Real life is a rich source of inspiration for many writers. Still, fiction shouldn’t be a mirror of reality. As Alex Steele writes in Writing Fiction, “Fiction demands better storytelling than real life.” Your job, then, is to find the compelling elements of the real life experience and to use the elements of craft to create shape, tension and momentum. Below are a few ideas you might try when fictionalizing from real life experience.
Take only two or three elements from the real life event or character that intrigues you. Let’s say you’ve been stunned by witnessing an outburst at a rehearsal dinner the night before a wedding and you see the potential for a story. Choose just a few elements that stand out to you as particularly interesting: the fresh black eye on the bride’s ex-boyfriend who crashed the dinner, the bridesmaids snickering behind their hands next to the shocked, tearful bride, and the bar tender coming from behind the bar to console the bride when no one else did. Fictionalize from there. That fresh black eye might be on the father of the bride instead of the ex-boyfriend. Perhaps the bride’s closest friend has barged in instead of an ex. The groom in your story might cower near the door when, in reality, the real groom missed out on the show because he was in the bathroom. Focusing on only a few details that were resonate for you will allow you to keep the spirit of the moment as you experienced it, but also free you up to fictionalize.
You might stay closer to the real life event and let the action in your fiction unfold similarly, but fictionalize more deeply in characterization. You may have witnessed that outburst at the rehearsal dinner as a close friend of the bride. You could imagine that scene from the perspective of someone else—either real or imagined. This will require character development. The act of burrowing into a new perspective will help you craft an individual character, one separate from what you may know about the real person it is based on. Don’t be shy about taking liberties here. If you try to stay true to the real person, you’ll take away your freedom to flesh out the perspective and character in a meaningful way.
You might take the witnessed moment and situate it within a larger story. That moment of the rehearsal dinner might compliment a story of a man disenchanted with his bachelorhood and trying to make a current relationship more meaningful and important than it really is to him. How that character processes what he observes at the dinner can have a profound impact on how he thinks about—and acts on—his own current affairs.
Life can offer up some wonderful moments, characters, and details for fiction. It’s important to not feel beholden to real life, though. Give yourself the freedom to invent, so that real life experiences do not hinder your work, but rather support and inform it.