By Steven Pressfield
Published: November 30, 2016
Today we start a multi-part series on using your real life in fiction. The example I’m going to use is my own newest novel, The Knowledge. We’ll bounce back and forth from story principles in the abstract to how these concepts were applied in The Knowledge.
I’m gonna put up a new post every Mon-Wed-Fri, just for this series. Hopefully we’ll run through Christmas.
If you have any questions, please feel free to write them in to the Comments section below. I’ll answer them as best I can.
Let’s start with what was honest-to-God, real-life true in The Knowledge:
In truth, I was driving a cab in New York City. I was broke. It was a high-crime period. I was finishing my third novel (all unpublished and unpublishable so far).
I had committed a terrible crime against my wife, which had broken up our marriage. I was desperate to redeem myself, both in her eyes and my own. I had become fixated on the idea that getting this new book published would, if not atone for what I had done, at least prove to my wife (and maybe to me too) that I wasn’t the bum and the loser that she thought I was.
That’s the set-up. That’s the real-life, exterior and interior foundation of the story.
The All Is Lost moment (again, in real-life) was me finishing the book and it failing to find a publisher. In other words, that’s the crash-and-burn moment at the climax of the true-life story. The Epiphanal moment is me deciding to pack up and move to L.A. to try to find work writing for the movies.
(This move, as it turned out, succeeded. It was the decision that made me a writer for real and put me on the path I’ve been on ever since.)
Still with me? To repeat, the above is the real-life narrative that I began with, about eighteen months ago, when I decided to write this story as a novel.
[By the way, if you haven’t ordered The Knowledge yet, please do. I know it’s tempting to tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll just follow along in these posts.” But trust me, you’ll get ten times more out of these if you can follow along in the book.]
The first thing I knew, assessing the true-life story elements described above, was that they weren’t enough for a novel.
They were too boring.
Maybe Henry James could do it, but I sure couldn’t.
I knew right away that I had to, as they say in England, tart this material up.
I had to fictionalize.
The question was how.
Before I address these questions, a short digression:
I’m reading a great book now—Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Notebook.
The Notebook tells how Coppola, starting with Mario Puzo’s novel, put together the screenplay and screen story that would become the movie, “The Godfather.”
Coppola had the exact opposite problem I had. He already had the jazzed-up story. He had Mario Puzo’s novel, which was a runaway bestseller. sensation-of-the-decade. Coppola’s issue was how to inform that material with his own sensitivity, to bring his own real-life instincts and genius to it.
Francis Ford Coppola comes from a family of artists and musicians. Like the Corleones, it was a close-knit, ambitious, high-achieving, multi-generational, immigrant Italian-American family.
Imagine for a moment that Coppola had the idea to write a novel about his real family. He might have come to the same conclusion I did about my own real-life material. It’s too ordinary, too boring, not enough drama, etc.
Then (let’s keep imagining) he is seized with an inspiration:
I’ll tell my family’s story. Except I’ll make them a gangster family.
See what I’m getting at?
With that single (imagined) stroke of fictionalization, our hypothetical Francis Ford Coppola has made his real-life family story a blockbuster.
In essence, that’s exactly what David Chase did with The Sopranos.
The Sopranos is basically the story of an upwardly-mobile American family with issues around fidelity, child-rearing, and general panic-attack/freak-out red-white-and-blue angst. What made The Sopranos great was the translation of that universal American family anxiety into the world of gangland crime and murder.
Which brings us to the first principle of using your own life in fiction:
Make the internal external.
Is your interior story about being trapped, held captive, imprisoned in some doomed stasis?
Consider telling it as a prison story.
Make the internal external.
Too much? Then ask yourself, How can I heighten the reality of my story? How can I raise the stakes?
How can I make the internal external?
Here’s what I did in The Knowledge:
I built a parallel redemption tale on top of the real-life interior “How can I redeem myself?” narrative of my own life. Then I wove the two stories together.
My real-life boss at the taxi company was rumored to have a suspicious past. Word around the shop was that he was into all kinds of shady (and maybe-worse-than-shady) activities.
Considering how to structure The Knowledge, I said to myself,
“Let’s make the taxi boss [Marvin Bablik] an out-and-out gangster. Let’s have him hire the character-that’s-me [“Stretch”] for some seemingly innocent extra-hours work. And let’s have that work spin out of control, increment by increment, until the character-that’s-me is inextricably tied up in this criminal’s affairs.”
Further, and critically important:
“Let’s have Bablik’s interior story be one of redemption as well. Let’s make his inner life a parallel for Stretch’s, only on a much more heightened, higher-stakes level. Life and death. Bullets. Murder.”
And finally …
“Let’s have a deep, unlikely, and unexpected bond develop between Bablik and Stretch. Let’s have them come to care profoundly for each other, so that the self-sacrifice of one can mean liberation for the other.”
In other words, I stole the emotional dynamic of Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Do you remember the story? It’s a parallel saga of Woody Allen’s character, a failing film documentarian trying to woo Mia Farrow away from TV big-shot Alan Alda–and Martin Landau, a successful ophthamologist who contracts for the murder of the nutty woman he fell into an affair with, Angelica Huston. One story informs the other. The two work as one.
We’ll get into this deeper in the next post. But as a quick flash-forward, here are the seven principles of using your real life in fiction:
- Make the internal external
- Pick a genre and run with it
- Raise the stakes to life and death
- Fictionalize on-theme only
- Make it universal
- Make it beautiful
- Detach yourself from the character that is you
[At the risk of repeating myself, please order The Knowledge if you haven’t already, and read it. It will make these posts ten times more productive.]
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
ADDITIONAL READING » WARFARE: ANCIENT AND MODERN
by Kilcullen, David
by Douglas, Keith
Douglas was a poet fresh out of Oxford who served (and was killed) with the armoured forces under Montgomery, when the British finally overcame Rommel after years of being out-ranged, out-gunned and out-generaled. Douglas’ keen and jaundiced eye misses little. This isn’t the most polished book, but it is immediate and authentic as hell.
by Sun Tzu
by Rommel, Erwin
This is from the Desert Fox—before he became the Desert Fox. Rommel recounts his experiences as a young infantry officer in World War I. Studied to this day by our Army and Marines, this book gives new meaning to the phrase “balls of steel.”
by Halberstam, David
by Danelo, David
Blood Stripes is Danelo’s account of infantry actions fought by Marines in Fallujah and Husaybah in 2004, recounted from the point of view of NCOs he knew and fought alongside. Great stuff!
by Coram, Robert
Fascinating true saga of the misunderstood genius who introduced the concept of Maneuver Warfare to the contemporary armed services—and paid the price.
by McNab, Andy
Ripping, high-testosterone (and true) yarn of a British SAS patrol dropped behind the lines during the first Gulf War. Told by its leader, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army, as of his discharge in 1993.
by Crisp, Robert
A bit hard to find, but worth it if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fight tank battles in the North African desert. Terrific first-person non-fiction, about the British Seventh Armoured Division dueling Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WWII. What I love about books like these is not just the “ripping yarn” aspect or the vivid details or the sense of absolute authenticity and authority, all of which are here in spades, but the feeling you get for the man himself. Both this book and the one by Cyril Joly (Crisp and Joly were friends) let you into the minds and hearts of these tremendously admirable, flesh-and-blood humans, with their senses of humor, despair—everything.
by Galula, David
by Moorehead, Alan
Simply indispensable. Classic stuff by the Aussie war correspondent who could scribble a note on a cocktail napkin and make it fascinating. See also his African Trilogy.
by Maclean, Fitzroy
You would think, being a novelist, that I would like to read novels. But I much prefer memoirs. I love the characters of the writers, particularly when they’re not professionals. Fitzroy Maclean was stuck in the Foreign Service on the brink of WWII and wanted to go to war; the only way the government would let him was if he became a Member of Parliament. So he did. It gets better from there, including desert service with the SAS and all kinds of mad adventures in the Balkans, the Orient, Afghanistan.
by Sajer, Guy
Possibly the best book to come out of World War II. Horrific, ghastly, true-life memoir of a young German infantryman and his kamaraden as they fall back, back, back against the unstoppable tide of the Russian Army, from 1943–1945.
by von Manstein, Field Marshal Erich
Another classic. The same story as told in The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, but from the opposite end of the food chain: the supreme German brass. Von Manstein’s private confrontations with Hitler are alone worth the price of the book.
by West, Bing
by von Clausewitz, Carl
by Fick, Nathaniel
The Iraq War by a Dartmouth-educated Recon Marine who was in the first wave into Baghdad. Lean, vivid, fair-minded, by a born writer from whom we will be hearing much more.
by Gant, Jim
The “One Tribe At A Time” series on “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” launched at the end of September 2009, with an excerpt from Major Jim Gant’s paper of the same name. In the following weeks, more excerpts were pulled and discussed, with Jim’s “One Tribe At A Time” released in full about four weeks later. The discussion of Jim’s paper spread from there, and went viral among the policy and military communities in particular.
by Gant, Jim
by Bagnold, Ralph
The founder of WWII’s legendary Long Range Desert Group tells his life story, including all kinds of interesting and unexpected dimensions (his sister wrote National Velvet), including the tale of his landmark scientific paper, “The Physics of Blown Sand.”
by Lawrence, T.E.
by Hammes, Thomas X.
Am I favoring Marines? Not without cause, with this outstanding contemporary introduction to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, the kind of post-guerrilla conflict our troops are fighting now—and are likely to keep fighting for decades to come.
by Small Wars Foundation
by West, Bing
by Joly, Lt. Col. Cyril
You’ll have to go way back in the stacks to find this one, but again, it’s worth the trip. Vividly told and superbly detailed account of the British in North Africa, from 1940 to 1942, fighting first the Italians and then Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika. I love these self-effacing Englishmen, who in real-life performed prodigies of courage and endurance, and yet recount the tale with understated yet passionate brilliance. Like Brazen Chariots, you read this book and wish you could shake hands with the author and say, “Thank you.”
by Ranfurly, Hermione
When Lt. The Honourable Dan Ranfurly went off to war, his wife Hermione followed. (So did Whitaker, Dan’s faithful valet.) Young Lady Ranfurly, whose only marketable skill was a fair hand at the typewriter, talked her way into various clerical and embassy jobs in Cairo and the Middle East, while her young officer husband fought in the desert, got captured by the Afrika Korps, etc. There’s not a dollop of sex in this book, yet it remains one of the great documents of romance, just because of all the hell Hermione goes through to be within a hundred miles of her beloved Dan. When at last they rush into each other’s arms for a fleeting moment on a railway platform and she writes, “Happiness is being together,” there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.