7 Rules for Using Your Real Life in Fiction
Today we start a multi-part series on using your real life in fiction. The example I’m going to use is my own newest novel, The Knowledge. We’ll bounce back and forth from story principles in the abstract to how these concepts were applied in The Knowledge.
I’m gonna put up a new post every Mon-Wed-Fri, just for this series. Hopefully we’ll run through Christmas.
If you have any questions, please feel free to write them in to the Comments section below. I’ll answer them as best I can.
Let’s start with what was honest-to-God, real-life true in The Knowledge:
In truth, I was driving a cab in New York City. I was broke. It was a high-crime period. I was finishing my third novel (all unpublished and unpublishable so far).
I had committed a terrible crime against my wife, which had broken up our marriage. I was desperate to redeem myself, both in her eyes and my own. I had become fixated on the idea that getting this new book published would, if not atone for what I had done, at least prove to my wife (and maybe to me too) that I wasn’t the bum and the loser that she thought I was.
That’s the set-up. That’s the real-life, exterior and interior foundation of the story.
The All Is Lost moment (again, in real-life) was me finishing the book and it failing to find a publisher. In other words, that’s the crash-and-burn moment at the climax of the true-life story. The Epiphanal moment is me deciding to pack up and move to L.A. to try to find work writing for the movies.
(This move, as it turned out, succeeded. It was the decision that made me a writer for real and put me on the path I’ve been on ever since.)
Still with me? To repeat, the above is the real-life narrative that I began with, about eighteen months ago, when I decided to write this story as a novel.
[By the way, if you haven’t ordered The Knowledge yet, please do. I know it’s tempting to tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll just follow along in these posts.” But trust me, you’ll get ten times more out of these if you can follow along in the book.]
The first thing I knew, assessing the true-life story elements described above, was that they weren’t enough for a novel.
They were too boring.
Maybe Henry James could do it, but I sure couldn’t.
I knew right away that I had to, as they say in England, tart this material up.
I had to fictionalize.
The question was how.
Before I address these questions, a short digression:
I’m reading a great book now—Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Notebook.
The Notebook tells how Coppola, starting with Mario Puzo’s novel, put together the screenplay and screen story that would become the movie, “The Godfather.”
Coppola had the exact opposite problem I had. He already had the jazzed-up story. He had Mario Puzo’s novel, which was a runaway bestseller. sensation-of-the-decade. Coppola’s issue was how to inform that material with his own sensitivity, to bring his own real-life instincts and genius to it.
Francis Ford Coppola comes from a family of artists and musicians. Like the Corleones, it was a close-knit, ambitious, high-achieving, multi-generational, immigrant Italian-American family.
Imagine for a moment that Coppola had the idea to write a novel about his real family. He might have come to the same conclusion I did about my own real-life material. It’s too ordinary, too boring, not enough drama, etc.
Then (let’s keep imagining) he is seized with an inspiration:
I’ll tell my family’s story. Except I’ll make them a gangster family.
See what I’m getting at?
With that single (imagined) stroke of fictionalization, our hypothetical Francis Ford Coppola has made his real-life family story a blockbuster.
In essence, that’s exactly what David Chase did with The Sopranos.
The Sopranos is basically the story of an upwardly-mobile American family with issues around fidelity, child-rearing, and general panic-attack/freak-out red-white-and-blue angst. What made The Sopranos great was the translation of that universal American family anxiety into the world of gangland crime and murder.
Which brings us to the first principle of using your own life in fiction:
Make the internal external.
Is your interior story about being trapped, held captive, imprisoned in some doomed stasis?
Consider telling it as a prison story.
Make the internal external.
Too much? Then ask yourself, How can I heighten the reality of my story? How can I raise the stakes?
How can I make the internal external?
Here’s what I did in The Knowledge:
I built a parallel redemption tale on top of the real-life interior “How can I redeem myself?” narrative of my own life. Then I wove the two stories together.
My real-life boss at the taxi company was rumored to have a suspicious past. Word around the shop was that he was into all kinds of shady (and maybe-worse-than-shady) activities.
Considering how to structure The Knowledge, I said to myself,
“Let’s make the taxi boss [Marvin Bablik] an out-and-out gangster. Let’s have him hire the character-that’s-me [“Stretch”] for some seemingly innocent extra-hours work. And let’s have that work spin out of control, increment by increment, until the character-that’s-me is inextricably tied up in this criminal’s affairs.”
Further, and critically important:
“Let’s have Bablik’s interior story be one of redemption as well. Let’s make his inner life a parallel for Stretch’s, only on a much more heightened, higher-stakes level. Life and death. Bullets. Murder.”
And finally …
“Let’s have a deep, unlikely, and unexpected bond develop between Bablik and Stretch. Let’s have them come to care profoundly for each other, so that the self-sacrifice of one can mean liberation for the other.”
In other words, I stole the emotional dynamic of Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Do you remember the story? It’s a parallel saga of Woody Allen’s character, a failing film documentarian trying to woo Mia Farrow away from TV big-shot Alan Alda–and Martin Landau, a successful ophthamologist who contracts for the murder of the nutty woman he fell into an affair with, Angelica Huston. One story informs the other. The two work as one.
We’ll get into this deeper in the next post. But as a quick flash-forward, here are the seven principles of using your real life in fiction:
- Make the internal external
- Pick a genre and run with it
- Raise the stakes to life and death
- Fictionalize on-theme only
- Make it universal
- Make it beautiful
- Detach yourself from the character that is you
[At the risk of repeating myself, please order The Knowledge if you haven’t already, and read it. It will make these posts ten times more productive.]
Okay everybody – Steve is right – get the book, not just for this series but because it is a terrific read! Really looking forward to this series with special interest in the 7th principle. As always, thanks!
Holy moly Stretch..
The Knowledge is an incredibly interesting tale.
Thank …..you made it out of NYC and to LA.
You are your own true hero!
This is brilliant advice, Steve, thank you! It’s something I’ve been struggling with for awhile – how to turn a memoir with a compelling story but not enough pizazz/stakes into something wildly readable. Ta da! Getting my copy of The Knowledge now. 🙂
First of all — THANK YOU for your work. You made (and continue to make) a profound impact on me with The War of Art. I am a filmmaker and a writer and I can honestly credit your words with being the inspirational backbone to my journey so far. I have gifted The War of Art more than twenty times to friends and comrades – and own the silver special edition copy I picked up at Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. When you posted about The Knowledge, I sent the link to my husband for a Christmas present idea for me (I had to throw the poor guy a bone, I’m terrible to buy for) – he thanked me and ordered it – but now I have to wait a few weeks to unwrap it and read it.
I am through the roof excited about this “7 Rules for Using Real Life in Fiction” series because this is exactly the obstacle I am facing with a script I am two years into writing. I’m on the third draft and I’m getting wonderful feedback about the story and the characters — except everyone has the same note (and I agree) that the main character is the least interesting part of the story.
It’s because it is my coming of age story – and because so much of this story happened to me (instead of me acting like a protagonist and making decisions that steered the course of the story) – I feel like I don’t know which way to take it. I am puzzled on how to break away from the truth and make her not me.
Your description of the parallel inner lives of Bablik and Stretch is very present in my story as well. My hero has a deep emotional bond with a very flawed father-figure who leads her down a dark path.
I guess my question is: How can I raise the stakes and desires in my protagonist, if she is my younger self – and at the time I was just bumbling along?
Katie, on Monday the fifth we’ll have a post in this series called “Don’t Be Afraid to Make Sh*t Up.” I think it’ll help!
Yay! Thank you looking forward to it – loved today’s post too!
YES! – The novel, The Knowledge, is wonderful!! It really brought me back to living in New York City during that same time, then later living in London. And, now, with these blog posts, it’s an amazing learning tool.
Thank you so much, Steve!
I am SO STUCK with choice of genre. Been stuck for ‘way too long. Your other points are not as intimidating. I’m thinking about going with love story, since Shawn helped us understand it’s universal. Any more tips on genre selection for our own life stories? Thanks for this post-grad course work!
Mia, have you spent time with Shawn’s genre 5-leaf clover?
Everything he writes about genre is helpful. (Maybe he’ll write a whole book about it.)
Nothing like the holidays to provide grist for the mill: Drove from MT to the coast for a combined Turkey-day / Elder birthday. The wine flowed, the volume & salty language increased, siblings fought, a major secret was revealed after a family member stomped out during dinner resulting in a change to that one document that rules the lives of many. Boy did the Muse whisper – no she screamed – into my ear on the drive home. Out of it came a theme altering thread. Brilliant stuff that is being stirred into the complex soup of “my” story. Obviously the Muse knew you were going to write this post today. Many thanks, Steve. Looking forward to reading The Knowledge.
Trying to figure out how this applies to nonfiction. Im sure it does, in general principle, but getting to actual working nonfiction maniscript is another thing.
Love it. This piece gave me an ‘aha’ moment obliquely with the words…
‘They were too boring.’
‘…tart this material up.’
I was being too true to reality. I have all this experience and observational skill in me, but I wasn’t making the most of it. I wasn’t EMBELLISHING it.
As a ‘thank you’ (to me, to you?), I bought the book!
Throwing my voice in here: It’s a great story and I concur about reading it before trying to follow along in this series.
I was going to ask why in the world you picked the categories you did, but I just checked and you’ve changed them, so no need ask the question.
However, I mention it because someone up thread mentioned genre, and Joel mentioned Shawn’s work, and I wanted to say that Amazon’s sub-genre categories are a good place to start if you’re not entirely sure of where you want to steer your fiction.
If you find a solid place to stick it you’ll also have a solid place to mine for obligatory scenes and conventions.
So reverse psychology Steve? If my stories all contain deep betrayal as a theme, I guess I can take that to therapy…
Well, if we ever met in real life, it would interesting to compare who wins the prize for the most destructive betrayal of a spouse.
And, as always, I have a point for that comment:
Why does it seem like I’d never have become a good writer (in fact I wouldn’t be one) if I hadn’t betrayed and lost everything?
Seriously, if I’d stay in my middle class suburban marriage with the nice woman who loved me, but would NEVER have allowed me to be a writer… Where would I be? Not here, that’s for sure.
Doesn’t seem like it’s good advice to a young writer to say, “Go really screw up, destroy your life, ruin friendships, betray everyone you love, cheat, lie, steal, become an unemployed staring artist…”
Yet it seems like….
Have you read Fight Club? I mean, he says right off the bat: “I had no father, so that’s why this story is going to be about a f’d up kid who has no idea about how to become a man. And to get back at the world I’m going to burn it down.”
In September my father told me that he wished he’d forced my mother to abort me and he wanted someone to kill me and that the world would find out what a horrible person I was and I’d never sell a book….
I don’t mind really, I blocked his email and I’ll never speak to him again.
But, it’s interesting to me how these things are the kind of things that I draw on to write.
Would I wish my life on anyone? No. But I wouldn’t trade being a writer and where I’m going for anything in the world.
Strange how life is so damn ironic.
Love you guys at Black Irish!
Another great example to illustrate your point is the British TV series Doctor Foster. Doctor who is the lead in her practice comes to suspect her property developer husband is having an affair.
Yet the way they do the story had me as twisted up as an episode of 24.
Ooh this is so timely. On draft 1.0 of my fictionalised memoir. drafts 0.1 and 0.2 consigned to the scrap heap of creation in progress.
Gracias Steve. As always, dropping diamonds.
I am currently working through draft 3 of my D.R. travel memoir. I believe I’m seeing and sensing the holes/drag in the middle of my story. And I think part of it is due to a lack of clarity on my genre choice/s. I’ve applied Shawn’s five-leaf clover genre guide (albeit poorly.lol) but still feel off center in regards to understanding my genre choices and if they’re working. On looking forward to next Wednesday when you cover genre.
Till then, I’ll keep chewing on The Knowledge and keep writing at the Muse’s behest.
I’d like to know what the shirt says…
Kevin, do you mean the shirt in the “author photo?”
It’s an ad line for Transcon Trucking Lines. Their slogan: “COME HELL OR HIGH WATER.”
Are you sorry you asked?
[…] life can be a springboard into a story, so Steven Pressfield shares 7 rules for using your real life in fiction. Even if it’s not based on real life, many stories are grounded in our reality, so writers had […]