I used to teach non-credit writing classes at the University of Utah through their Continuing Education program. I did that for almost 8 years, and most of the time I really enjoyed it. The other time I just don’t talk about. It was during this time that I became very familiar with the “But It Really Happened That Way” syndrome. BIRHTW occurs when a writer is unwilling to sacrifice the literal truth for the sake of fictional honesty. In other words, when what they want to do is write a memoir disguised as fiction.
I’m all in favor of memoirs. I enjoy reading many of them, and as a literary form they have been important since the dawn of writing. The problem is that there are writers who think they have a great personal life story to tell, but they don’t want anyone to know for certain that it really happened, and that it really happened to them. That being the case, what that writer typically produces is some sort of monstrous hybrid that doesn’t really make sense to the reader, and that ultimate rings so untrue or convoluted that no one who has to read it ever enjoys it.
Writers who choose to write memoir (with certain recent highly-publicized cases being exempted from this discussion) choose to tell the truth about themselves, about their lives, and about how things happened to shape who they ultimately became. Memoir is a powerful form of writing when the author has a compelling story from which many readers wish to learn. Unfortunately, far too many would-be memoirists aren’t really all that interesting to anyone other than themselves. It is potentially this fear that causes them to turn to “fiction” instead. Their justification is that, if they call it fiction and the story isn’t that good, no one will know that it really happened. Or conversely, if the story is good, they can tell everyone that it really did happen, and that they, indeed, are the main character.
On more than one occasion I had students who would bring work to class who had approached their stories from exactly this angle. As the class would critique (and I have very strict rules about critique: find the positives first, identify areas that need to be looked at further, and offer helpful or constructive feedback), inevitably one or two students would identify an aspect of the story that rang hollow.
“This doesn’t sound believable,” would be a comment often shared.
“I can’t picture this happening this way,” would be another point of view.
The writers whose stories were being evaluated would, almost without fail, respond with “But it really happened that way.”
“I’m sure it did,” would be my reply, followed by, “but it doesn’t sound as if it really happened in this story.”
This would typically be about the point when I would break into my “cause and effect” lecture. All life is a series of consequences based on choices. Because you chose to speed to work, you got caught speeding and were given a ticket. Because the ticket was for more than 10 miles above the speed limit, your car insurance was impacted. Because your car insurance went up, you now have less money to spend on other things. I could keep going, but you get the idea.
What I often find as the problem behind the BIRHTW syndrome is that moments of truth are intertwined with moments of make believe in ways that violate the cause and effect principal. Characters make choices just like real people, and the consequences need to be as direct and realistic for the characters as for living people. This is the basis of most theories of plot (not all, mind you), but most. There may be a variety of outcomes, or consequences, for any one decision, but there are still consequences. Maybe you get awaywith speeding this time, so you become complacent about it. Maybe you get caught, but it doesn’t stop you. Maybe you get caught, but you talk the cop out of the ticket with some elaborate excuse. The specific consequence must be realistic to the action, and it must impact other choices down the road. That’s how humans tend to function.
BIRHTW causes writers to create circumstances that are out of sync with human nature. It’s like writing a Renassaince love story, but trying to force an alien invasion into the middle of it – it ain’t gonna fly, Wilbur. Well, SciFi Channel might try it, butthat doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Readers want emotional truth, narrative honesty, and realistic consequences. That doesn’t mean writing about things that really honest and truly happened. It means telling a good story, which may have some elements of memoir or reality, but which focuses on the emotional reality of the characters.
BIRHTW? So what? Let everything serve the story and the characters, and writers will discover that their fictional reality is just as good, and maybe even better, than the stories that just can’t let go of the way it honestly was.