March 18, 2019

When Is Creative Nonfiction Too Fanciful?

Dave Hood has a great blog on “The Ethics of Writing Creative Nonfiction.” His considerations are even-handed, and his central point is spot on:

Readers expect you to paint an accurate portrait of a person or an event with words. They expect that the writer will accurately describe events that have happened, and not add details that never happened. They expect the writer’s “best evidence.”

Creative fiction is too fanciful when:

  • The story told stands in contradiction to ordinary fact checking, including conferring with others still alive who are part  of the story or placed to observe the story.
  • The author’s intent is to lie, deceive, distort, or fabricate significant details or events.
  • The devices of humor, satire, or exaggeration are used without cuing the reader.
  • Compressing time–a fictional technique of reducing several days or hours into one–when used not to tell the reader what happened; a best practice is to alert the reader in the Preface.
  • Composite characters–composing a single character out of several; changing names in order to protect the reputation of persons still living–are used, but the reader is not alerted to this in the Preface.
  • Not including cues or disclaimers when the author is unsure of the facts or details: “As I recall…” or “Perhaps it happened this way …”

These are the standards we used at My Literary Coach when working with authors on memoirs, autobiographies, and personal short stories.

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