Fiction that coincides with real events; using clichés
Published: June 19, 2007
|I wrote a scene that was supposed to be the action highlight of my novel. Then it actually happened in real life and hit the headlines. Should I leave my scene alone, knowing that I wrote it before someone actually performed a strikingly similar heroic deed? Or should I change it, since readers will undoubtedly believe that I simply copied from the headlines?|
There is a long tradition of fiction drawing inspiration from actual events. Joyce Carol Oates' short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was inspired by an article in Life magazine on the "Pied Piper of Tucson," a serial killer in Arizona who lured teenage girls into his car. Nelson Algren's novel The Devil's Stocking grew out of an article Algren researched and wrote on the controversial trial of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a boxer accused of murder. There's no harm, then, in the fact that your novel's main event is similar to one that happened in real life. The real concern seems to be whether you're OK with the fact that people might think you drew your inspiration from the headlines. And that's something only you can answer.
It's worth noting that fiction that coincides with headlines, whether intentionally or inadvertently, isn't inherently bad. Oates' story and Algren's novel aren't any less evocative because the jumping-off point came from real life. Fiction, after all, is an amalgamation of imagination, observation and experience. Often, story ideas are triggered by compelling moments in real life--an overheard conversation, an unexpected reaction, an intriguing circumstance. Headlines and news events can be excellent triggers; they're just more widely publicized.
Of course, it's important to remember that interesting news events get a lot of play in the media. Talk-show hosts tell jokes at their expense. TV shows stage dramatizations and re-enactments. Magazines run interviews. And you don't want your fiction to seem like just another revisiting of the event. Your story should say something fresh and interesting beyond what has already been well covered. In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Oates fictionalized a great deal, including the creation of the protagonist, Connie, a vain teenager who is temporarily fooled by Arnold's attempts to seem young and cool, so as to lure her into his car. In The Devil's Stockings, Algren knew fictionalizing would give him more room to tell Carter's story as he envisioned it. He imagined his way into Carter's experience by creating the fictional boxer Ruby Calhoun and, as a result, the book is more about a struggle against injustice than the controversial elements of the trial. He also invented a sparring partner and was able to bring in his own knowledge about human nature, boxing and gambling.
Since you've already invented the character and action, your novel is probably already quite different from actual events. If you've built a solid character and a strong series of actions, then the novel isn't just about that one heroic moment. It is about the choices your character makes that lead up to and follow that moment. The events of a story are certainly important, but fiction digs beyond simply what happens, to unearth why it happens.
How do I know if something is a cliché?
George Orwell described clichés as those images, concepts or phrases that have "lost force." Most clichés probably started off as fresh and exciting but have lost their energy over repeated use. For example:
He was tall, dark, and handsome.
Her heart skipped a beat.
She worked like a dog.
We've all heard these phrases before and understand what they mean. But they don't evoke an interesting image or a compelling emotion. In fact, images probably don't arise at all. We don't picture a dog straining while engaged in activity at the phrase "worked like a dog." Because it is so familiar, we jump straight to what it means: She worked very hard.
Clichés are not our own words. Someone else came up with that combination of words. We use them as an easy way to express a sentiment. But creative writing isn't about finding the easy way. It's about precision. So, if you've heard it before, it's a cliché and best avoided.
One noteworthy exception is dialogue. Since clichés abound in real-life speech, including them in a character's dialogue can add authenticity or help to characterize.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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