Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Digital Storytelling: Is Writing Fiction Harder than Nonfiction?

I was talking with a coworker today, and he said the following, which caught my interest:

I heard that writing fiction is harder than nonfiction, because you have to make it believable. Like, when you hear something unbelievable in fiction, you’re just like ‘that wouldn’t happen’ - but when you hear something in nonfiction, you’re like ‘damn, I can’t believe that happened’.

At first, I thought this was kind of funny - it reminded me of situations where people would criticise a work of fiction for having POC in a European medieval setting… where there are also dragons. On the first count, it’s incorrect to say there were not POC in medieval Europe - as medievalpoc on Twitter has been excellently documenting - and second, you’re alright with a giant, fire breathing lizard (that might even talk) but you draw the line at a perceived historical inaccuracy?

Look, I’m no historian, and I might wish it otherwise, but I’m pretty sure there were not real dragons running around medieval Europe.

But then I started reading Joe Lambert’s Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community and came across the following passage:

When I am explaining an idea to you, I want to be clearly understood. I want very little distance between my intended meaning, and your perceived meaning. To accomplish this, I need to be precise. I need the ideas to be substantiated by argument, where each example, each concept, builds upon the other, toward a coherent conclusion.
But when I tell a story, reflecting on moment in time, and reflecting on that reflection, I am not so concerned about interpretation. Perhaps I imagine my meaning is evident. While I might hope you would read something similar to me about what this story tells about the source of my political views, I am not trying to convince you to share them. I want you to relate my experience to your own.

It suddenly clicked for me that fiction does have an extra layer of difficulty compared to nonfiction - cultivating authenticity.

It is by no means easy to write a nonfiction story - there is definitely an art to writing these kinds of stories, such as narrative histories, memorial stories, and biographies - but these stories do not have to convince you that they’re real because, well, they are. They actually happened to someone or something at some point in time. Even if the execution is inexpert, the story itself can still be powerful and relatable simply due to the fact that it has the face of a real person or people.

On the other hand, a fictional story has a lot of catching up to do - the author needs to create a believable setting, relatable characters, relatable characters that make sense within the believable setting, relationships between the characters that readers can understand - a character that exists in a vacuum without friends, family, a job, hobbies, etc, does not feel like a “real” person. Many fictional settings get criticised for not having rules - because without rules, things just happen and the reader doesn’t understand why and it breaks their suspension of disbelief. Or when a story contradicts its own rules without explanation - if it is equally unbelievable to the characters, the impact of the break can be mitigated, but readers will often still want an explanation later on.

As Lambert says, a fiction author has to explain an idea - their fictional world - but at the same time, they need to capture the voice of someone telling a story - “reflecting on a moment in time”. This is a balancing act that nonfiction stories can circumvent - the world we live in does not need to be explained for context, and when we tell stories of real people, we don’t need to fabricate the connections they have to other people and things.

Trying to find the balance between these two concepts is very difficult - it’s the root of arguments such as “show, don’t tell”, a common adage used by writers to prevent walls of text just vomiting exposition at a reader with no explanation. On the flip-side, there are author that can “tell” rather than “show” in a way that is engaging and catches the reader’s attention rather than losing it in textbook style definitions.

There are, of course, several ways for fiction writers to cultivate authenticity - relatable characters, clear rules for how their setting works, etc - and there are certainly ways for nonfiction writers to lose authenticity - lacking sources, telling stories too unbelievable to have happened, having an unreliable narrator, etc.

So, between cultivating authenticity and telling a (nonfiction) story, which do you think is more difficult?

Lambert, J. (2013) Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community (4th ed.). Routledge, New York:NY.

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