Tuesday, May 8, 2012

When Fact and Fiction Collide

All writers get their inspiration from real life. Even if you imagined your new WIP out of thin air, chances are, you can trace those thoughts to a real life trigger. Suzanne Collins got inspired to write The Hunger Games while channel surfing. As a fan of non-fiction, I love when the writer can take an actual event and turn it into a gripping story. They delve deeper and find hidden meaning in the facts. Here are some of my favorite examples of clever uses of fact in your fiction.

Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare (Broadway play)
plot: A black con-man charms his way into the homes of uber-wealthy Upper East Side couples, passing himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier.
How much actually happened? 75% Con man David Hampton did charm his way into high society homes in the early 80s. Some of his marks were Gary Sinise and Melanie Griffith. John Guare's friends also fell victim. They let Hampton stay in their guest bedroom, and they found him in bed with another man the next morning. (That exact scene made it into the play.)
Where fiction took over: Guare took this news item and turned it into a play that explored race, class, and the inter-connectedness of the world. Six Degrees revolved around fictional couple the Kittridges, who were profoundly effected by their night with Paul, even as they turn him into an anecdote they tell at parties.
Where fact and fiction diverged: In the play, Paul is eventually arrested and nobody knows what happened to him, or even what his real name was. In real life, Hampton went in and out of jail for the next twenty years, conning families from NY to Seattle before dying in 2003.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (novel)
plot: On an ordinary day in sleepy Holcomb, Kansas, the entire Clutter family is murdered without warning or reason. The book traces the investigation, capture, and ultimate execution of the two killers.
How much actually happened? 100% Capote transcribed conversations with dozens of people involved in the case, and the killers, too. Every word is true, he claimed.
Where fiction took over: All the events and conversations were fact, but Capote's brilliant, beautiful writing kept it from sounding like a news article.
Real-life inspiration: Capote first read about the murders in a 300-word blurb as he casually flipped through The New York Times one day. His desire to learn more, to understand who would do such a thing, prompted him to travel to Kansas and begin his research.

Mean Girls by Tina Fey (movie)
plot: New girl in school Cady Heron gets adopted by popular clique The Plastics and its evil, yet seductive leader Regina George, whom she both idolizes and plots to destroy.
How much actually happened? 10% The movie is based on a self-help book for mothers of teenage daughters called Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. Fey took real-life examples from the book and wove it into her screenplay. The scene, for instance, where one of the Plastics explains to Cady the rules for eating at their lunch table, was transcribed almost verbatim.
Where fiction took over: The characters and plot are all made up, yet they are inspired by the factual examples laid forth in Wiseman's book.

What are some of your favorite non-fiction works or "based on a true story" works?


  1. Huh. This is an interesting post. I can't think of one movie that was based off a non-fiction book. How sad is that? But the idea is appealing. Why not write a screen play from reality? That's what fiction authors do, isn't it?

    1. Exactly! Some great films are based on true stories, like Erin Brockovich, Rudy, Moneyball, the list goes on.

  2. Gladiator is supposedly based on true life events that happened in history and expounded upon by the creativity of Ridley Scott. I kinda like that one.

    1. Really? I never knew it. Interesting...

  3. There are a lot of movies I'm a fan of but most of my faves are sci-fi/fantasy. There is one movie, Ip Man, starring Donnie Yen, that is based on a true event. I really enjoyed that movie.

    1. I haven't heard of that one. I'll have to check it out.

  4. My own book does this, as well. I used some scary experiences and frightening people I'd met to spin a wild tale of vengeance and forgiveness.