I invented.

2. Don’t overlook the believability factor.

In taking stories to the “entertainment” level, motivations must also still be grounded on a logical, progressive, “this-could-really-happen” foundation, even if it’s in a galaxy far-far away.

Usually we can keep heaping problem after problem upon our characters, and our readers won’t stop and question the believability of it. Readers expect bad things to happen. They look forward to the conflict and tension escalating until we finally bring everything to a climax.

But . . . readers won’t accept one good thing after another happening to our characters (the same way they accept the negative). Our stories will feel contrived if we include too many miracles, too many escapes, too much good luck. Readers don’t want our stories to be tied up too neatly.

3. How far is too far in embellishing a story?

There are many writers who adamantly advocate accuracy of detail in our books, especially when we’re basing our stories on real life people or events.

Yes, we should all strive to be accurate with terminology, historical details, etc. For example, as a historical writer I should know that the term “okay” wasn’t used in the 1600’s and therefore should exclude it from my dialog. That’s why all of us, no matter our genre, can benefit from doing thorough research.

However, I don’t think there are very many real life stories (including memoirs) that can be told strictly as happened. Hollywood has already figured that out. They always have to change things to make the story more riveting and entertaining. And if we want readers to enjoy our stories, we will too.

My Summary: Remember, a story isn’t so much about WHAT you tell, but HOW you tell it.

What do you think? Have you been keeping your stories too close to real life? Or are you working on making them transcend reality?
©Jody Hedlund, 2011


Jody Hedlund is an award-winning historical romance novelist and author of the best-selling book, The Preacher's Bride, 2010. She received a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Michigan with her husband and five busy children. Her next book, The Doctor’s Lady releases in September 2011.

You can find more of her two-cent writerly-wisdom on her blog.


Callie James said...

Wonderful blog, Jody. Thanks so much!

Stacy said...

Great post, Jody! Something we all need to consider, no matter our genres.

Olivia Newport said...

I'm working on a project that jumps off fragments of information about my own ancestors who came to Philadelphia in 1737. I know some fixed events. I know something of the cultural and religious climate of Pennsylvania. From there, imagination takes over. I think of it as "imagining to life." It's been fun to do it with characters I'm related to.

Keli Gwyn said...

Jody, I liked your point about being to heap tough stuff on our characters and having readers accept the unrealistic number of negatives as opposed to filling our stories with an abundance of good things happening to our characters. The first makes for a compelling read, the second a boring one.

Misty Dietz said...

Excellent post! I hope you guys don't mind, I quoted two of Jody's lines and put a link back to your blog on my own. Thanks!

Lexi said...

Interesting points, Jody and a difficult balance to acheive!

Jody Hedlund said...

Hey everyone!! Thanks for having me today here on Romance Magicians! It's great to see some familiar faces as well as some new ones!

And Misty, I absolutely don't mind you quoting me at all! Glad the post got you thinking! :-)

Rashda said...

Thanks y'all for giving our guest, Jody, such a warm welcome!

Natalia Sylvester said...

Such great points here. I love how you said "Real life just doesn’t provide all of the necessary ingredients for a page-turning novel."

I'm sure plenty of people who had extraordinary lives, and whose lives would make great stories, still had mundane moments. A writer's job is to be true to the story, not necessarily true to real life and the boring stuff in between ;)

Jacqvern said...

Very interesting post and very true :) Thank you Jody :)

Victoria Dixon said...

Wonderful post, Jody. Thanks! I learned this the hard way after my first draft, but it's always good to re-read these things and remember to avoid temptation. It may seem like the easy way out to just say, "But it really happened that way!" After you've faced enough critique criticisms, rejections and the inevitable rewrite, the astute writer will realize it wasn't so easy after all.

Jen J. Danna said...

Wonderful advice as always, Jody. You've included some great tips for someone like me who often does use reality to kick off her stories. Thanks!

Carla Swafford said...

Great insight, Jody.

Mallory Snow said...

My writers group just gave me so much heat for not putting my characters in enough conflict so your post is very timely! Thank you for the tips!

Cara Lopez Lee said...

My historical novel is loosely based on real people and events. And wow, do I mean loosely, as I, too, do what you've described! The obstacles my characters face are things that happened to real people, but not all to the same family. I remember a speaker at the San Francisco Writers conference advising novelists to keep asking, "How can I make it worse?" It was pretty funny, but I love that question. In a novel, anything can happen, so long as it follows the rules of the world you've created... so why not let imagination fly? That's what makes reading exciting.

Gwen Hernandez said...

Great tips, Jody! Rashda, thanks for inviting Jody to the blog. =)