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5 Things To Consider When Turning Real Life into Fiction

Telling a story

by Jennifer on November 9, 2011

This is a guest post by David Lazar of CometDocs.com

Everyone knows the old saying that “reality is sometimes stranger than fiction,” and this is why there are a lot of successful writers out there that base their stories on real life events that they have either personally experienced or have been informed of by others.

Looking to real life is one of the best ways to get an idea for a new story. Whether it is an event that has occurred in your personal life, a story you heard from a friend or even something that you might have seen on the news, real life events can inspire you to write and provide you with a good foundation for your next story.

However, it is important to know that, unless it’s an absolutely spectacular story on its own –– which is usually not the case –– there is a lot that you as a writer need to do in order to turn your recollection of a real life event into a fantastic work of fiction.

You’ll find that most stories based on real-life events are embellished and changed not because the writer felt uncomfortable with telling the story as it really occurred, but because, usually, the story just isn’t that interesting in its original form.

Here are some things to think about if you are looking to write quality fiction inspired by real-life events.

1.    Decide Whether Your Topic Is Worthy
First of all, you need to decide whether something is interesting enough to turn into a compelling work of fiction to begin with. More importantly, you need to see whether this real life event is a good enough basis for a good story – whether it has the potential to be turned into something interesting. Sometimes writers tend to be way too faithful to the original story when trying to write fiction stemming from real-life events.

Just because something really happened does not mean that you cannot embellish. In fact, embellishments are recommended. Sometimes the hardest part of taking a real story and turning it into fiction is being able to let go of the truth.

2.    Turn Everyday Events Into A Narrative
Even if you are telling the story of a person who has had a very interesting life, you need to be able to turn this story into a flowing and exciting narrative, because no matter how interesting someone’s life is, a day-to-day account of what they do is not really going to result in a real page-turner.

One of the hardest things about telling a real story is to try and fit the most interesting and dramatic events into the form of a narrative, making it a true story, with a beginning, climax and resolution, not just a journal of an interesting person’s everyday habits.

3.    Create the Details
No matter how great the story, it will not write itself. Even if the basis of the story is very exciting, you still need to work very hard on getting the details just right in order to keep the story interesting and to keep it moving along as a strong and entertaining narrative.

The problem with real-life stories — especially if you heard them on the news or from a friend –– is that they are all told in short. Fiction needs to be a detailed account, because you need to assume that the reader has no background or prior involvement with the story.

The trick is to write while being fully aware of the fact that you are writing for someone completely detached from the situation, with no prior references to the story. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and make sure that you build the story in detail and as thoroughly as possible.

4.    Develop A Real Plot
A fun or interesting story that you heard someone tell is essentially an event –– not a plot. The hardest part is determining whether or not this event has enough potential to become a good work of fiction. No matter how cute or funny you think the story is, it might not be able to carry a story.

Look at the event and identify everything around that event –– what led to it, what resulted from it, who was involved, how they were affected –– and then decided whether or not this has the potential to be turned into an interesting plot.

Can you imagine seeing a movie being made based on this event or does it seem like more of a sketch in a comedy show? If you see the potential to turn it into a feature film, then it might be a good candidate for becoming a strong work of fiction.

5.    Make Your Narrator Compelling
The point-of-view can make or break the story. The most important thing you need to decide on is who you want to have narrate the story. A lot of times, people tell a story as themselves, but remove their character from the plot, which tends to disconnect the reader from the story.

If you cannot develop the characters fully and are not able to tell the story whole-heartedly without including yourself as a major actor in the story, then don’t write in first-person. Writing in the third-person might give you a fresh perspective and more freedom to explore the characters, their relationships and the plot in general.

Remember, real life is interesting, but there is always room to make it a bit more exciting when trying to write a good work of fiction.

What tips do you have for turning real life into fiction?

About the Author: David Lazar is a regular blogger at CometDocs.com. With a background in journalism, he enjoys writing about and following a variety of topics, including creative writing, news writing, careers, technology and new media.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David November 12, 2011 at 8:24 am

Great post, and is true, life is stranger than fiction, i have been struggling to write a good fiction out of my experiences in Cuba, but like Mr Lazar said is very hard to let go of the truth.

2 John Merryman November 15, 2011 at 7:57 am

thank you for your insightful comments. Especially the writing in the third person and describing what surrounds the scene being set. Utilizing the perspectives for characters however different they may be.

3 Chris Richards @ Mindnod.com November 21, 2011 at 12:23 pm


I write non-fiction and what you’ve laid out here applies just as much. Making accounts of real life interesting, can be very difficult and sometimes I forget that they should still have a plot.
Great tips.

4 London Accountant November 30, 2011 at 12:40 pm

What advice would you give to someone who wants to write about sensitive events that have occurred in their lives related to the people around them? It seems like it would be a struggle to find that balance between holding onto the details of a gripping story and maintaining your friends’ and family’s privacy.

5 Jennifer December 2, 2011 at 7:28 pm

My advice would be to fictionalization as much as you can–names, sexes, locations, dates, etc. Or just have the courage to write as close to the truth as possible and realize that as a writer it’s important to say what you want to say and everyone will just have to get over it!

6 Cheoy Lee January 5, 2012 at 5:56 am

This is excellent advice, and will always be relevant, since from where else do we get our inspiration as writers if not from the experiences that we’ve gone through and the people around us?

7 Jennifer Prugh July 4, 2012 at 8:32 am

I just stumbled upon this post, and it is exactly what I was looking for! I’m currently in the midst of a novel that revolves around sensitive matters that happened in my life a few years ago, and I’m fictionalizing as much as I can (to protect the identities of those involved ;)) BUT I feel uncomfortable with keeping the place and certain other details the same because I know a large number of people with read it and know exactly what I’m talking about. I feel like these details are incredibly interesting and pertinent to the story though…it’s tough.

Are there any laws/rules to consider when going this route? Can people freak out and sue you if they feel like you’re talking about them in your book?

8 Jennifer July 4, 2012 at 9:08 am

Technically people can freak out and sue you about almost anything. Can they win? Depends. For them to win a libel suit they’d have to prove that you ruined their reputation with your book. I’m guessing most libel suits get thrown out on those grounds alone.

9 Seireness September 1, 2012 at 7:56 am

I am also trying to turn my and my families life into a fiction story. The problem I face most is that I feel it needs to start relatively early when the characters (my siblings and myself) were rather young, but would end in adult hood. How can I transition the stages of life with out making the story too long winded, boring, or over detailed?

Thanks for all the great tips 🙂

10 Jennifer September 1, 2012 at 9:41 am

Use story structure to guide you (if you don’t know what I’m talkin about, pick up a copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks). When you know the structure of your story you’ll know exactly what parts of your life story need to be in there and which parts can be left out.

11 JohnnyJohnny January 6, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Thanks in advance for suggestions.
My life story is both compelling and unique.
Simply, I have no idea of how to get it done.
Once I draft it what is the process to getting someone to see it?
I was told that if I wrote a manuscript and even self-published that my chances of getting it into film might be easier.
If you can email me great 🙂

12 Jennifer January 8, 2013 at 6:08 am

@Johnny After you write and edit your manuscript to a place where you feel it’s as good as you can get it (for the time being), your next step could be to show it to a critiquer who can give you some feedback. I wouldn’t take it to an agent/publisher or even self-publish without having a few pairs of eyes on it, and especially some readers. Here’s the team of people I recommend you have for any book you’re planning to self-publish: http://inkybites.com/how-to-write-an-ebook-part-7-your-team/. I hope that helps you get started. Good luck!

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