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Writing

How to Write Fiction Based on a True Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 14, 2020 • 4 min read

Using your life as a source for a fictional novel is a great way to turn your own stories into something new and resonant. Retelling and adapting true stories is a time-tested method that many great fiction writers use to produce iconic fictional stories. If you’re working on your first novel, fictionalizing your own experiences is a great way to craft an original narrative that you connect with on a deep emotional level.

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How to Write Fiction Based on a True Story

If you’re in the process of adapting a true story into a fictional novel or short story, there are a few things to keep in mind. Turning true events into fictional stories can be a rewarding process, but it also presents unique challenges. Here are some helpful tips for adapting your story into a work of fiction:

  1. Be clear about your premise. Before you start writing a work of fiction based on a real story from your own life, it’s important to know the central premise of your story. Having a clear idea of what your story hinges on can give you some objectivity as you decide which factual elements to keep and which elements of your real-life story distract from your main plot. Remember that no matter what true life story you’re basing your new book or short story on, you’re writing a story about fictional characters and can change any elements that don’t serve your narrative.
  2. Remove yourself from the story. One way to stay objective about a story based on personal experiences is to try as best you can to remove yourself from your original story. You have an intensely personal point of view and connection to your own life story, but remember that you are creating a fictional story. The more you can look at your story in a dispassionate and objective way, the better your story will translate to a reader. This is not to say that elements of your first-person feelings won’t affect your narrative, it’s just to say that you aren’t the main character in your story. Even if your protagonist is based on yourself, the more you can start to view them as a separate, original entity, the better able you will be to craft an original narrative.
  3. Do your research. If you’re writing a fiction story based on your life experiences or another real-life situation, do as much research as you can on the facts of the story and setting in which it occurred. You are not required to include or honor any of the factual elements you uncover during your research process, but you never know what useful information you will find that might inform your final narrative. Looking at newspaper articles that are relevant to your story can help you write about your topic from a different point of view.
  4. Be flexible with facts. Never let actual events get in the way of a good narrative. It’s important to enter into your writing process with flexibility and willingness to change any part of the true story you’re basing your narrative around. Remember that your readers will usually have no knowledge or bias when it comes to your source material. Some genres like historical fiction require you to honor certain facts, but for the most part, the truth should never cause you to compromise your fictional narrative.
  5. Decide if you need permission. If you are writing a fictional narrative based on a true story, you need to decide how closely your fictional characters resemble the real people they’re based on; if they’re recognizably similar, you may need to ask permission. It’s good practice to fictionalize character names instead of using the real names of real people, but you still might want to ask family members and friends for permission before you include elements of their lives in your stories. Family history is great fodder for fiction writers, but consider changing the names of real people to avoid a sticky situation and potentially a lawsuit.
  6. Combine stories. Combining real-life experiences from different parts of your life can be a great way to create a new and successful fictional narrative. Real events have emotional resonance for writers, and combining separate stories into one is a great way of recontextualizing details and crafting a compelling narrative.
  7. Shift the setting. A great technique for adaptation is to take true events from your real life, but shift the setting for your personal story. Shifting the setting or context can help you see what parts of your story resonate.
  8. Edit extensively. As with any writing process, editing the first draft is often when a good story becomes a great story. Rewriting a novel based on real-life events is also a good time to see which factual elements are working and what needs to be changed. Remember that the emotional truth of your experiences is often much more important to your story than the superficial details. Edit your story with an objective eye for which factual elements are working and which ones are only getting in the way.

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