Thursday, February 21, 2013

Three Ways to Make Your Fiction “True”

A guest post by John Yeoman 

Well, knock me down with a typewriter. Truman Capote’s "true crime" classic In Cold Blood was fiction, after all. It was based upon true events, it seems, but not every event in it was true.  

New documents have emerged from the archives of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to show that Capote changed the chronology, inflated the importance of his central character (a man he liked), and cut a lot of people out of the story whom he didn’t like. What’s more, he invented entire scenes and passages of dialogue. 

Capote might have believed he was writing the truth. But as he never took notes or recordings and relied on his memory to write the book several months after doing his research, fiction was the inevitable result. And it worked. For nearly fifty years, his readers believed the book was honest. It wasn’t. But Capote had successfully created a “truth effect.” 

That’s our job as writers of crime fiction, to create a “truth effect” that readers will buy into. Here are three tested ways to do it: 

1. Give the story a verifiable setting. 

One strategy is to set the story in a real location, populate it with true events that the reader can easily find on Google, and drop in a wealth of other authentic minutia. David Lindsey’s detective novels are located in Houston, Texas. He knows the place intimately. Local residents would recognise every road junction. Those are real. So the story must be too... 

Daniel Defoe fooled the world for many decades that A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was an eye-witness account. It’s packed with body counts, real statistics, the grim trivia of official records. Yet it was a work solely of his imagination. 

Mix real details in with imaginary ones and readers will buy into your “Big Lie.” 

2. Invest your characters with a complex past. 

Our characters gain dimension when we give them a rich and varied past but we allude to it casually. Peter O’Donnell did this very well in his Modesty Blaise thrillers. The hero Willie Garvin is a supreme martial artist who faces every dangerous event with a biblical quotation. The formidable Modesty has the gift of escaping into a meditative trance whenever she’s tortured (which is often). 

Why do these traits produce a “truth effect”? They allude to previous events in the characters’ lives. Garvin spent many years in a Thai jail with only the Bible for company. Modesty learned deep meditation from a mystic in a desert cave. These people clearly have a complex past, as we all do. But they don’t flaunt it, any more than we do. So they’re “real.” 

If you can produce a “truth effect” with characters developed from a cartoon strip, as O’Donnell’s were, you can do it in any crime novel! 

3. Convey the emotional truths behind events. 

Our plot may be absurd (“the moon landings were a Hollywood invention”) but our stories will still work if our characters are driven by recognisable emotions. The reader needs a character viewpoint in the story that they can identify with, even if that viewpoint’s weird.  

No character could be weirder than Grenouille in Patrick Suskind’s strange novel Perfume. Grenouille is a psychopathic perfumier who kills young girls to collect their odours. Creepy! But the reader can still inhabit his point of view across 260 pages, albeit uncomfortably, because Grenouille is a tragic orphan, grossly abused as a child. He never had a chance at normality.  

We can identify with that. His mind may be incomprehensible but his character is emotionally true. 

As crime fiction writers, our job is to create an illusion. But the illusion won’t work unless it’s grounded in truths that readers create out of their own experience, from the hints we give them. Truman Capote wrote fiction and called it fact, just as Daniel Defoe had done two centuries before. Both created a “truth effect” and readers believed them. Job done. 

Readers - Which stories have brilliantly persuaded you they were 'true'? And how did the author achieve that effect?

Writers - What methods do you use yourself to convince the reader: 'this can't be fiction. It's too real'? Share your thoughts with us! 

Dr John Yeoman, cwriting@btinternet.comhas 42 years’ experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humour, some of them intended to be humorous. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:


  1. My warmest thanks to Jodie and the team for inviting me to guest post today. I hope my article on three ingenious ways to achieve a 'truth effect' in our stories will be useful. Whether you're a reader or writer, please leave a comment!

  2. Welcome to CFC, John! Good to have such an esteemed guest, and from across the pond as well! Thanks for your great tips on making a story ring true!

  3. It's one of the biggest challenges we face as authors: making our imaginary worlds feel real for everyone else. I find that ramping up the emotional arc is especially helpful. It seems to lend depth and credibility that comes from a place other than logic. Good post, John, and thanks for joining us.

  4. Welcome to CFC, John. You've delineated how I fill in a story in a very clear way. Thank you!

    I hinge my twists and lies off of a verifiable truth. A fact in evidence. And I really, really, really know my characters.

  5. Nice piece! Thanks for posting this.

  6. Interesting post, John. I loved In Cold Blood. Creating believable fiction is always a challenge. I observe and listen to as much as I can and use it wherever it fits. Much of my fiction is ground in truth, altered just enough so no one is recognizable.


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