The Boneyard: Don’t Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

Photo courtesy of  heyrocc

Photo courtesy of heyrocc

By Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy

Sean: Okay, so last night I attempted to read—for the second time—a book that we received some time ago. 

The book hasn't been released so I don’t want to name it, but it’s a detective novel. The writer is a former police officer. The first time, I stopped reading three chapters in because it was boring. The writer spent too much time trying to make it feel real that it slowed everything down. It happened again this time around. The author would slow the story down to give some little fact about this or that. 

Now, with these types of stories you have to put in details but when is it too much? When should a writer stop trying to get in all the facts and just tell the story?

Daniel: Man, I'm glad you brought this up. I just finished a book that comes out in June and it is awful. Poor dialogue, wimpy plot, caricatures instead of characters. I plowed through it because I hate not finishing a book I start, but I threw it right in the trash when I was done. I chalked it up as a lesson in how not to do things and I'm moving on.

Anyway, I think if you're going to overload people with facts, write a nonfiction narrative or just a straight nonfiction account. The rules are essentially limitless, so why do writers hem themselves into plot devices and narration that don't move readers? 

Take the movie "Spotlight." Are all the details factually correct? No, of course not. Journalism, when done right, can be monotonous to an outsider. I heard Ann Hornaday, a movie critic who writes for The Washington Post, say on a podcast a couple weeks ago that some of the scenes featuring confrontations on the golf course or at parties were actually done through email. Does that make the movie any less authentic? No. The whole point of fiction is that you get to stretch beyond the bounds of reality. You can do that without losing the essence of the story. 

Also consider Dimitry Elias Leger's God Loves Haiti. He tells a spirited, haunted love story in the middle of the Haitian earthquake in 2010. He doesn't dwell on Richter scale readings or news reports. He uses the facts to build his own world, one that explores the themes unleashed after the earthquake in a way that relates to readers. 

People who read fiction want the authenticity of feeling and emotion, and don't necessarily care that facts have been stretched or tweaked.

Sean: Good example with “Spotlight.” You could say the same for “Bridge of Spies.” Was the film 100 percent spot on? No, not at all. Chunks of dialogue were taken from documents and things like the exchange and sneaking people out happen but not like it did in the movie. 

I like to look at Stephen J. Cannell's work. The man was known for his research. He would spend months researching people, topics, and fields for a single book or television show. But he knew how to inject that into his work without slowing it down. He knew that you shouldn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. 

If you are a good cop, it does not mean you’ll be a good writer. I tend to find that they get bogged down in details that the readers do not care for.

Daniel: Right. You have to know the facts, but also know when to ignore them. Creating a mood or a deep character is much more important than, say, explaining exactly how a suspect gets booked or what streets cops actually police. 

"The Wire" is probably another good example of doing it the right way. Fiction's job isn't to inform using facts and details, it's to inform with passion and emotion.

Sean: Yes! I completely agree. 

“The Danish Girl,” which was a big award-winner this year, tells this "true" story about a male artist who wants to become a woman in the early 1900s. Everyone loved it. It was not a real story. The film was based on a novel, which was based off a true story. But the film and novel captured the passion and emotion of the real people but put it into a fictional setting.

Daniel: "Steve Jobs" is another excellent example. All of Jobs's life didn't happen before product launches. However, I was impressed by Aaron Sorkin's screenplay. He illuminated Jobs's entire life in a structure that would make an excellent play. I walked away feeling like I knew a little more about Jobs without caring if every detail was correct. And after reading the biography, I think Sorkin captured the man and all his faults in three acts.

Sean: "Ray," the Jamie Foxx movie, did the same. It captured the man, how witty and driven he was, but also all his faults. 

I want the facts and what to know how those facts impact a character but I don't want them to slow down the story.

Daniel: I live by three commandments when it comes to writing: 

  1. Be honest
  2. Be human
  3. Don't be boring

Facts can throw up roadblocks for all three. We're storytellers, and storytellers shouldn't be afraid to deviate from facts in order to uncover larger truths about the human experience. Move people with your dialogue and characters; don't bore them with lists and procedures. Readers get enough of that at work!

Sean: You are like Frank Ryan in Swag. You got your rules and you live by them. I like that.

But those are good rules and should be the cornerstones of any storytelling. Like Raymond Chandler said, "Every ten pages have a man with a gun." We need to keep the readers invested and interested without making them work.

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