When I write, I usually have all sorts of sticky notes pasted around my desk and screen. Some of them are thoughts I don’t want to forget about the story I’m working on, but some of them are general writing advice to myself. Things like “Resist the urge to explain” and, most importantly, “Write true.”
All good stories are true
Truth matters. People instinctively recognize falsity even if they don’t articulate that recognition other than in the trivial way of liking a story based on true events.
At a conference recently, another writer and I were talking about what makes a good story, and I ventured that all good stories were true. She nodded but added, “Except for fantasy. Those aren’t true.” As a writer of fantasy, I strongly disagreed, and I realized that she and I must be operating on different definitions of “true.”
External vs. internal truth
I suspect that she was talking about whether the plot and setting matched the world we see around us. True events were those that could actually happen. The setting is similar to one we could find on a map. If those things felt real to her, the story felt true. She was talking about what I think of as the externals of the story.
In contrast, I was talking about a story’s internals. Do the character’s emotions feel like those a real person could have? Do they show us what it means to struggle and feel like a human being operating in a difficult world? To me, it makes no difference if the difficulty is school bullies or dragons, as long as the internal stuff feels true.
Story vs. plot
That doesn’t mean that the plot in good stories is unrelated to truth. The plots that engage us most don’t depend on car chases or battles. Rather they’re character driven, meaning they happen the way they do because the characters act as they do. In other words, true characters lead to plots that are true even if they’re fantasy.
I think this fits with the way screenwriter Peter Dunne used “truth” when he defines the difference between story and plot: “The story is the journey for truth. The plot is the road it takes to get there.” (Emotional Structure, p. 11) Good fantasy plots present true stories.
Internal truth in a fantasy plot
In my YA fantasy, Deep as a Tomb, Beran and Myla reach toward adulthood, eventually deciding right and wrong for themselves rather than just following their parents’ orders. That’s surely a part of life that most people experience but in a fantasy world, a young person’s need to make his or her own moral judgments can be rendered in heightened, metaphoric ways.
Beran is the king’s son, so for him, becoming an adult means ceasing to evaluate all his actions in light of whether they will lead the royal council to approve him as King’s Heir. If he constantly worries about whether a politically motivated group approves of him, he neglects moral judgments on how his actions affect his people, both as individuals and as part of the country he hopes to rule someday. This isn’t an easy dilemma because if he’s not appointed King’s Heir, that too affects his country. He has hard decisions to make.
Similarly Myla is torn between wanting her father’s love and seeing that preserving the ecology of her forested land requires her to thwart his ambitions to lead a rebellion against the king. For Myla and her people, the forest has almost religious significance.
If I’ve written well, the story is true no matter what fantastic elements it contains. And truth is what readers crave.