The Tricky Business of Storytelling

Robert Williams

Blending fact and fiction is often precarious ground for a novelist. Yet it’s almost inevitable that real life will find its way into a author’s work; even those writing science fiction or fantasy novels will absorb what they see around them and feed it into their writing. After all, fiction has to, at the very least, work on a basic human level for people to relate to what they are reading. Here, novelist Robert Williams considers the function of reality in novel writing. Does it, ultimately, help writers to attain truth in fiction?

Robert Williams writes …

In his monumental novel Red or Dead, David Peace documents Bill Shankly’s reign as manager of Liverpool Football Club, following him into his retirement. Large parts are indisputable fact: who Liverpool played when, league position, what the score was, who scored, who was bought and who was sold. Fiction delivered through fact. Or as Bob Stanley put it, ‘Football league tables as prose. With a humanist, socialist hero.’ But, of course, Peace has to have Shankly speak, has to put words in the mouth of a man he never met, who died thirty years ago. It works because Peace is attempting to tell the truth. And he sees his truth about Shankly very, very clearly.

This is what I’ve begun to realise about storytelling – it’s about telling the truth, no matter how fantastical or how removed from reality the architecture of that truth might be. And whilst much of fiction isn’t as tightly nailed to the bones of history as Red or Dead, most stories do blend and blur events and situations from the real world and the imagined world and mould them into a story.

The Tricky Business of Telling Tales

Storytelling is a tricky business, a shadowy game, and in my experience you do whatever you need to, to get the story finished. So let’s be dramatic – the writer might use a story from the news where a man is kidnapped, held hostage for a week and then released. The writer might pillage this story for fact and detail, but if the writer needs the man to be killed so her story is true, she will kill him in a second.

It can work the other way – the truth of your story might be kind and hopeful. In my first book, Luke and Jon, Luke and his alcoholic father end up looking after the neglected and desperate Jon. The father cuts down on his drinking, Luke tolerates the annoying tendencies of his friend and they all rub along. They all help each other. ‘No!’ my Bukowski, Nick Cave-aspiring ego screamed as I wrote. ‘This is too nice! This is too good!’ But the story kept coming back to its own good-hearted truth, and whilst I attempted to blacken it and twist it, it refused to be bent. The truth of this particular story, much to my chagrin, was that sometimes people are nice; sometimes they are good. Nobody needed to be killed this time; no tragic newspaper stories pillaged.

Using fact in fiction, you have to be careful. You can’t just drop real world truths into your book without a care; your story might not be willing to absorb them. They might clank away in there like a soon-to-be-dead gearbox, pulling the whole story to a stop. Something might be true, but it has to work as fiction or readers won’t be convinced. The truth has to be believable as a lie, I suppose.

Some Truths are Hard to Believe

I read an interview with a thriller writer where she described annoyed readers’ responses to the climactic scene of her novel. This scene, the conclusion of the whole book, was reliant on the fact that in the shadow of a particular hill there was no phone signal. The writer travelled to the hill in question and to her delight was unable to receive a signal. ‘Perfect,’ she thought, and finished her book. ‘Rubbish!’ some readers said. ‘It’s a cop-out, it’s a device! How handy there was no signal …’ The writer was using a truth, but readers felt cheated, they felt she was lying because it suited her story to lie. The truth rendered the story as false. Truth has to be deployed carefully in fiction.

So yes, fiction writers use real world stories; we are constantly watching the streets, the bus queues, bars and back rooms, hoping they will offer up something we can steal, run away with and scribble down. In fact I saw something this morning that made me shiver at the fictional possibilities it presented. I wrote it into my phone straight away, looking around furtively, hoping no other writer had seen the same thing. But often these facts, these realities, are only a starting point; they might provoke a flash of light which opens the writer up to the real story, a story which becomes far removed from the initial ‘eureka’ moment, but a story that ends up telling itself regardless of its unlikely inspiration. And these truths, facts and realities have to work in conjunction with the fiction, inventions and outright lies at the heart of the book. The truths are not more important than the lies. Truth and reality only work in fiction when they contribute to fictional story – when they sustain the lie the writer is constructing in an attempt to tell the truth.

Robert Williams grew up in Clitheroe, Lancashire and currently lives in Manchester. His first novel, Luke and Jon, won a Betty Trask Award, was translated into six languages and called ‘a hugely impressive debut’ in the Daily Telegraph. He has worked in a secondary school library, as a bookseller for Waterstones, and has written and released music under the name The Library Trust.