Should Fiction Writers Tell the Truth?

david-mamet1I read a quote this week from David Mamet (left), the noted playwright and essayist:

When you sit down to write, tell the truth from one moment to the next and see where it takes you.

Over the years I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed in various forms. Novelist Wendell Berry once wrote, “The first obligation of a writer is to tell the truth–or to come as near to telling it as is humanly possible.”

Sounds noble and good, but something about this bromide has always bothered me. Maybe because it is, as judges sometimes say about statutes, “void for vagueness.”

So I decided to devote this space to figuring out what the heck it’s supposed to mean, and whether it’s at all helpful to writers.

My first question is, what’s the definition of truth? What do these folks mean by it? Do they mean objective truth (that which is true no matter what anyone thinks about it)? Or subjective truth (that which comes out of the deepest part of ourselves)?

And if they mean the latter, is that really truth? I’m not down with the whole “that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” vibe. In that case, Mein Kampf would be a classic of world literature.

No, I think what Mamet and Berry other writers mean by “tell the truth” is that the writer must, first and foremost, be honest with himself. Not be afraid to go wherever his inner heart and life are leading. Tell that story, from the gut.

I partially agree. Exploring deep––and sometimes dark––corners to render honest fiction is one aspect of this game. But there’s another, equally important part, and it’s this: you, the writer, are in charge of what is ultimately shown in your stories.

Which means you don’t have to spew everything onto the page in the name of some vague notion of truth. You’re not a slave to your material; you’re the shaper and molder of it.

Now, I’ll grant that a novel can seem less truthful and honest if certain punches are pulled. Readers sense that. But as the author you get to decide how you want to land those punches. You should land them artfully, with purpose. You think through the strategy for your novel. The truth-at-any-cost school doesn’t always produce better writing. In fact, it may make it worse.

Case in point, the obligatory sex scene (in other genres than erotica, where they are expected). There’s no rule that says graphic descriptions of body parts, and profligate use of synonyms for pulsate, make such a rendering necessary. Personally, I prefer the closed door, leaving the rest to the imagination. That’s the way they used to do it, and it’s actually more sensual. (Read the carriage ride scene in Madame Bovary sometime.)

Which brings me to Game of Thrones.

Game_of_thronesAt the outset, let me make clear that I’ve not read the books nor gotten hooked on the series. I know both have rabid followings. So what I’m about to discuss is simply a reaction to something I recently happened across.

It seems the author, George R. R. Martin, has come under considerable criticism for gratuitous depictions of rape. One blogger puts it bluntly: “Martin is content to use rape to develop male characters, to titillate the reader, and to paint rape victims seeking justice as villains. No other raped women have a voice. This calls into question his empathy as a human being and his imagination as a writer.”

In answer to this, Martin says:

I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like, and I was also reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction. Most stories depict what I call the “Disneyland Middle Ages”––there are princes and princesses and knights in shining armor, but they didn’t want to show what those societies meant and how they functioned … [If] you don’t portray (sexual violence), then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist.

A few points. George R. R. Martin is free to write what he wants to write. And I’ve heard his writing and world building are amazing. So what I’m about to say isn’t coming from a political or social agenda. It’s as a fellow writer who would simply ask Mr. Martin, “Is all this really necessary? How much of this material is carrying you, rather than the other way around? I get that you want to soak us in medieval darkness, but what about the equal value of artistic restraint? That’s not denying that something exists, but it’s also not letting it run rampant.”

Maybe for Martin that’s not a consideration or desire. And, again, he as the right to do it his way. But “telling the truth” isn’t the only fiction strategy.

I think the best writers make a case. Great fiction depicts a clash of values in which the writer will, ultimately, take a side. Yes, the side that prevails has to do so in a way that does not feel manipulative. That’s where craft comes in. The author’s job is to make the case through the characters behaving in surprising, clever, and ultimately justifiable ways.

That’s actually harder to do than just letting it all hang out.

I think this is what the novelist and writing teacher John Gardner was getting at when he said this to The Paris Review:

As I tried to make plain in On Moral Fiction, I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life … that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.

So by all means, tap into your heart and soul when you write. But include your head, too.

As I like to counsel new writers: Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.

So what about you? Do you think “just tell the truth”––all by itself––is helpful writing advice? Is it possible to make an argument for artistic self-restraint anymore?


29 thoughts on “Should Fiction Writers Tell the Truth?

  1. I would say the same rule applies to the page as to relationships~ true and truth are two different things~ sometimes the little whit lie (“Oh, yes, I love your haircut”) is not only the right thing to say, but maybe the ONLY thing to say. On the other hand, not liking “the haircut” is no reason to cheat.

  2. I’m staying away from GAME OF THRONES because I frankly don’t buy Martin’s argument. As I understand his series (not having read it or even watched one episode), he’s actually writing fantasies, not historical fiction. His “defense” might hold water if he were writing historical fiction, although even there I think he could put much of the violence off-stage.

    This is not to say that I object to all violence in fiction…I’ve written a couple of violent scenes myself, but the violence is always directed at bad people, i.e., people who perhaps justify the violence because of what they’ve done. (My stories are about vigilantes, and the “perhaps justify” is just that because I hope readers will question whether vigilantism is justified in any circumstance.)

    I do wonder about the “truth” in Martin’s stories and what that truth says about him as the author and about the public.

    Recently I had a plotting session with a new author, and I asked him why he was writing his particular story. Initially he didn’t know, but finally I asked him what he hated about the world. Turned out to be corruption, which absolutely related to his vague ideas about his story, and that led to deeper discussions about his characters and what should actually happen in the story. So, perhaps, the “truth” we write out of or from is a passion to explore certain aspects of life, people and relationships.

    So, to make a sincere attempt to understand Martin’s work, I won’t buy it, but I wonder if, in fact, he hates rape and all it implies, and therefore feels a need to include rape scenes so that he can explore the impact on the victims and the nature of those who commit it. If so, then why doesn’t he say that?

    Still doesn’t mean that his scenes need to be graphic, however.

  3. Always tell the truth–there’s a lot to unpack there. The truth about what? The story question?

    My book Malevolent simply asks the question, “If a person lacks all emotion, could they still love?” Digging into that and finding the truths involved was like unearthing a diamond–so many interesting facets.

  4. It’s not easy to write or read about certain subject matter. Every individual has their triggers of objection or tolerance. Even though I wasn’t fully aware at the time, I made a choice in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM that set a theme in motion for me. I depicted human trafficking based on my research of testimony from actual victims. I decided that if I sugar coated it, it would be a slap in the face to victims. My theme turned out to be “giving a face to the victims of crime” and not depicting them as cardboard characters or plot devices. One scene earned me directed comments on reviews, but the book also was named one of the Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Whether that recognition happened or not, I stand behind the “honest truth” of my choices. Crime is ugly and there are many victims, but how it’s portrayed is up to each writer.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post, Jim. For the record, I’m a Game of Thrones fan. Martin’s world building and character portrayals (and guts to kill off popular main characters) is remarkable. He’s captivated the world with his hugely popular fantasy series and brought new readers into the fold. Bravo.

  5. One of my creative writing mentors always used to tell us, especially for those in the group writing memoirs, that a scene didn’t have to be true but it had to be accurate. This statement sets a chain reaction in motion…moments of clarity, knowing exactly what he meant, followed by confusion when I think about it too deeply. How does one reconcile truth and accuracy? Is that where subjective versus objective truth divide?

    • Boy, Julie, that line about memoirs is another can of worms. We’ve seen too many memoirs reporting things that never happened. Most of us would call that deception. A few might argue that it’s “true” in some emotional sense. I don’t buy it.

      A memoir should report facts as accurately as possible, and then the writer can talk about feelings and interpretation.

      Your mentor’s sentiment would apply better to fiction, and is in line with my post today. You don’t have to put down everything inside you just as it is. It is more “accurate” to know your fiction objective and shape it in a way that’s best for the story.

      • Thanks! I think I will avoid the memoir. Seconds after posting, I read a blog about borrowing from one’s life to create characters, scenes and events and using the emotion felt in real life to invest the written scene with depth and feeling. The borrowing is done in snippets and not whole cloth. I can see that as a method to bring accuracy and a sense of truth to the story without violating someone’s privacy and sense of self. Am I getting closer, Jim?

        • Arrrrg! Memory ( at least mine) can be so unreliable…the quote rose out of the mists in my mind this morning and breached like a whale to remind me that the actual quote from my writing mentor was “it doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be true”. Now I’m less confused! It has been bothering me since yesterday. Thanks for helping me finally set it straight.

  6. Jim, great thought-provoking post.

    I thought the quote from John Gardner was really on target:

    “the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life … that is worth pursuing.”

    When we have this discussion, the word “gratuitous” comes to mind. And that is often referred to in the context of sex or violence. Your example of rape fits into both categories. One can always ask whether the sex or violence is gratuitous, to make the book sell better, or is integral to the story. Jordan’s book on human trafficking obviously required that dark content.

    Now people buy thrillers because they want violence (to some extent). So we talk about whether gratuitous sex scenes are necessary. Since readers of erotica buy their books because they want sex scenes, I wonder if they have the discussion of gratuitous violence. I don’t know.

    But wouldn’t the measure of how gratuitous certain parts of the story are, versus how integral to the story, help determine whether this is “truth” or “staring into the dark abyss?”

  7. I absolutely believe in using restraint. In my most recent novel, Marred, the main character was raped. But instead of showing the actual act I focused on the repercussions it had on her psyche… the shame, secrets, PTSD. I didn’t feel it was necessary to show the act, as that wasn’t germane to the story. It sounds like this is the case with Game of Thrones (I haven’t read the series either), which makes his argument ridiculous, IMO.

  8. Mamet’s quote takes my thoughts to:
    “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”
    ― Akira Kurosawa

  9. You’ve opened quite a can of worms this morning, Mr. Bell. So many tangents to go on this post, so I’m just going to work with one thread among many and read as the others weave their threads in. Should be a great discussion.

    When writing, I’ve subscribed to the “telling lies to exposes truths” philosophy and separate out the issue of accuracy. In reading Jordan’s post above, I realized the opposite is embedded in that as well, “Telling truths to expose lies.” Both supply the motivation to craft the story, each with a different emphasis.

    My first two novels are examples of the former, stories created from whole cloth to inspire. The action/running scenes are deadly accurate, but the behavior of the characters expose the truths I wanted to share. Interestingly, the first book is gaining some traction as a coming-of-age story while the second is headed towards action/adventure. Since I wrote them for specific young women, all of them runners, that shift as other youngsters, non-runners, come across them has been the biggest surprise for me.

    Jordan’s example above I think is a great example of the latter. You can sugar coat that kind of story, and make it work, but you can’t expose all the lies, the costs to real people, that support human trafficking that way. It’s a gutsy way to write a story because people don’t want to look in those mirrors the author has held up. It makes them uncomfortable and they blame the messenger, the author, for the discomfort.

    In either case, the writer must be true to their vision both the truth and the story. The real magic happens when the readers discovers that truth and is moved.

    Moving on, what a great quote by Gardner. I’m going to have to add On Moral Fiction to my collection. Agnostic on RRM – don’t watch the series, haven’t read the books, unqualified to offer an opinion.

  10. Jim,

    I’m with you and John Gardner on this one. Fiction is about engaging the reader in a compelling emotional story which tells us something about what it means to be human *and* in what being human can be (a vision of life worth living), the becoming a better version of ourselves.

    Like Jordan, I’m a fan of Martin’s Game of Thrones (and his other stories, Fevre Dream is a fantastic historical fantasy novel)but I do not want a steady diet of such ruthless treatment of characters, I much prefer the happy ending, another reason why I’m a die hard reader and writer of genre fiction.

    • I totally agree with your love of happy endings, Dale. Sometimes a reader just wants an escape and a “feel good” book. I still respect authors who dare to do something different and push boundaries. There’s room for all types of stories.

  11. I watched GAME OF THRONES once — too violent for me. I know medieval times were brutal — Disney doesn’t have a lock on the period. Read “The Princes in the Tower.” But Mr. Martin has made his point. Now it seems that he’s profiting off women’s pain while trying to sound noble.

  12. This article makes me think of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. Everyone told me how it was one of Grisham’s best. It’s actually his favorite novel according to its Preface.

    I ended up putting it down due to some heart wrenching scenes. But I know those horrible truths exist then and even today. Still I’ve chosen not to read it (and there’s no doubt many find its material very, very mild).

    Personally, I can’t wrap my head around writing about images like rape or a darkness that may linger in my brain (despite how raw or mild the content may be). And I don’t read that kind of stuff for the same reason.

  13. Interesting post on a great subject that all writers must confront. Where do you draw the line? At what point do you pull back? When does honesty become an excuse to titillate or shock? I had to face this one head on in a book about a female cop. In pursuing the killer-rapist (who had a gruesome signature), the cop becomes prey herself. This takes place about halfway through the book. My sister and I went round and round about how to handle it — is the cop herself raped? We decided that because of her character arc, we had to have it happen. It was a very hard decision and it put my stomach in knots for weeks. I literally couldn’t write for a while. But without that event, the cop’s character development and her ultimate decision in the case could not happen. It had to be deeply personal. But here’s the thing: the scene did not happen completely “on camera.” We felt no need to show everything. The build-up to that point was terrifying enough. As I learned in art classes, what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. Sometimes more so.

    My editor at the time, who was a man, questioned whether the rape had to happen. Again, we agonized and we even asked trusted female friends (some authors) about it. They all agreed it had to stay in. So we left it in. The story just would not have worked without it. But it was the hardest “writer” decision I ever had to make.

    • Daring choice, Kris. Sometimes you can risk a less mainstream choice, for the sake of the story and character exploration, to truly dig into a character study that speaks to victims and survivors. It’s hard to do, but like you, I sometimes take the tougher route to grow as an individual too, with the empathy factor. I’ve had amazing responses from readers who reach out after they’ve read the aftermath of the crime and see their own secrets. Sometimes it can give them courage to reach out and talk about what may have happened to them or a friend. No, it’s not an easy choice but the reward can come from those people who were touched in a different way,

  14. ‘Do they mean objective truth (that which is true no matter what anyone thinks about it)? Or subjective truth (that which comes out of the deepest part of ourselves)?’

    To quote, Dwight Swain, ‘ … for a story is never really about anything. Always it concerns, instead, someone’s reactions to what happens: his feelings, his emotions, his impulses, his dreams; his ambitions; his clashing drives and inner conflicts. The external serves only to bring them into focus.’

    Therefore, it would have to be subjective truths.

  15. I’m a late comer to reading Vince Flynn’s work and I started with “Term Limits”. One of the chief purposes of authors, to me, has been to expose truths to cause the reader to evaluate themselves and their lives–whether on a small or large scale. But that involves risk for the writer. Which brings me back to Flynn’s “Term Limits”. He very convincingly portrays Washington’s political corruption–whether the politician is literally corrupt, greedy and self-serving, or merely adheres to status quo to play nice in the sandbox and get elected for another term. The risk to the author is the dilemma I faced as a reader. Having the reality of the Washington situation (in the guise of fictional characters) so blatantly laid out so that I had to think about was quite depressing. And I wasn’t any less depressed by the end of the book. I debated whether to read any more of his work.

    In the end, I did get and am reading now the first of his Mitch Rapp novels. And that leads to the issue of how much truth is required to portray the harsh reality of fighting terrorism. Take one example that others may not bat an eyelash over–the killing of dogs to gain entry into a compound to carry out an assassination. Of course I realize that dogs die due to their association with human beings. But if the author goes into too much detail, that’s more truth than I want to hear.

    I don’t see how you can write a novel without dealing with truth if for no other reason than emotional impact, but you have to know when and how much.

  16. There are layers to this.

    First, basic truth, in having characters act true to the world you’ve built. Case in point, a recent thriller I read (big house published, mainstream high mid-list writer.) Basic premise was that a billionaire was going to assassinate the public official who was responsible for the death of his son (the whole plot was so Bruce Wayne, but that’s another discussion.) In the book the assassination planning was competent and suspenseful.

    HOWEVER, enter the girlfriend, a picture perfect Mary Sue who discovers the plot. She confides in a state trooper who is besotted with her and concocts a plan to trick her boyfriend so he can’t kill said dignitary. There were to be no consequences at all to the hero. Total no harm, no foul. In her mind, he’d forgive her and thank her for saving him.

    This was dishonest. No matter how outlandish the overall premise, no state trooper, no matter how besotted with this woman, would collaborate in a plot like this. It was a cheap trope to avoid the hard work of preventing the murder and extricating the hero. It was a cheat (and a bad one.)

    Second, on Martin. There is no denying that many a historical bride met with violence on her wedding night. But, it seems like it is becoming another state trooper, a cheap convenient trope. A trope to convey that the male character is an asshat fixing to get his comeuppance and he totally deserves it. The wedding scene could have been done so much more subtle and emotional effect (as simple as her maid using powder to conceal a bruise on her face the next morning.)

    Rape is strong sauce that needs to be used sparingly. Some years ago I read a murder mystery set in a polygamous Mormon community. The entire seedy underside of the community was the back drop. The trading of young girls like baseball cards among old men. Our heroine was an upstart who suspects a death was more than an accident. To silence and contain her, she was immediately contracted into marriage with the clan leader’s son. In one scene, she mocks and challenges her intended husband. He calmly leans says, in a few graphic sentences, explains what is going to happen to her on her wedding night and how she’d better get used to it. Because it was so spare and graphic and used in such an unexpected context, it was incredibly effective. And with that threat hanging over her head, it drove her to tear down the wall of secrecy and solve the murder of her friend. The writer did a brilliant job. It was honest.

    In one discussion I had on this, I gave some examples of where sexual violence, real or threatened, was used honestly and effectively. For example, in GI Jane where the sadistic drill sergeant is taunting Demi Moore with what would happen if she was captured. In another movie, Blindness, a group of women, some calm, some terrified, submit to rape to get food for the group, including their men. In The Stand, it is implied that having a young and pretty woman in their group, in this case Frannie, actually made them a target for predators. Powerful and targeted, not the “rape of the week.”

    I confess, my book has a strong threat of sexual violence in Act III. I intended it to contrast with the rather tender and awkward love scene. I wasn’t as graphic as the writer above, but had the bad guy taunting her with what he had in store for her. At one point he says, “And when your daddy is a dead man walking, I’m going to whisper in his ear that his little girl died screaming. He may not have killed that stripper, but he sure as hell killed you.”

    It felt honest.

    And both main characters sustained serious injuries in escaping “the big battle.” The next day the hero didn’t have a small bandage over his eye and a wry smile. The injuries were as real as I could make them after years of reading police reports.

    I guess that’s what it is at the end of the day/book/movie. Did it ring true and honest, even if the premise was fanciful to the point of being outlandish?


    • ‘No matter how outlandish the overall premise, no state trooper, no matter how besotted with this woman, would collaborate in a plot like this.’

      Why? All state troopers are too honest, intelligent, solely interested in serving and protecting?

      • You’d have to read the overall context. It was too outlandish and insulting. That a law enforcement officer, who is described as honest, loving, helpful, gentle, and just wonderful, would help a woman, no matter how beautiful, that he had met a week earlier, cover up the attempted murder of the president of the United States by “tricking” the would-be killer, a local billionaire by using his badge and then they’d all just go back to work. It made me want to throw the book across the room.

        The details aren’t important. It was a cheap use of a cheap trope to get around the hard work of the story. And, of course, it failed, because it was stupid. Luckily though, the expert marksman would-be vigilante only hit the president with a minor flesh wound before escaping.

  17. I’ve found reading this article and the comments that follow really interesting and thought provoking. Thanks.

    As a reader and sometimes writer I feel whether or not to include this sort of scene or subject matter comes down to a couple of points.

    Firstly, does including this in a scene, be it violent in nature, or sexual, or bad language, serve a genuine purpose? By which I mean does it effect the story, the characters or the readers in some way that can’t be achieved in another way?

    e.g. I don’t particularly enjoy reading and especially hearing lots of swearing. But I’ve read books and watched films where a single precision use of a swear word in a scene, possibly from an unexpected source or used to highlight just how bad a situation is, works in a way that a milder word wouldn’t have.

    The choices PJ Parrish mentions making above are another good example. It’s not there just to shock, but it puts the cop character in a specific place physically and/or mentally that they need to be for the story to continue. And you only show enough to achieve that goal, not go further for the sake of it.

    And secondly, is the author being honest to his or her readers? I recently finished reading “Masters of War” by Chris Ryan, set in the current conflict in Syria, and in the introduction he says this:

    “Some of it might make uncomfortable reading. I make no apology for that. Conflict is not a glamorous business.”

    And what he says there is 100% true of the book. There are a few scenes that I found extremely uncomfortable to read, to the point of skipping a couple of lines here or there. But they serve a purpose, of showing the realities of war, what it’s like on the ground in Syria and the atrocities being committed by not just one side, but many. Whilst at the same time they never cross the line into being gratuitous. And because I had the forewarning, I knew what I was getting into.

    Finally, another good reason not to go into all the gory graphic details, is no matter how vivid the authors writing may be, it’s the unsaid horrors that are created by the readers own imagination which are the really scary ones!

    All the Best,


  18. As every 24-hour period is made up of darkness and light, so life is also both dark and light, sunshine and shadow. It seems to me that telling the truth is not exclusively focusing on the darkness, but also acknowledging the light. Life, as I see it, is full of ambiguity and contradiction.
    That’s what writers should strive to convey, I think. That’s the real truth about life on earth — the synthesis .or the eternal tension between opposites.

  19. To me, it means don’t hold back and don’t be afraid to write what came naturally in your brain when you thought it. Don’t be afraid that the smell of a dead body made your villain sexually aroused if indeed you felt that is what your character would think and feel. It’s your character and only you can breath life into that character. If you lie and hide your true feelings by not allowing your characters to come to fruition, then you are not being truthful in your fiction writing. If your child character left his hamster cage outside in the heat of July and fried its brain to be discovered the following day, don’t leave it out because you are ashamed that your readers will think you cruel and inhumane. It is your character you are fleshing out and into whose soul you are pumping life!

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