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Monday, October 24

Oh, That’s Not Right: Better to be Accurate or Do What’s Best for the Story?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I have some writer friends who write historical fiction. I was critiquing one of their manuscripts, and made a suggestion about changing a detail in something that happens. The detail was very minor (it involved the kind of animal used) but I felt this change raised the tension in the story. She thanked me for it, but said that the detail was historically correct and she wanted to be as accurate as possible.

No worries here, it’s her book and I don’t know squat about writing historicals. But it got me thinking.

Is there a line between being accurate and doing what’s best for the story?

This probably doesn’t apply to those writing historical fiction, where accuracy is likely part of the reason folks read them (though I’d love to hear thoughts on this from you historical folks). But I think everyone who’s ever done a critique has heard a fellow writer say, “but that’s how it really happened” in one manner or another. We do tend to draw from real life.

Fiction isn’t about the accurate portrayal of life. It throws out the boring parts and amps up the interesting parts, and it exaggerates wildly for the sake of entertainment (or to make a point). I know when I’ve tried to be accurate about real things it almost always messed me up. Events couldn’t happen a certain way because the “facts” prevent it.

This is probably why I have trouble writing in the real world. Fantasy is so much easier. But I do base my fantasy worlds on real places, and when I forget that those facts are just for inspiration, I find myself sacrificing story for accuracy.

Quick example, in my current WIP, I’m basing my culture on an ancient civilization. The people aren’t this culture, it’s just a jumping off point. But one fact in this culture is that they didn’t have names for units of measurement. No inches, miles, feet, hours, minutes. I was driving myself nuts trying to describe things without using any of those words. It was even making parts of the story unclear.

Then it hit me.

I wasn’t writing a historically accurate portrayal of this culture. I was making up people loosely inspired by this culture. It was my world; I could do whatever I wanted.

So I put the measurements back in.

Naturally this doesn’t hold true for things you can’t change. If all police cars suddenly flashed red and green lights readers will call foul (unless you’re writing science fiction or fantasy). But how often have you’ve been stuck because there’s a fact in your story you can’t figure out how to get around? Does that fact have to be factual?

In some cases it’ll be yes, in others no. The obvious things will be, well, obvious. But what about the subtle items? The ones we struggle with because we want to get it right, even when no one but us cares, or even would know if we got it right?

Accuracy or storytelling?

I tend to come down on the side of storytelling here. Fiction isn’t journalism, so if fudging a few non-critical facts makes the story better, I say go for it. Stories are heavy on the “what if?” anyway. As long as you’re not blowing credibility out of the water, do what’s best for the story.

What do you think? Are the facts more important than the story? Does it depend on genre (as with historical fiction vs fantasy)? Where do you feel the line between accuracy and storytelling lies?