2.16.2016

Too Close to the Truth

Journalists rightly feel that they have the most interesting stories. That’s what they spend their lives doing: seeking out the new and unusual. When they are fired, as seems inevitable in the incredibly shrinking world of print media, some turn their hand to fiction. After all, stories are what fiction is all about, right?

Up to a point, that reasoning works fine. In fiction you can really burrow into a news article. If there is a heroin epidemic in Chicago, say, since I’m partial to that great Midwestern city, a reporter can expand into a personal tale that covers the decimated newsroom of a modern newspaper, the seamy underpinnings of the Chicago P.D., the black kingpins of the South Side. In such a rendering the protagonist is invariably a maverick, hard drinking, ready to tell a boss to f**k off. All of this material looks promising.

The problems start to arise after about the first hundred pages. Once the all-too-real scenario is laid out, in all of the spheres the book will explore, then what Aristotle would call Act II begins. The lead reporter does his job, reporting the incident, albeit in greater detail that a newspaper would allow. The interactions are nasty and gritty. The newsroom scenes have the requisite gloomy banter. Yet, reading it over, the journalist may feel twinges of dissatisfaction. Something about the whole enterprise seems pallid, despite the gripping events. 

That’s because the reporter, just as in real life, is only incidental to the drama. That’s why so many of these types of stories are mysteries: because the job of reporting is a type of investigation. Even if there is a love interest, the object of desire may be just another subject from an interesting article. The reporter doesn’t really fall in love, because she’s too much of a free spirit to be tied down. 

The journalist is hiding behind his typewriter. The protagonist is an observer when he needs to be intimately involved. The events portrayed need to rock his world, making him a different person. Instead, he is bound to the realistic framing he has devised. As a fiction reader I remain as aloof as the reporter. Nice story, and now? I turn the page to the next story, right?

Exercise: Start with a single #2 character. Make up a relationship that has nothing to do with real-life incidents. The only reason for that character is so the reporter can reveal how she is feeling inside as the story unfolds. That foil, if you will, is the reader’s way into your lead character’s heart.

“Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.”
—Jane Austen

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


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