Writing: Autobiography in Fiction

Writing fiction? You’ve no doubt heard that our fiction is usually autobiographical in some way. But those bits from real life must work for your story, not against it.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips for keeping those autobiographical bits helping, not hindering your fiction:

Scene and Summary

One of the fastest ways to sink your fiction is by hewing too closely to real life. If you record every second of your protagonist’s day, you will likely end up with a boring chronicle. As Elmore Leonard famously said, “When you write fiction, leave out the boring parts.”

In life our days often pass with little or no tension, action or conflict. In fiction, the parts where “nothing much happens” can be summarized or skipped entirely. For instance, if your character goes to a restaurant to eat, you probably won’t slow your scene to include every painful and noneventful moment of ordering, getting the food, eating and so on. Better to focus on the purpose of the scene and/or the interactions of the characters. Summarize the rest.

The restaurant itself is probably incidental to the scene’s purpose. Yet if the scene in a restaurant is meant to showcase a character’s dilemma or obstacle, look no farther than the classic movie “Five Easy Pieces” with Jack Nicholson. His restaurant scene crackles with tension, conflict and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

Conflict and Resolution

Every scene in your fiction must process toward your overall story goal. Ask yourself, “Why this scene? Why here, why now?” If you can’t answer, circle back and rethink the scene. Conflict will be difficult to maintain if your protagonist doesn’t really know why she’s in a scene. And your scene depends upon conflict and tension to keep readers reading.

Some writers think conflict/tension always means overt arguing, fighting, etc. But psychological tension is often even more powerful. This kind of tension blossoms through dialogue, body language and inner dialogue. Don’t allow your characters to cave for the sake of harmony—keep them at odds until someone loses their goal for the scene. Hint: usually your main character.

Psychological tension is very powerful.

In real life we often make nice. We don’t make waves and give others the benefit of the doubt. In real life, this often means we simply walk away from conflict. In fiction, your make nice ideals will sink your story. Resolution must mean your character/goal either wins or loses. Ambivalence rarely makes for satisfying fiction. Save it for when real-life squabbles arise.

Emotional Baggage

Writers who haven’t experienced an event may have a hard time understanding the accompanying emotions. If your fiction is about a loved one’s death from cancer yet you’ve never known anyone with cancer, the emotions you insert into your fictional character may not ring true. Effective scenes rely on honest emotion. Get some experience beyond encyclopedic Googling. Visit a chemo unit, sit with a friend, watch documentaries to increase your direct knowledge.

The opposite is also true: when you’ve just gone through a heart wrenching experience, your raw emotions may overpower both your character and your readers. I don’t necessarily think you can’t write when emotions are fresh. But giving time to earn more perspective might give you insights you don’t have at first. Go ahead and write. Put it aside to cool off and revisit after a time. You’ll be surprised at your changes.

Finally, a last word about sticking your life into your fiction. Few readers want to read a story dripping with self-pity, resentment or bitter hatred. These strong emotions might be better utilized in an antagonist. Readers care about characters just like them—people with hopes and dreams and goals. If you write about your life in your fiction, be sure you’re doing more than grinding an axe.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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