Life is a drama…when it’s our own. To someone else, our drama may seem mere melodrama. If we use life experience as a jumping-off place for story ideas, the danger can lie in the transition: what had nuance and meaning in real life may be reduced to stereotype and formula in its fictional version.
Authors often plunder their own lives—or what they know or hear about the lives of others—to trigger their stories. Fiction based on memory depends more on the meaning behind what happened than on an adaptation of the real story. To give the story depth and take it beyond the superficial, the writer must take the known and explore the unknown of it—the “what if” of what could have happened if we let imagination shape reality. The hard work is to uncover the underlying significance behind the circumstance that inspired our fantasy. While truth can be stranger than fiction, what arises through our creative subconscious from what we assumed were cold hard facts can often reveal a greater truth.
The “truth” of a story can be told on more than one level: the truth as known to the writer, and the truth as seen by others. In memoir, we see the story from the writer’s point of view, with the understanding that it is a personal perspective of a factual situation that may be seen differently if viewed objectively. In fiction, the story can be told from anyone’s point of view, with the understanding that the writer chose that perspective for a reason. The choices we make as writers—actions, characters, setting, dialogue, metaphors, and tone—contribute to a story’s meaning.
If a work of fiction is germinated in fact, it is only what the writer took away from the experience that matters: what it meant to him or her, and how he (or his fictional character) might have grown or been changed by what happened. Often, the real substance of a story doesn’t reveal itself until we put it down on paper and realize that it goes deeper in subject and idea than it appears to be on the surface. Even the most dramatic of real-life stories can be reduced to melodrama in the telling, complete with villain, victim, and rescuer—stereotypical characters performing in an exaggerated plot designed to extract emotion. Real life doesn’t work that way. Real life is complex, contradictory, and baffling. Real life doesn’t always end with a Happily Ever After.
Melodrama is what is seen on the surface; drama is what is felt from the heart. In life, we constantly cross-reference between emotion, logic, and judgment. Everyone remembers certain shattering events, not just as the events themselves, but as our own personal reactions—as well as the remembered reactions of others—to those happenings. Filtering those events through the passage of time can give us an understanding of how they may have affected us on deeper levels than we realized at the moment. This understanding is the difference between the melodrama of the moment and the drama of its underlying essence.
Fictional characters may be inspired by real people in real places, but beware of letting that template inhibit imagination rather than inspire it. Jonathan Franzen, in discussing the character development of the parents in his earlier novel, The Corrections, says “…although they’re cartoons of my parents, they certainly have quite a bit of my parents in them.” But, of his new novel, Freedom, he says, “The ones in this book are developed, every one of them, totally from scratch. They had to be dreamed into existence.”
That’s what writers do. We dream our people, our places, our plots, into existence with, in the words of writer Tom Batt, “the poetry of our unconscious mind.” Perhaps Franzen really did create his new characters from scratch, but even scratch has its origins in some shred of reality: the hands of a cashier, the sound of a school bell, the smell of burnt toast. Such sensory moments can be as evocative as Proust’s madeleine, triggering the fictional dream from a fleeting memory. And so we must ask: why did this moment, of all of life’s moments, surface from the depths of our consciousness? The answer to that is the difference between melodrama and drama. It’s really the “why” that matters.