Thursday, January 22, 2009

That Big Word: Verisimilitude

When writing personal experience stories, or ghostwriting someone else's story, the question of truthfulness frequently crops up. Composite characters, creative license, stretching details to make a point; it's all prickly. No reputable writer will deny that truthfulness and accuracy is utmost on their mind. We all remember James Frey. Yet we've also been taught about verisimilitude and the idea of telling a true story in a writerly fashion to best convey emotion and meaning. If we want readers, our work must be compelling. Some may wonder where to draw the line. And when you're reading, how can you know what to trust?

(Although referring to the movie and not the book) I found John Grogan's recent blog entry regarding the movie Marley & Me, quite interesting:

John Grogan's Blog: "The movie is not quite my book and not quite our real lives, and I think moviegoers, at least those who have also read or will read my books, understand that. It's a fictionalized movie inspired by my book, not a documentary. The director and screenwriters took liberties, invented characters and scenes and fudged some facts to make the story work for screen. I'm fine with that, especially because I have my books as a public record of the real story."

He adds that movie director David Frankel did a wonderful job that "captures the emotional truths of my family's experience."

I agree, in a movie, we might come to expect that the events are "based on fact." I recently read an article on the movie "Twenty-one" and the far-from-fact portrayal of many of the details and people in that movie. In non-fiction books, however, I think the reader is expecting more than just the essence of the truth. It's not always easy to convey the facts in the most interesting fashion when you have to stick to the truth. More than once I've interviewed a narrator, hoping for a certain answer that would fit perfectly in the story I'm writing. And when the narrator's answer is not what I hope for, it's disappointing. The trick is to craft something interesting and exciting around that true answer. When we've succeeded at that, the outcome is an article we can feel confident is both factual and entertaining.

Paws for Reflection: I'll just say that, although I write mainly non-fiction, this is one reason I enjoy writing fiction pieces, too!

P.S. Speaking of Marley and Me, I also enjoyed reading that Cesar Milan from National Geographic Channel's The Dog Whisperer has been working with Grogan and his family, and their new labs Gracie and Woodson. Yay!

2 comments:

Catherine said...

Excellent post Megs. The potentially slippery slope of artistic license is best navigated slowly and with care. Interesting what you shared about the movie 21, which I loved. I did wonder how dramatized it was (the curse of being a writer). I guess there is a vast difference between, "based on a true story" and "inspired by a true story."

Peggy Frezon said...

So true. We must do what feels right in our hearts. I know that sounds cheesy, but isn't that the truth?

As an aside, my son, away at college, has discovered an aptitude for poker and you'd better believe I think of that movie "21", time and again!

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