How to turn real life into fiction


10 December 2021
Author Lori Ann Stephens on how to make terrifying true-life events credible in fiction
How to turn real life into fiction Images

My sister’s boyfriend was fourteen years old when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach while cleaning his hunting rifle. He was alone, and the wound was fatal. His sudden death left everyone shaken and horrified. I hoped that the school counsellors would help my little sister heal from the trauma. I’d recently had a baby, so I acknowledged and then buried the image as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized how profoundly this boy’s death had settled into my consciousness. In Blue Running, my new novel set in the Republic of Texas, a similar accident occurs. I relived the accident as I typed the scene, watching quite helplessly as this girl – filled with dreams and imagination – bled out on the floor. In spite of her friend’s screams for help, in spite of a desperate race to find a phone, to flag down a car, the girl dies. Her best friend could only witness the horror, hold the girl in her arms, feel every moment. Like me, the writer who was finally reckoning with the memory.

It was my imagination that had made the real event so long ago unbearable: what had gone through his head as he lost his grip on consciousness? To die violently and alone – I can’t imagine a more terrifying event. It’s this capacity for imagination, and the willingness to step through those doors, that makes us empathetic humans… and makes writers create believable scenes for their readers.

But it’s not easy, writing out terrifying, real-life events. Robin Hemley in Turning Life into Fiction, puts it this way: “‘But it really happened!’ is such a lame defense for a story you’ve written. If it doesn’t seem believable, forget it.” I tell my creative writing students all the time that it doesn’t matter that their scene is based on real events if the narrative choices aren’t authentic. Here are a couple of tips I give them to make their terrifying scenes credible in fiction. Rather than describing the blind flight of adrenaline blurred by mayhem, try to capture the crystal clear moments that imprint on the brain in the midst of the event.

Slow time down

It probably won’t come as a surprise that slowing the pacing of the story allows the reader to experience the event, moment by moment. On the one hand, it’s counterintuitive, because terrifying events are often experienced as a blur – a rush of adrenaline kicking in and sending you into survival mode. On the other hand, it’s also the exact inverse: a slowing of time and space. Who’s been in a car wreck and doesn’t have a terrifying, slow-motion memory imprinted on the backs of their eyelids? The car fishtailing on the icy road, the classic music on the radio echoing like a phantom, the long glance at your child in the back seat as your tires betray your tight grip on the steering wheel. Your car jumping the curb like a fledgling bird and plummeting down the frost-covered grassy knoll. The long descent to the bottom as you scream a mantra to your toddler, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay” so he isn’t frightened when you both die. (I was in this wreck with my infant son. Just typing out these few words gets my heart kicking.)

Notice everything

In this ironic slowing of time, my characters notice things we don’t register in our everyday lives. Their frame or focus might be more limited in a frightening situation as they  fixate on one thing and store it in their memory: the buzz of a lightbulb or a fly on the windowsill or the odd swish of an overcoat. Sensorial details like the cold tip of your nose, the sand grabbing onto your feet, or the smell of burnt hair. If your character is frightened and alone, forget the heartbeat racing and focus on the sound of his nose whistling, giving his hiding spot away. One benefit of staying in the moment like this instead of rushing the narrative is that your sentences might stretch out, compound the images, keep the readers moving from detail to detail, phrase to phrase until they're out of breath. Or use shorter sentences to stop them. Dead still.

Content continues after advertisements

I wouldn’t say that writing terrifying scenes is my specialty or even my favourite part of writing, but it certainly can be cathartic. Reliving those moments on the page gives a writer some sort of control that we don’t have in real life, even if that control is to allow the events to unfold to their bitter end. Sharing these re-imagined events with others can, if done well, create a shared empathy about our own mortality.

Lori Ann Stephens is the author of Blue Running, published by Moonflower Books


Crime writers! Learn from the best with these top tips from bestselling crime star Jeffery Deaver.