Stranger then Fiction

Truth is stranger than fiction. This familiar saying is a quote from that master storyteller, Mark Twain. Any writer of fiction, like myself, has to bear this in mind.


Well, I suppose it’s because too much realism can be difficult for a reader to swallow. Real life tends to be fragmented, things happen that are often completely unrelated. The relative importance of events can be very hard to judge and often remain opaque. Things come and go. Things that seemed to matter one moment fade into complete insignificance.

None of these aspects of reality are conducive to telling a good story. In fiction, it’s essential to have a structure. A beginning, middle and end. There has to be a satisfactory outcome for the reader, something that can’t be guaranteed by a factual account.

You might have observed that books, films and TV programmes based on true events are always heavily dramatised. The complexity of the real has to be simplified and carefully presented in order to tell a story in a way that will hold an audience. Outcomes, especially, are manipulated in order to deliver that essential happy ending.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to say. Consider this as the plot for a thriller.

The Russians invade Ukraine on a pretext. They arm the local thugs and support them with Russian soldiers who are ‘on holiday’ there. A Russian-supplied ground to air missile system is deployed to shoot down a civilian airliner and kill hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The AA battery is quickly spirited away back to Russia and vigorous denials are issued.

The CIA find satellite evidence of Russian involvement in the atrocity. Secret agents in Russia collect damning information about the incident and also uncover links between the Russian leader and organised crime. More diligent investigative work discovers billions of dollars of offshore funds linked directly to Putin.

OK, so far so good. Let’s put an ending to it:

In a race against time, a plucky CIA agent puts all the information together and then manages to dash to the UN building, through a hail of FSB bullets, and give it to the US Ambassador. A Security Council resolution proposed by Russia is blocked when the revelations are made. Russian allies voice their disapproval and withdraw support. Hundreds of thousands of lives are saved in Syria as the disgraced Russian regime is prevented from continuing to support the vicious Assad regime. A popular uprising in Russia ousts the president and the world becomes a better and more peaceful place.

This is the kind of thing required to make a good story. Of course, it’s fictional. The true outcome is as follows:

FIFA decide to hold the World Cup in Russia.

See what I mean?

photo credit: Delta_33 Malaysia Airlines 9M-MTC Airbus A330 via photopin (license)