How to Tell a Story: Truth is More Important than Facts
Does the great Norman Rockwell illustrate the real America on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, or does he show us America as it ought to be, an America that each of us sees ever in our hearts, though never with our eyes?”
Roy H. Williams, The Wizard of Ads
The goal of writers, actors, artists, and storytellers should be — as Shakespeare wrote — “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene II).
In other words, “tell the truth.”
You might think that being factually accurate is the same as telling the truth. Not always. When we try to communicate the inner workings of the human heart, sometimes the truth transcends mere facts. Sometimes the storyteller must stretch and bend and exaggerate the facts in order to reveal deeper truths.
I think an example might help.
Here is an snippet from one of the most popular posts on my blog. It deals with a day back in high school when I got into a fight with a bully. We pick up on the story right after the teacher stopped the fight and sent me to the principal’s office:
The walk to Mr. Thomas’s office was triumphant. If my life was a movie, this is where the Rocky theme would’ve kicked in. “Gonna fly now!” I was flying. Practically levitating.
I passed a cute girl in the hallway. “Howdy, ma’am. A lovely day, isn’t it? Care to take a stroll with me to the footbridge?” If I’d been wearing one, I would’ve tipped my hat to her.”
Did I actually invite the cute girl to go with me to the footbridge?
Of course not. This was 1979 not 1849. In reality, I think I just smiled and said, “Hi.” (I wasn’t particularly savvy with girls in high school.)
But let me ask you…did you even think I asked her to go to the footbridge? Probably not. You were in on the joke. You knew I was exaggerating. And I bet it didn’t bother you.
Here’s my point…while my description was factually inaccurate, it was a more truthful way to communicate what was really going on inside me at that moment. The joy. The sense of triumph. The newly found confidence.
In other words, my exaggeration was the real truth.
When the facts don’t tell the whole story, a writer must engage in artistic exaggeration to help communicate the real story…the story behind or underneath the mere facts.
Of course, exaggeration or embellishment doesn’t work for every writer. If you’re a journalist or you write textbooks then stick to the facts. This principle is for creative writers and storytellers.
So, the next time you sit down to write, throw off the manacles that bind you to explicit facts.
It’s more important that you tell us the truth.
“The truth is more important than the facts.”
Frank Lloyd Wright — Architect, designer, writer.
Questions: I’m probably leaving out some information that relates to this topic. What are your thoughts? What tips can you provide? Share your tips in the comments.
I want to say thank you for writing this article. I was reading on another website when the words”write the truth and not the facts” jumped out at me. I searched that phrase and came across your page. Reading your words struck my brain silent for a moment. This is actually a good thing. I now understand what my struggle has been for the last few years in trying to put family history on paper. I have the facts so ingrained in my brain I can recite a time lime almost verbatim. Starting April 23 1945 with the latest entry being finding your blog. Though the last entry would be for my own personal timeline and not that of the events the story would be pertaining to. I have been floating around in a mental bubble for a few months, making every attempt to avoid the noxious fumes of self doubt, when finding this page has given me a place to land and set course for a new direction. I just wanted to drop a line and say a very heartfelt thank you.
Tina…what a thoughtful and encouraging note! Good luck with in the very important venture of chronicling your family’s history.
Hey Greg that was a great write up… I liked this part ” my description was factually inaccurate, it was a more truthful way to communicate what was really going on inside me at that moment. The joy. The sense of triumph. The newly found confidence.” Thanks
Thank you, Matthew. Glad you liked it. I hope it helps.
Thanks Matthew. Glad you found it helpful. I appreciate your comment.