"Story Fire" sets the stage for "Faction" by reminding writers that stories, though fiction, have the power to change lives. "Faction" can help writers put meat on the bones of their characters and get blood flowing in their veins by fleshing them out in a specific, realistic context.
Don’t say, “I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.” Fiction is the truth!
Storytelling is the art of compelling readers to admire and respect the characters, cheer for their success and identify with their problems. But every effort to escape the jaws of the enemy puts them in greater peril. We become more and more anxious for their safety and frustrated they are repeatedly unable to outwit and overcome an increasingly vicious and powerful enemy. Just when the conflict takes the darkest turn, our heroes snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We share in their success as if it were our own. In a good story, it is.
But some people think fiction isn't true and therefore inferior to fact. Yes, stories are made up but writers seed their imagination with what they see, hear, learn and remember of the real world.
How can a story be less true if it really happened? Because we seldom see our own lives as stories. We're too busy to look back, connect the dots of cause and effect and paint our own story with a plot and a point.
Stories give us that look back. We become the young hero, the wise old woman, the transformed fool. That makes fiction truer than real life—psychologically valid, emotionally realistic and loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.
Some stories paint life as fatalistic and hopeless while others fill it with dreams come true. Some emphasize our deep connections with other people while others exaggerate loneliness and individualism. In some stories, people enjoy serendipity while in others they suffer bad luck. Stories can show people living authentic lives, being dishonest with themselves and others, choosing one path over another or stuck in a rut.
Despite these difficulties, or because of them, stories are connections between what could be and is. This evening, when the day star winks over the horizon, light a campfire, fire up the barbecue or put a handkerchief over a flashlight. Call it your story fire.
Look up and see those other story fires. We call them stars, but imagine a planet like ours orbiting the one you are looking at, and somebody like you sitting around their fire looking down at yours.
Read your story aloud. Set aside what your neighbors might think, and imagine them sitting quietly on their side of the fence, enchanted with your story. Imagine it carrying you, and them, like smoke drifting through the pines, to once upon a time in a land far away.
When you've finished the story and the embers of your fire are glowing softly in the dark, ask yourself: Is this story truer than if it had really happened? Does it tell me how my values and abilities fit into the scheme of things? Does it reveal a path to my hopes and dreams? Could I apply this approach without moving to Mars or having a frontal lobotomy?
Fact and fiction dance in every story; they can bring us face to face with who we are. If we find them truer than if they had really happened, they can be connections between what is and what could be—reminders it is never too late to become who we can be.
Peggy Lee sang "If that's all there is, my friend, then break out the booze, and let's have a party..." Does the story paint life as meaningless and deterministic? Or make you aware of grace, serendipity and synchronicity? Who puts on a happy face as if positive thinking alone would change the way things are? Do the characters have valid or invalid reasons for feeling good or bad about life?
Ray Charles sang "They say that time heals a broken heart, But time has stood still since we've been apart..." Tragedy brings pain and fear, doubt and questions: Why me? Why this? Why now? When happier times come, our need for answers fades—until something bad happens again. Time itself doesn't heal anything, but it does provide a playing field for things that do. Who brings courage, competence and compassion onto the stage? Are the questions buried, answered, transformed or forgotten?
The same wind that propels you across the lake of life propels my sailboat, too. Our course and bearing are determined by the set of our sails, not the wind. Who understands that? What are the consequences?
Throughout history, the main focus of a culture has been revealed by its tallest buildings: in the Dark Ages, it was cathedrals; in the 19th century, it was castles; in the 20th, corporate skyscrapers dominated society and the skyline; and here in the 21st century, cell phones are the ubiquitous evidence that people are obsessed with personal communication.
Today, reading material is a better indicator of the primary focus of society: in the 40's and 50's it was LIFE magazine; in the 70's it was PEOPLE and PLAYBOY; in the 80's it was US; and today it is the INTERNET and a magazine called SELF. Who or what is an icon in the film you watched or the story you read? Who orbits the icon? What are the consequences?
The Internet is a world-wide web of special-interest, compartmentalized connections. Who is a participant, not a spectator, in the lives of the other characters? Who partitions themselves off from the other characters, refusing to play a part in anyone's story but their own? Why?
Coincidences are meaningful only when you see yourself as part of the WEB of life. Does anyone meet just the right person at just the right time? Do they interpret the chance encounter as meaningful or meaningless? What is the outcome of their interpretation?
Who finds the gold, silver and precious gems buried in the ashes of their life—things which could not be consumed by the fires of unfortunate circumstance and foolish behavior?
Does the story paint the hero's journey as revolutionary or evolutionary? How? Does anyone leave the "system" or abandon their traditional views? What problems do they encounter? Does he or she return to the interpreted path? Why?
Does the story show the male and female points-of-view competing or cooperating? Which character is in touch with the male and female aspects of their personality? The man or the woman? Does the story give any clues why?
Which character listens with a warm heart and open mind? Which character faces life with courage, insight and humor?
What "mind games" do the people play to control and deceive each other? Who buys into the games? Why? How? Does anyone bring openness and honesty into the control dramas? What is the result?
Does anyone keep running into the same type of person or situation? Does the story explain why this character attracts people and circumstances like that?
What is the unfinished business of the main character? Where is he or she stuck, going through the motions or camping on the same old turf?
What kind of future do the characters see for themselves and the world? What do they do to help or hinder that vision? How do they merge their personal vision and their world view?
Are any of the characters victimized? Do they solicit sympathy and keep it coming by rejecting solutions? Why? Are they being punished by their mistakes or for them?
Which character tries to solve his or her problems by treating the symptom instead of the cause? Do any of the characters withdraw from life to solicit attention or avoid criticism?
Do the characters find the courage and opportunity to convey their values and feelings to others? How are their views received? Who is always finding faults in others? Do they gain the recognition and approval?
Who uses anger and violence to get attention and dominate others? Why? Fear of scarcity? Being controlled? Who sacrifices being true to themself by clinging to another? Or to the idea that life is about having someone rather than being yourself?
Who uses their membership in an organization to avoid becoming their own person? Who needs to know where they are going? To know when they've arrived? To choose the right path? Why?
Do bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people? How do the good people react? How do the bad people react? Why?
Time flows uninterrupted into eternity like a river—things can be tragic, but only for a season. Who is a prisoner of fate, preoccupied with what happened in the past as if today and tomorrow will be just like yesterday? Who is waiting for absolute certainty—unwilling or unable to make choices in the midst of both mystery and meaning?
Who is a prisoner of fame or fortune, caught up in keeping up, preoccupied with what is happening now, as if today is all there is?
Who is a prisoner of fear—preoccupied with what might happen, as if tomorrow is a tragic, terrifying place? Does our hero need transforming, or the thing blocking her goal? Does she put on a happy face and ignore reality, or strive to change what she can without getting bogged down or hung up in the outcome? Does he attach his hopes and dreams to the ups and downs of life?
Who blames everyone else for their problems? Who takes risks and responsibility for the outcome?
Life is paved with questions. Which questions are answered, implied, transformed, unanswered or ignored in the story? Does your hero need absolute certainty?
Speakers tend to answer questions people aren't asking. Who is constantly saying things that don't mesh with the other character's interests and goals?
Some people ask the wrong questions about life. Which character realizes his questions need transformation, not the realities of life?
Some questions have more than one answer. Who thinks questions have only one answer? Who sees truth as fixed and immutable? Who looks at things only one way, never sees the other answers? What is the outcome of their narrow perspective? Who acts as if truth is merely personal opinion? Who acts as if it is more important how a belief works than whether it is true?
Some stories polarize issues at one extreme or the other, while others take a middle road. Who or what is painted black and white? Shades of gray? Who takes one side or the other? Who ignores the conflict?
Change is a prerequisite for life. We die, literally and figuratively, by losing the willingness or ability to change. Is the story you are evaluating about people who are camping out on the same old turf? Or moving down the trail? Who treats life like a port in a storm? Who risks everything for one thing? Who is the walking dead?
Most people die with their music still inside themselves—the world should grieve your passing, not your unfinished business. Who finds their music and shares it with others? Who doesn't?
Who makes up complicated lies to hide the simple truth? What are the consequences?
Who gets sick in the mind and body to avoid the health of growing up and lose family, friends and fortune? What are the consequences?
Like the woman who told her fiancé she was slightly pregnant, some people construct shades of grey to weasel out of admitting that something is either black or white. Who is like that? What are the consequences?
Most of us like our definitions fastened with a nail. Who gets frustrated when somebody comes along with a departure or a refinement in something we think is fixed and immutable? What are the consequences?
Some people need assurance and security. Who has fabricated artificial certainty to escape the challenges of faith and paradox? What are the consequences?
Hypocrites keep creed and conduct in separate little boxes in their head. Who is blind to their mutually exclusive beliefs and behaviors? What are the consequences?
Some people attach themselves to tragedies and regrets. Who is a passive satellite orbiting the past? What are the consequences?