I’m sure many of you have heard the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” It’s not a new insight, but every once in a while you have an experience that proves just how true it is. A few weeks back, my family and I were preparing to go on vacation. We would be doing quite a bit of driving, so my husband and I decided to download an audiobook for the trip. The ended up settling on “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand because my husband has always been interested in history and the story sounded fascinating.
Neither my husband nor I had read any of Hillenbrand’s work before, but we were instantly captivated by the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic runner and World War Two POW survivor. Our eleven year old son was also completely engrossed in the story, and even our seven year old daughter listened to quite a bit of the book with us as well.
We had chosen the audiobook late on the evening before our vacation started, and I admit, I clearly didn’t pay very good attention to the blurb before using my Audible credits on it. We were about halfway through the audiobook when my husband and I both seemed to have the same thought as the story became more and more incredible. The events Louis Zamperini experienced bordered on unbelievable, and both my husband and I wondered if the story was true.
Now, if we hadn’t been tired from packing and preparing, and it hadn’t been so late, I would have read the blurb more carefully and known from the beginning that the book was nonfiction. As it was, we had to stop the audiobook and look it up. Imagine our surprise when we realized everything being described truly happened. Our son was amazed, and so were we, to be honest. If you haven’t read Louis’s story, there was a NY Times article written about him recently, just after his death at age 97 on July 3, 2014. Or better yet, read the book.
Listening to Louis’s story and realizing is wasn’t fiction sparked a discussion between me and my husband. If Louis’s story hadn’t been real, it wouldn’t have made a very good fictional story. Not because it wasn’t well written, because it was, but because it was simply too unbelievable. There is a fine line in writing fiction between keeping it real and making it too real.
In real life, coincidences happen all the time. A random stranger really might show up just when you need him and disappear into oblivion soon after. People survive things they shouldn’t. They treat each other badly. Things happen that you would never expect in real life, and seem completely unfathomable. We’re left hanging all the time by inexplicable occurrences, recoveries, and triumphs. Real life is never wrapped up neatly with a bow on top, yet fiction must be.
In writing fiction, the goal is usually to make the world and characters real enough that the reader feels like they have become part of it. The truth is, you can’t make it truly real, because no one would believe it. It’s a funny paradox, and if you’d like to really understand what I mean, go read about someone like Louis Zamperini. I promise, it’s a story you will struggle to believe, but never forget.