Fiction Must Tell the Truth
by Jim Denney
“The secret of good writing is telling the truth.”— Gordon Lish
In February 2015, National Public Radio’s ombudsman confirmed that a bestselling biography — American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy by C. David Heymann — was riddled with falsehood and made-up dialogue. It was an embarrassment for the radio network because NPR Books had highly recommended American Legacy as a work of authentic, trustworthy historical fact. There are indications that portions of Heymann’s other bestselling biographies may have been fabricated as well, despite being vetted and praised by reviewers at The New York Times and The New Yorker. Unfortunately, lying is all too easy in nonfiction.
Once, when I was working with a nonfiction author, I deleted an anecdote from the manuscript because I knew the anecdote was untrue, an urban myth. I inserted a comment, explaining why I had made the deletion. Reading through a later draft, I saw that the author had restored the passage I had deleted. I emailed the author and again pointed out that the story was untrue. The author emailed back, “It’s okay as is.” The author had overruled me and knowingly included a falsehood as fact. I made sure my name wouldn’t appear on the book, and never worked with that author again.
Deception is commonplace in nonfiction. Nonfiction writers (and even respected journalists like NBC’s Brian Williams) can lie and get away with it for years. But fiction only works when it rings true. If a story, novel, or play sounds a false note in the reader’s ear, if the characters’ actions seem contrived, if the plot seems forced or artificial, readers will instantly know it. Force your characters to spout your propaganda, and readers will see exactly what you’re doing — and resent it.
As Susan Sontag observes, “The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.” In fact, one of the highest duties of a fiction writer is to fight lies with truth in fictional form. George Orwell put it this way: “When I write, I do not say, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write because there is some lie that I want to expose.”
The most honest, powerful, and compelling story is that which arises from the author’s unconscious mind. The unconscious is the source of dreams and imagination — and the unconscious does not lie. The writer who taps into the creative power of the unconscious will write stories that are convincing and universally true. As Carolyn Chute observed, “Writing is like meditation or going into an ESP trance, or prayer. Like dreaming. You are tapping into your unconscious.”
Readers experience our stories not only with their conscious intellect but with the unconscious mind. The reader’s unconscious knows when the story does not ring true. When the writer brings forth the truthful dreams of the unconscious, and the reader enters into the writer’s dreams, the writer and reader dream together. They share a resonance like two tuning forks vibrating to the same pitch. They share a deep and universal human truth.
Sometimes fiction springs forth full-blown from the unconscious, through the writer’s dreams. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an expanded retelling of a nightmare Stevenson suffered one night. He dreamed about a man who “was being pressed into a cabinet, when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being. … Before I went again to sleep almost every detail of the story, as it stands, was clear to me. Of course, writing it was another thing.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came about in much the same way, a horror novel born from a nightmare.
Neither Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nor Frankenstein are factually true. But they are powerful, compelling tales that touch the innermost truths within us — our fear of death, our fear of losing control of our identity, our fear of the randomness of fate. Only by unlocking and unleashing the truths buried in our unconscious minds do we truly become conscious of what is universally true inside us all.
The fiction writer who writes freely, drawing from the deep well of the unconscious, brings forth these hidden inner truths and crystallizes them on the page. Why does great fiction work? It works because fiction must tell the truth.
“Once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.”
— Anton Chekhov
Do you tap into your unconscious thoughts to find the lie and bring it to life?
 Anne Johnson, “Correcting An ‘American Legacy,’” NPR Ombudsman, NPR.org, February 11, 2015, http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2015/02/11/354642869/correcting-an-american-legacy.
 Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2nd Ed., Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2005), 14.
Jim Denney is a freelance writer with more than 60 published books. He has been writing full-time since 1989, and has authored fiction and nonfiction for both adults and children. Jim is the author of Answers to Satisfy the Soul and the Timebenders science-fiction series for middle graders (ages 9 to 12). He has written several books for writers, Quit Your Day Job and Write For a Living: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money As a Writer, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly, and Write Fearlessly: Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence.
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