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.

"Hey! Taxi!"

“Hey! Taxi!”

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 I was finishing my third novel (all unpublished and unpublishable so far).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.

Too ordinary.

Too internal.

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.

How much?

And where?

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:

  1. Make the internal external
  1. Pick a genre and run with it
  1. Raise the stakes to life and death
  1. Fictionalize on-theme only
  1. Make it universal
  1. Make it beautiful
  1. 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.]


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Mary Doyle on November 30, 2016 at 4:45 am

    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!

  2. Tom Wall on November 30, 2016 at 6:30 am

    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!

  3. Deonne Kahler on November 30, 2016 at 7:02 am

    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. 🙂

  4. Katie Hyde on November 30, 2016 at 7:10 am

    Hi Steven,

    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 Hyde

    • Steven Pressfield on November 30, 2016 at 2:22 pm

      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!

      • Katie Hyde on December 2, 2016 at 7:12 am

        Yay! Thank you looking forward to it – loved today’s post too!

  5. Barbara on November 30, 2016 at 7:23 am

    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!

  6. Mia on November 30, 2016 at 7:27 am

    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!

  7. Donn McAfee on November 30, 2016 at 7:49 am

    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.

  8. Tony levelle on November 30, 2016 at 9:50 am

    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.

  9. Martin Haworth on November 30, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Love it. This piece gave me an ‘aha’ moment obliquely with the words…

    ‘They were too boring.’

    ‘Too ordinary.’

    ‘…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!


  10. Michael Beverly on November 30, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    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!

  11. Michael R on November 30, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    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.

    Normal? Boring?

    Yet the way they do the story had me as twisted up as an episode of 24.

  12. Pip Brennan on November 30, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    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.

  13. Armando Batista on November 30, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    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.

  14. Kevin Scott Day on December 1, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    I’d like to know what the shirt says…

    • Steven Pressfield on December 5, 2016 at 11:38 am

      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?

  15. […] 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 […]

  16. Olivia Williams on June 18, 2023 at 1:49 pm

    Are you looking for a premium sea view house in Dubai with modern furniture and designer renovation to invest? Do you want to get really high-quality housing near the beach at the best price? In this case, you have a really great choice of investment-attractive properties in the emirate. You can turn to Dubai Property Investments to pick up the right one and generate a good profit. Highly-qualified brokers will tell you which property to choose in which area, answer any questions and provide legal assistance and after-sales support. You can be sure of a successful transaction because you will be dealing only with professionals. With their help, you will definitely become a happy owner of the most investment-attractive property in one of the most sought-after communities in Dubai. Visit DubaiProperty Investments to find the right house by the sea.

    web: https://dubai-property.investments/

  17. snake io on November 16, 2023 at 8:21 pm

    Excellent post. Many times in my life, I have gone through what you describe. I interpret it as indicating even another degree of “acceptance” right now. that a lot of the things you’ve described are the way things are in the world. It reinforces some of my beliefs and experiences, as well as the reactions I’ve gotten, and it gives me even more motivation to “own what I do” for the right reasons. It is a blessing to understand what my “purpose” and “meant to do” are, as well as what “my calling” is. Maybe it even confirms that I’m on the right road if it sabotages others to the extent that you mention in your speech.

  18. snake.io on June 5, 2024 at 11:47 pm

    Starting a multi-part series on using real life in fiction, focusing on the author’s own novel, The Knowledge. The story begins with the author’s real-life experiences driving a cab in NYC, being broke, and grappling with personal struggles. The real-life narrative is the foundation, but it’s not enough for a novel—it’s too ordinary and internal. The key is to make the internal external by fictionalizing and heightening the reality of the story. For example, the author turns the real-life taxi boss into an out-and-out gangster, creating a parallel redemption tale with higher stakes. The goal is to steal the emotional dynamic from other stories, like Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” to make the narrative compelling and universal. The series will delve deeper into these principles in subsequent posts.

  19. snake.io on June 5, 2024 at 11:47 pm


  20. snake.io on June 5, 2024 at 11:48 pm


Leave a Comment

Patronu aradığında sürekli hasta olduğunu söyleyerek iş yerine yalan söylüyor porno hikaye Patronu artık bu kadarının gerçek olamayacağını ve rapor görmek istediğini dile getirip telefonu kapatıyor türbanlı Olgun kadın hemen bilgisayarının başına geçip özel bir doktor buluyor ve onu arayarak evine davet ediyor porno Muayene için eve gelen doktor olgun kadını muayene ediyor ve hiç bir sıkıntı olmadığını söylüyor brazzers porno Sarışın ablamız ise iş yerine rapor götürmesi gerektiğini bu yüzden rapor yazmasını istiyor brazzers porno fakat doktor bunun pek mümkün olmadığını dile getiriyor sex hikayeleri Daha sonra evli olan bu kahpe doktora iş atarak ona yavşıyor ve istediğini alana kadar durmuyor Porno İzle Karılarını takas etmek isteyen elemanlar hep birlikte evde buluşuyor türkçe porno Güzel vakit geçirdikten sonra kızlara isteklerini iletiyorlar ve hatunlarda kocalarının bu isteklerini kabul ediyorlar seks hikayeleri Hemen ellerine telefonları alan elemanlar karılarına video eşliğinde sakso çektiriyorlar porno izle Hiç beklemeden sikişe geçen elemanlar hatunları değiştire değiştire sikmeye başlıyorlar.