Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach, is said to have begun each season by gathering his players together and holding a football aloft. “Gentleman,” Lombardi liked to say, “this is a football.”
The lesson here: if you want to teach something, even to seasoned pros, start with the basics.
I thought of this story not long ago when I opened a fiction-writing workshop for advanced graduate students by asking a simple question: what is fiction? There followed the painful kind of silence that makes public speakers squirm. I repeated the question, just to prove I meant business.
“Fiction tells a story,” offered one student. “No,” countered another, “fiction is character.” The hand of a particularly shrewd young woman rose into the air. “Narrative fiction,” she said, “is a sequence of events that tells a story about a character.”
Of course, all three students were partly right. Fiction usually features characters taking part in events arranged to tell a story. Unfortunately, so does creative non-fiction. (Further complicating matters is the fact that some poetry contains these elements as well. But that’s another essay.) So what distinguishes fiction from other literary arts? What, at its core, is fiction?
The answer: fiction is a lie. This may seem obvious or even clichéd to experienced fiction writers. But it often hits initiates with the force of revelation. (Consider that staple protest of the fiction writing workshop—“But that’s how it really happened!!”—which proves how easily student writers forget this basic principle.)
It bears repeating: fiction is a lie. The characters (even if they once existed), the events (even historical ones), the locations (even when actual) are all made up. Fiction is deception, plain and simple.
In fact, the entire compact between writer and reader (as Henry James famously observed, in slightly different terms) depends on an improbable arrangement, which can summed up thus: “I am going to tell you a lie. You know that it is going to be a lie. Yet it is going to be so skillfully told—so convincingly rendered, with such nuance and detail—that you will experience an intensity of emotion equal to or greater than if these events had actually taken place.”
Now, fiction is lying of the highest order, a mode of fabrication so complete that, in the hands of a master, it can capture and preserve emotional truths more precisely than almost any other method yet devised by culture. But it’s still a lie.
How can we use this as writers?
Not everyone write fiction. But all of us lie. For anyone interested in learning or teaching the techniques used in writing fiction, it’s useful to consider some of the ways in which fiction, that most sophisticated lie, resembles any other fib.
Like any good lie, fiction is often best when founded on a grain of truth: Many, perhaps most, story ideas come from the real world—an argument overheard in a café, an item plucked from the newspaper, Grandma Gladys’s story of meeting Grandpa Harry on Ellis Island. Any time an anecdote or real-world observation sustains a would-be writer’s interest, it’s a signal that a short story or even a novel might be lurking in seed form. Confecting convincing make-believe from such germs is the fiction writer’s craft.
Lies follow to their own logic, which differs from the logic of fact: While actuality may provide a useful starting point, it can also block a story’s development. Too often beginning fiction writers are hindered by a wish to remain true to their story’s initial inspiration. This is almost always a mistake. Writers, like good fibbers, must ruthlessly adhere to the logic of the fictive web they are spinning. Fidelity to reality (or anything else) has no application in writing a story or a novel beyond creating a believable illusion in the reader’s mind. In short, fact does not always sound convincing. But good fiction must.
A good fib requires just enough detail to convince: Detail is the life-blood of deception. But everyone has seen the comical results when someone over-details a lie. (Does the boss really need to know exactly what procedure is being performed on which molar at what time and in whose office when you play hooky from work?) The lesson: too much of a good thing can ruin the illusion a writer is trying to create. Good fiction writers, like good fibbers, always strive for absolute economy of detail.
Good fibs are well thought-out: Only the most reckless or desperate of liars will fabricate a story as they go along, a method that’s about as effective as knitting a parachute after you've jumped from the plane. Similarly, good fiction is usually carefully planned or at least thoroughly revised. Like good con artists, good fiction writers almost always think up more material than they actually use. Moreover, they show great restraint in deploying this material—not every character history, outlined scene, and location researched makes it into the story. Like economy of detail, economy of material is essential in spinning a believable yarn.
Confidence is persuasive: One hallmark of weak fiction (and poor lying) is apprehension or coyness on the part of the story-teller. Persuasive fiction writers assume an attitude of supreme authority: characters are described as if they exist in flesh and bone, place is established by boldly invented detail, and the most unlikely developments are rendered as ineluctable events. Effective fiction writers strike a confident tone even—perhaps especially—at the points in their work most likely to strain credibility. It is no coincidence that professional liars are referred to as confidence artists.
Of course, there are countless differences between common lies and good fiction. Most fiction writers are not intentionally malicious, for instance, while many liars are. Also, a whole lot more money can be made from conventional conning than from the elegant deceptions we commit when creating novels and short stories. But the similarities are important.
The idea of fiction-as-lie is not new. Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, that most enduring of literary fabrications, is said to have observed the as much over five-hundred years ago. “Facts,” he wrote, in defense of his new invention, the novel, “are the enemy of truth.”
Like Lombardi with his football, shrewd writers and writing teachers grasp this basic fact about fiction and use the knowledge to their benefit.